James Mackay: 'Power through a lens'

Photographer James Mackay has won numerous awards for his work documenting human rights abuses and corruptions of power in Burma, none more so than his project on Burma’s political prisoners. Those images form the backbone of his new book, Abhaya: Burma’s Fearlessness, which hits shops this month. He speaks to DVB about the power of photography in closed societies, and his personal tales of working undercover there. 

For decades Burma has been a classic example of a closed country. Can photography help to shine a light on it in a way that other media cannot?

Photography can play an important role in closed societies, not just by providing a so-called ‘voice’ for the people, but also by it’s incumbent power to inform, educate and challenge preconceived ideas. Throughout history, documentary photographers and photojournalists have recorded frozen moments in time that have become witness statements to the truth and at times changed public opinion about what one is permitted to know or have been told. A case in example is the late, great Philip Jones Griffiths who’s celebrated work in Vietnam changed public opinion in the US against the American involvement in the war. It is this power to both expose truths and challenge what we are allowed to know or what ruling governments or authorities want us to know that can be of huge significance and importance, especially in closed societies. With recent changes in society and technology it has perhaps been the moving image that has played a crucial role in Burma’s case, with the recent films Burma VJ and Burma Soldier both providing important insights into the workings of the secretive regime in a way that photography alone cannot. But it is perhaps photography’s ability to leave us with one lasting image, one moment in time that can evoke unparalleled emotion and debate that sets it apart from other forms of media.

You’ve been going there for years. What first drew you to the country?

Intrigue and inquisitiveness stemming from early memories of the mass democracy uprising in 1988 is what first drew me to Burma, although it would be many years later until I first visited. Over the years my interest grew in wanting to know more about why an authoritarian dictatorship could rule a country so brutally and yet so little was known and so little was done by the international community. Of course there are many dictatorships in the world like Burma, but it was the fact that it was such a closed society, shut off from the world by a military regime that really provided an intrigue in wanting to know more. Just standing back, turning the other cheek and carrying on in normal life wasn’t appealing once I had started to learn about what was happening there.

Can you explain how the concept for ‘Abhaya…’ first arose?

I was working on the concept of fear whilst studying at art college in the UK and I decided to try to use Burma to portray that concept – not exactly something that my tutors were expecting. I think it worked all the same as it helped me develop an understanding of Burma and then, in particular, of the issue of political prisoners which I had become attached to through the people I had met and was associating with. This in turn led me to develop an idea to try to tell the story of Burma’s political prisoners, which became what you see now. Once I had the idea I discussed with former political prisoners and was determined that I would only proceed with the idea if they felt it could be of benefit for their colleagues still jailed. This was really important to me and thankfully they did think it could work. Three years later I’ve met and photographed over 300 former political prisoners – many from inside Burma.

What do Burma’s political prisoners signify about the state of democracy in the country?

The fact that anyone can and has been arrested and jailed for openly expressing their beliefs is like a litmus test for determining the democratic state of a country. For decades Burma’s rulers have jailed anyone who has dared to challenge or oppose their rule and even now under the ‘disciplined democracy’ of the new civilian government there are still over 1,700 political prisoners. A quote that sums it up was told to me by Aung San Suu Kyi when I met her at the start of this year: “If they can’t accept a point of view that is different to theirs and they are threatening to annihilate us simply because we express a different point of view, what sort of a government is this? What sort of democracy is this? Democracy, even disciplined democracy as they put it, has to accept that there are different views otherwise there would be no need for democracy and you just keep to a dictatorship.”

Why does the regime feel it necessary to imprison them?

Regimes thrive on power and survive by shackling their people, ruling through fear and intimidation. “Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy” was part of the famous People’s Desire propaganda slogan that adorned billboards and state controlled newspapers. For 50 years successive regimes have ruled the country through fear but in turn themselves have lived in fear of the challenge from those leading the non-violent movement for change. It is this fear of change and fear that they will lose power that has meant that so many have been jailed. The regime knows it cannot break the will of Burma’s political activists and opposition and that is why it continually jails them. People like the 88 Generation Students, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, ethnic leaders like Khun Htun Oo and hundreds of monks have all been jailed not just because of their political activities but also because of their ability to connect with the ordinary people of Burma, to stand up for them no matter what the consequences, to be able to provide them with hope, something that the various regimes have never been able to do or wanted to do. Even now with a so-called civilian government in place so many of those who can shape Burma’s future remain incarcerated (if only hopefully for a few days more) because the authorities are in fear that their power will be taken away from them.

What did you learn about the resilience of these people, who are willing to risk a life behind bars for the betterment of their country?

Their courage knows no bounds. What so many of these people that I have had the privilege of meeting and becoming close to have suffered is remarkable. To still be standing strong in defiance of their perpetrators yet bear little to no malice is a testament to their beliefs and strength of character. It is easy to feel that one can rise up and challenge an authority if it is oppressing your beliefs or freedom. It is another thing completely to actually do it, to suffer such inhumane treatment and still be fighting for it many years later and in the case of those inside Burma, still do so with the threat of re-arrest at any moment and once again many years in prison.

Talk us through your favourite image in the book.

I honestly don’t have a particular favourite image, but perhaps one moment that has stuck with me and yet also sums up a part of this long journey and what it’s like inside the country was my first meeting with U Win Tin and the photo I took of him with Aung San Suu Kyi’s name written on his hand. He had only recently been freed from 20 years in prison and the Lady had been re-arrested when John Yettaw happened to turn up in her compound. Having chatted for some time, our conversation was interrupted when suddenly there appeared outside a smartly dressed young man wearing dark glasses and pretending to clean the windows. It was pouring with rain and we were twenty floors up but that didn’t stop Military Intelligence from keeping an eye on ‘the old man’, as he is so fondly known. The absurdity of the situation was not lost on us and, after sharing a laugh, we took it as our cue to go our separate ways. What seems a light-hearted moment is in fact an insight into the paranoia and iron grip with which Burma’s regime rules.

Your photos in general focus on stories of strength or suffering. Does the scope of your work accurately depict Burma, or have you also experienced a lighter side to society there?

I think my work depicts a part of Burma, but unfortunately it is one of the parts that means so many of the lighter sides to society cannot prevail. There is a darkness to the country that means so few can enjoy the lifestyle that others in the world can enjoy, but there is also a sense of an ordinary life in Burma that, whilst it may be very different to what people in the west see as ordinary, it is still there. In cities there are western influences and a lifestyle that those with money can enjoy, but that is only an incredibly small percentage of the population and mostly those who have ties of some sort with the ruling authorities. Of course there is no lighter side to society in so much of the ethnic states, but certainly in the cities for those who have money there is a certain lifestyle to be enjoyed.

Any hint of what the next project will be? Are you ‘finished’ with Burma yet?

We are working on a few ideas, but unfortunately I can’t share anything with you here! I think one of the most exciting things now is to document the change in the country – whether superficial or real, it is an exciting time that can still go either way.

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