Documenting Myanmar: In Conversation with Christophe Loviny on 12th Yangon Photo Festival

Stéphane Ferrer, Mahabandoola Park, Yangon Photo Festival, 2019. Photo courtesy of Yangon Photo Festival.
Pascal Maitre, Baobab, The Tree of Life, 2013-2015. Photo courtesy of Yangon Photo Festival.
Christophe Loviny during a masterclass in 2011. On his left-hand side, Minzayar Oo. Photo courtesy of PhotoDoc.
Ye Naing, The Brickyard, (Mandalay area), 2019. Photo courtesy of Yangon Photo Festival.
Lewis W. Hine, Harold Walker, five years old, working in the cotton fields, Oklahoma, USA, 1916. Photo courtesy of Yangon Photo Festival.

On the occasion of the upcoming Yangon Photo Festival (19 February –14 March), now in its 12th edition, Caroline Ha Thuc sat down with Founder and Artistic Director Christophe Loviny to discuss why he founded the festival and the pertinent role of photography in Myanmar.

TEXT: Caroline Ha Thuc
IMAGES: Courtesy of Christophe Loviny, PhotoDoc and Yangon Photo Festival

Stéphane Ferrer, Mahabandoola Park, Yangon Photo Festival, 2019. Photo courtesy of Yangon Photo Festival.


In 2007, what has since been called the Saffron Revolution took place in Myanmar; its name referencing the color of the robe of the Buddhist monks who participated in the protests against the government which lasted for some three months. At that time, the country was totally closed to foreign press and it was almost impossible to know what was going on in the country. Yet, and for the first time, citizen journalists and photojournalists managed to bypass censorship; by sending images of the demonstration and of its violent governmental repression to international press agencies. Since then, photography has played an essential role in documenting the political, social and economic transition of the country. It is against this backdrop that Christophe Loviny founded the Yangon Photo Festival, which will open its 12th edition next week.


Why and how does 2007 represent a turning point for photography in Myanmar?
Contrary to what happened during the 1988 uprising, digital cameras and the Internet played a critical role in helping news organisations report on the 2007 violent crackdown. Undercover reporters risked their life to provide video footage and photos to international broadcasters. Only a few months later, in May 2008, the country was hit by Cyclone Nargis. It caused almost 150,000 fatalities and catastrophic destruction for millions of people. This time, the images produced by the country’s citizen journalists alerted the international community, which in turn tried—in vain, unfortunately—to exert pressure on the government to accept the critically needed aid. Cyclone Nargis caused catastrophic destruction but, at the same time, it brought people together, creating networks between NGOs, businesses, religious and community organisations. This was of particular significance in a country living under the military since 1962, and has endured decades of civil war and divisions amongst identity groups based on ethnicity, race and religion.


Pascal Maitre, Baobab, The Tree of Life, 2013-2015. Photo courtesy of Yangon Photo Festival.


What did you have in mind at that time?
This emergence of civil society seemed to me the right moment to launch intensive photo documentary courses at the Centre Culturel Français (now Institut français de Birmanie) which was the only island of uncensored expression in Myanmar’s commercial capital. At that time, our objective was to build the capacity of citizen journalists to investigate, document and report on human rights, social justice and environmental issues under the military regime. It has now expanded to a national forum for freedom of expression and advocacy. The uniqueness of our organisation’s concept is its comprehensiveness. Our action combines the empowerment of the media as well as advocacy and marginalised groups, the production of strong advocacy content in the form of short documentaries, and their mass dissemination through mainstream media, social networks and large public events like the Yangon Photo Festival.


When you started this project, there was no photography class at the university and no photojournalists and documentary photographers in the country. How did you begin this journey?
We received dozens of applications and it took two days of interviews to select the first trainees. There were participants who already had serious notions of photography, but most candidates had never touched a camera before. Rather than technical skills, their strong motivation to become ‘concerned’ photographers was the most important criteria in our selection process. Our goal was to empower the youth in using visual stories to change and educate their society, not just to record it. Their short documentaries would contextualize and humanize the most important issues.


What was the format of these kinds of training?
The educational approach and a format of 10 or 12 days of our intensive training sessions are inspired by my long career as a journalist, photographer, documentary maker and publisher, and the theory of learning-by-doing. After a day of lectures about the history of visual communication and the techniques of storytelling, we set up a newsroom to brainstorm the topic and the angle of each participant’s story. Following initial online research into their chosen topics, the storytellers create a storyboard before moving on to the steps of investigating, interviewing and shooting. The goal for each student in our program is to create a short multimedia visual narrative that is both informative and has the emotional power to incite positive social change.


I suppose it was not easy for young people to turn towards photojournalism and documentary making. In the country, good students are usually encouraged to study medicine and engineering. One of the first students you had was Minzayar Oo, a former medical student who became a famous photographer. What was the mindset of that time?
The first trainees were a group of students from diverse backgrounds and interests. Among them we had a cluster of young artists, but the large majority of others came from very different backgrounds. We had several doctors and students finishing medical school, like Minzayar. Another was Kaung Htet, a medical doctor, who was inspired by his experience assisting wounded demonstrators during the Saffron Revolution. He was shocked when officials at the Yangon General Hospital refused to send ambulances and even prevented him from using his own car to assist those in need. He resigned from his job at the hospital and soon found out about our project. His first story, “People of the Wasteland,” showed the appalling conditions of scavengers working and living in Yangon’s largest garbage dump. Projected to the public on a large screen in the gardens of the French institute, it was one of the highlights of the newborn Yangon Photo Festival. He has become the director of photography at the Myanmar Times.


