One of the great tragedies of conflict is that the overwhelming brutality masks the glinting humanity that often shines beneath the surface.
Myanmar (Burma) is a country with a very troubled past, so much so that for many it is synonymous with unrest and unrest alone. After a period of relative peace following 2011’s return to civilian rule, on February 1st, the country once again fell victim to a military coup.
As photographer Monica Denevan tells Far Out: “There have been extensive peaceful protests and marches, general strikes, and appeals to the international community for help. The military has shot peaceful protesters, arrested and detained many people. My heart goes out to the people of Burma/Myanmar who want democracy and civil rights for themselves and their children’s future.”
Sadly, bloodshed has returned to Burma’s shores once more and trouble once again dictates the narrative of the nation. However, within Denevan’s collection of images, we see a different side of the Asian nation. A side that comes to the fore only when given the time to breathe and we see that humanity still flourishes in the darkest corners of civility.
Through Denevan’s unique naturalist lens the world is given time to heal before being captured in monochrome undertones, that depict the soulful sanctity behind the gaudy tones of drama that blight the global consciousness when focussing on lands ostensibly besieged by violence and nothing more.
This humble undercurrent to life is something that Denevan has propagated throughout her career. She mainly uses a second-hand medium format Bronica camera which she bought back in 1999, and with it, she has elucidated an ethos that a moment worth capturing often takes time to come to the surface. There is a simultaneous stillness and life to her images that pairs surface with depth and stillness with motion in all of its guises. Mostly, she depicts this in a marriage of a landscape and the denizens that purvey it.
As ever, a photographer needs a subject and Denevan’s considered approach paired perfectly with the need to lift the surface off of Burma, where she tells me she “wanted to make portraits of the people I was spending much of my time with, in the rural environment where they live.”
Far Out: We’re focusing on your series ‘Burma’ could you explain why your lens found a focus there?
Denevan: “In 2000 I embarked on a long trip to South East Asia starting in Burma/Myanmar after arriving in Bangkok. I had brought my Bronica medium-format camera and bags of film in anticipation of making portraits while travelling. As a tourist, there were sights to see, food to eat and much to experience.
“Ultimately, it wasn’t until I returned to Burma at the end of my trip that I begin taking the time I needed to photograph people. It was on that trip that I began my ongoing series Songs of the River: Portraits from Burma.”
And what led you to this idea in the first place, why did you return for a second visit?
“I have never photographed quickly. My camera is heavy and slow, and I like working when I have time and I am not rushed. This has been my method for a long time, so it wasn’t new to me when I was travelling.
“At the end of the trip, I returned to Burma alone – my travel companion and I were to meet up in Bangkok a few weeks later – and I was finally able to slow down. I met families in small fishing villages, that I still visit as recently as January 2020, and made portraits of them.”
Could you run us through your process? What distinctive imagery are you looking for?
“My process usually begins with bringing together a person and a landscape. Sometimes, it’s close by and obvious, but often it’s not. There are always many logistical details to work out in addition to those surrounding culture and language. Some images don’t work right away and need to be re-done although that is not always possible. As much as I try to control some of the image-making, there are always many things I can’t control, like the weather and people’s schedules, and those things can add or take away from the photograph I’m trying to make. I think it’s important to be open to changes that occur.
“I look for imagery that is compelling to me, that I want to return to in the field and continue to look at day after day.”
Generally speaking, what attracts you to a certain subject or field?
“It’s difficult to say what attracts me to a subject but I think it is more important to acknowledge immediately when there is an attraction and continue from there.
“In the past, I have regretted not stopping at a site, a tree, a pond, because it was inconvenient and realised later that there was something there that had called to me, but I didn’t listen. Now, I listen to my internal voice.”
Is there a specific moment that you can recall that made you want to pursue photography?
“When I studied photography at San Francisco State University, I enjoyed the interactive process of making portraits and knew then that I wanted to continue doing so.”
You obviously travel extensively for your work, detail, if you could, how this has impacted your life and, if possible, explain how the experience opens your creative process?
“Pre-pandemic, I travelled as often as I could, and I miss it. Travelling is wonderful yet it can also be challenging and difficult. I consider travel my best education, and I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to do so.
“Learning to be familiar with being out of my comfort zone has helped my creative process and now I’m better at being spontaneous.”
You are able to take incredibly honest pictures, how easy do you find forging relationships with your subjects and learning more about their culture?
“I don’t consider myself an extrovert and I wouldn’t say it’s been easy, however, being interested and curious goes a long way as does patience and lightness.
“I have returned to the same small fishing villages for many years, photographing repeatedly family members, neighbours, and friends. I’m thankful for the time people have spent with me while I make my photographs. I am always learning more about the Myanmar culture, looking, asking questions, reading, and it’s fascinating. I spend a lot of time observing.”
What do you think makes a certain photograph stand out from the norm? What makes a certain photograph memorable?
“I think the photograph has to connect to the viewer on some level; have a universal, humanistic appeal; and yet be specific to a time or place.”
How have you developed your own distinct aesthetic?
“Practice and editing. I photograph as much as I can and learn what works and what doesn’t. I try to use all my film when I’m travelling and have a lot of contact sheets to look through once I’m home. Then the process of printing in my darkroom begins.”
Did the atmosphere change when you began to understand more about your process?
“Yes. When I knew what I wanted, the sooner I could eliminate distractions and be more efficient with my time.
“I learned when to let things happen on their own rather than trying to control a situation.”
Do you have any ideas in terms of which sphere of life you may be exploring next?
“For the last few years, I have been making photographs in Yosemite National Park using my Holga camera. This series has continued during the pandemic and I’m looking forward to finally seeing the large prints in the next few weeks.