“I didn’t want to pull the trigger [of a gun] so I decided to snap my camera’s shutter button instead,” said photographer Mauk Kham Wah, the World Press Photo Southeast Asia and Oceania regional award winner. Mauk Kham Wah captured a captivating image from the frontline of the war in Karenni State, where regime and resistance forces have frequently clashed following the 2021 military coup in Burma.
Mauk Khan Wah’s photo “Retrieving the Dead” won in the singles category of the 2023 World Press Photo Awards. The photo shows a member of the People’s Defense Force (PDF) carrying his comrade’s lifeless body, covered in blood, through the battlefield of Moebye Township. DVB reporter Phue Ei Ei Nwe spoke to Mauk Khan Wah about his life post-coup and how he snapped his award winning photo.
Q: Can you share how you were entered into this contest, and how did they choose you for the award?
A: Around 4,000 photographers enter the World Press Photo Contest every year. It’s organized by the Dutch. Two people from Burma won the award last year. One was about environmental issues and the other was of anti-coup protesters shooting slingshots at police. My photographs were not supposed to be included in this contest. I forgot about it for a while but my mentors urged me to submit my images. They helped me choose which photos to submit. They even helped me write the captions. I received an email two months ago, before they announced the award winners. They told me I had won.
Q: Can you also tell us about the story behind this particular photo?
A: I have lived for over one year on the frontline. I have documented countless clashes. Amongst them, was when this photo was taken. That day I felt deep sorrow because we had lost 17 comrades. They were killed in front of my own eyes. I can see it vividly in my mind. We pulled back as fast as we could. We had to leave behind all the other bodies. One comrade managed to carry back the one dead body that you see in the photo. We were able to retreat even though the Burma Army tried to block us. But all of the other bodies of our comrades were left behind. I captured the moment at around 5 p.m. during our withdrawal. It was taken as we were evading the Burma Army.
Q: So, you can say that you reported the situation in Burma to the world with your camera lens. How did you feel when you won the award?
A: I received several positive emails about my photos. I was excited to read this. I’m happy every time my photography gets recognized. This photo shares a serious message about Burma. There were many great photos submitted by others. They chose mine not because my photo was the best, but because this is a very important issue. The day I got the email that I had won the award was just one year and one week after the event was portrayed. I miss those comrades and I’m sad everytime I think of them. But at the same time, I am happy when my photo reaches an international audience.