Christophe Loviny during a masterclass in 2011. On his left-hand side, Minzayar Oo. Photo courtesy of PhotoDoc.


Do you still feel the same urgency today, and would you say that the camera is still a political and social weapon?
More and more so every day. Even in the most remote  areas the majority of people have a smartphone in the pocket, therefore a camera. It means the possibility of taking photos, editing stories and sending them to social networks. 


One of the important threads of PhotoDoc, which is the organizer of Yangon Photo Festival, is to provide training for everyone eager to learn photography. You even give people in the villages some cameras, right? You do not only aim at reaching a wider audience, you also wish to spread the practice of photography everywhere in the country.
Our purpose is not to teach photography, but visual storytelling, which I believe is the most powerful tool to communicate on social networks. But, of course, photography is the main component of the process, together with texts and sometimes video and sound recording.

Our initial goal under the military regime in 2008 was to train a new generation of Burmese visual journalists for the national and international mainstream media. The second step was to use the same process to empower activists and victims of discriminations from all ethnic and religious backgrounds. We organize intensive visual story-telling trainings not only in Yangon and Mandalay but also in conflict areas like Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, Mon and Shan States.


Ye Naing, The Brickyard, (Mandalay area), 2019. Photo courtesy of Yangon Photo Festival.


Yet, and despite the election of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015, the freedom of expression in Myanmar seems to be still limited. In that context, how can visual storytelling empower people?
There are still many problems, but there has been a tremendous change during the last 10 years. Fear has not completely disappeared but has considerably diminished. We have been able to show stories related to all sensitive topics, including some very critical to the government and Aung San Suu Kyi. Only the Rohingya issue is still taboo. They are widely considered as illegal immigrants thanks to the very well-orchestrated propaganda of the nationalist’s movements. It is not even possible to use the word Rohingya without provoking an instinctive reaction of anger, sometimes hate.


How do people react when you arrive somewhere and propose to organize visual story telling workshops? How do you build trust?
We first spent time meeting all local organizations. We partner with them to select the most motivated participants and to learn about the pressing local issues. In fact, they often already know us through our e-magazine Myanmar Stories and the Yangon Photo Festival.


You mention fighting against fake news and hate speech: do you monitor the content of the work?
As fake news and hate speech on Facebook are widely used by nationalist movements and the military, the ‘dark side’ of social networks has become one of the main dangers threatening the democratic process in Myanmar (where Internet = Facebook).  A UN report has blamed the social network for its passive role in inciting the violence in Rakhine. At PhotoDoc, we do not believe that this situation can be resolved only by technology and regulations. By swamping user’s accounts with content tailored to their past browsing habits, the platforms have a tendency to quarantine users in bubbles of their own making. This kind of tribalism encourages bolstering each other’s egos and convictions rather than debate and critical thinking. The most efficient counter-attacks against the propagators of hate speech, fake news, and propaganda is media literacy in schools and teaching people to produce real stories strong enough to reach an audience as large as the haters.


I am surprised by the scope of the festival today: you mentioned that you are expecting about 300,000 visitors. How would you explain this success?
Thanks to the cooperation of the local government and different partners we can organize the exhibitions and screenings in the best locations to meet the largest audience; the park facing the city hall, the central Railway Station, Junction City megamall, the ferries on the river, and so on.


Do you make any distinction between artistic photographers and photojournalists within the festival? Which place occupies the sense of aesthetics, for example?
We are open to all kinds of photography, whether documentary or conceptual. What is important for us is for the photographers to be ‘concerned’ by social, environmental and human rights issues. There are more documentary works because this format is easier. Everybody with a strong story can produce a strong documentary. The best examples are the fantastic works produced during our workshops by people with disabilities, even mental disabilities. Conceptual work requires real creativity. It is very rare unfortunately.


Is there any curatorial statement or main theme that would drive all the events during the festival?
Environmental issues, peace building, child labor and the fight against all discriminations.


Lewis W. Hine, Harold Walker, five years old, working in the cotton fields, Oklahoma, USA, 1916. Photo courtesy of Yangon Photo Festival.


What is the next step of your project?
After 12 years of experience successfully developing capacity building for Myanmar journalists, activists and VMGs (Vulnerable and Marginalized Groups), we believe that it is important to try extending the program to all children in schools. Today there is an estimated 20 million users of Facebook in Myanmar. Half are equipped with a smartphone and use a mixed language of text and images, with the later growing so rapidly that Facebook vice-president Nicola Mendelsohn has declared that by 2021 the social network would most probably be all photos and videos. In this new context, one of the priorities of the Myanmar education system should be to include media literacy and the visual language as soon as children start to use smartphones. Media literacy is to develop critical thinking and allow the children to decipher the flow of information. As for the visual language, it is still totally missing from the school programs. Children spend up to 10 years learning to read and write but they are not educated at all to express themselves with images.


Today, as we are overwhelmed by images, and acutely aware of what happens in many countries, we might feel powerless sometimes: do you feel socio-political photography can still be an agent of change?
Look at the success of Myanmar Stories, or our Facebook. The average number of viewers is more than a hundred thousand per video, with peaks up to 1.3 million. It is the proof that quality content can rival jokes and celebrities.



12th Yangon Photo Festival
19 February­ – 14 March, 2020
Various locations, Yangon, Myanmar




Caroline Ha Thuc is a French Hong Kong based art writer and curator. Specializing in Asian contemporary art, she contributes to different magazines such as ArtPress in France and Artomity/Am Post in Hong Kong.



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