Guest Blog: Travel Photographer Steve Wallace
So, what am I doing writing a blog post for Scott Kelby’s website? Scott Kelby’s website is the big league and I’m just an amateur photographer. Asking me to write this blog post is like asking a minor league rookie to take his first at bat in the World Series. However, I do have a story to tell. It is not often an amateur photographer has to hide the names of people and places to protect the life of a local guide in a foreign country.
I travel a lot, mainly in Asia and always with my cameras looking to photograph people. In this blog I am going to describe my most recent trip to two countries, Myanmar and Bangladesh. My narratives from the two countries are quite different.
Also WARNING – there are descriptions towards the end of this blog that some may find disturbing.
Planning this trip began a few days after I was awarded a solo show at “The Gallery at KelbyOne” on December 9, 2017. I received an email from a filmmaker who had seen my Instagram Site and was scheduled to do a documentary for the United Nations starting as soon as in three weeks. She wanted me to take stills that could be used for publicity and to create a poster for her film. The documentary was to be about Rohingya, the ethnic group in Myanmar that has been the worldwide subject of many recent reports. I was most interested.
Both the New York Times and BBC had been writing extensively about the Rohingya fleeing for their lives into Bangladesh as the Myanmar Army burned down their villages in southwest Myanmar. Doctors without Borders estimated 6,700 had been killed since last August. Horror stories were being recounted daily, straight out of the mouths of the Rohingya as they flowed into Bangladesh, by the hundreds of thousands.
The photography would be pro bono work for a good cause and it was a way for me to gain entrance into the Bangladesh refugee camps run by the United Nations. I agreed to work with the filmmaker on the promise that I could get four days in the camps, two days shooting with her, and another two days of independent shooting with a guide/translator I was planning to seek out once I got to Bangladesh.
I also decided on a side trip to Myanmar, a place I have taken some of my best photographs. I wanted to make the trip to the other side of the world worthwhile and four days in Bangladesh was not enough and so I contacted my guide in Myanmar, who works at Santa Maria Travel and Tours in Yangon. His name is Mya Min Din but I call him M.M. He is simply the best photographic guide in Asia. He was available and we made plans to meet-up in Yangon and fly together to Bagan, Myanmar. Bagan is the home of 4,000 ancient Buddhist temples. This would be my fourth visit to Myanmar.
Normally, before I go into a new country, I seek guide recommendations from other photographers. I then contact the guide directly who would handle the arrangements for hotels, a driver, and a car. By not going with a photo tour group I save several thousand dollars, have a private guide, and the flexibility to change my schedule at will. Photo tours do however offer professional photographers to help you improve your skills and also offer an additional layer of security. I recommend Karl Grobl of Jim Cline Photography Tours for those wanting a photo tour group in Asia. But if you are more adventuresome and don’t need a professional’s help you can save money by traveling without other photographers.
This trip was different. While I knew M.M. from trips to Myanmar, I knew no guides in Bangladesh. As I had to be there in three weeks, I was not able to find and prearrange a guide. I would have to play it by ear when I arrived in Bangladesh, which in the end, was to prove challenging.
Part 1: Myanmar
It takes three flights, two layovers, and 24 hours to make my way to Myanmar from Phoenix, Arizona. The longest leg is the fifteen hours from Los Angeles to Guangzhou, China. I spent a night in Yangon, and then flew with M.M. to Bagan.
M.M. is the reason I take my best photographs in Myanmar. He travels through his country many times a year with eyes open for places with good light and good backgrounds. He also has good relations with the monastic Buddhist schools throughout the country. This allows us to borrow novice monks to serve as our models.
I shot with M.M. for five days at local markets, at the homes of families I call upon every trip to Bagan, at the famous causeway that leads to a massive pagoda, as well as exterior and interior of ancient Buddhist temples. We photographed herds of cattle and goats in clouds of dust being brought back to their corrals after a day of grazing, hot air balloons floating above the temples, artisans at work, as well as the photos you see here. Each evening I would look through the images of that day and do post-processing. I do this so I will know if I need to reshoot something the next day.
My post-processing involves removing distractions. This can range from the removal of something small with the spot healing brush to major removals with the clone tool. At times I remove an area by selecting it and then using content aware fill. When the main subject is crowded by the edge of the frame I will add canvas to the image and use content aware to fill in the new blank area. If I want a vignette I use Nik’s Color Effex Pro darken/lighten filter. On a rare occasion I will create a bokeh with a blur filter.
I also attempt to direct the viewer’s eyes by using Nik’s Viveza plugin. I lighten areas in which I want the eyes to move and stay a while. I darken areas I don’t want the viewer spending time on. Although some have reported their Nik filters no longer function after operating system updates mine have continued to function well on my MacBook Pro.
Since I was already in Myanmar, I offered to take some photographs for a charity NGO based in Oakland, California – Partners Asia. Partners Asia is a wonderful group that gave me great local support while I was in the Shan State of Myanmar. They had used my photos on their web site in the past and they wanted new pictures of some elementary schools they support in Myanmar. I never charge charities for my photography. Part of the beauty of being self-funded is I only shoot what I want, when I want.
Part 2: Bangladesh
The Bangladesh part of this trip started roughly. My first three hours in this country involved getting a visa, going through immigration, and customs, followed by an uncomfortable night at the airport surrounded by swarms of mosquitoes. The next morning, after a three-hour delay for fog, I flew to the city of Cox’s Bazar, on the southeast coast of Bangladesh and home to the longest beach in the world.
Currently the town is full of aid workers of many varieties. The refugee camps are a one-hour drive outside the city through congested roads. There are sentry posts along the route to make sure the Rohingya do not leave the refugee camps.
I spent two days with the filmmaker and got the shots she wanted along with a nice image for her movie poster. The United Nations Population Fund put restrictions on what photographs I was allowed to take. I found the restrictions counterproductive. The representative of this NGO told me the fund wanted photos showing empowerment. The last thing the Rohingya story is about is empowerment of a people.
I was able to find a guide that spoke pretty good English for the days I shot independently. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you how I found my guide. I have been sworn to secrecy as he/she may be harmed if I disclose the name of the guide or any other details that could lead to the identity of the guide or those who helped me find the guide. While with the local guide I shot without restrictions, totally independent.
I walked through the camps with my guide for two days occasionally going inside a structure. Medical clinics housed in tents along with food distribution centers dotted the area. The conditions were crowded. Very crowded.
The afternoon of the second day with the guide I asked to go into some homes and hear their stories.
The first family I visited left Myanmar in August 2017. The father of the fifteen-year-old girl pictured above told me his daughter was shot in the leg by the Myanmar military as she tried to escape her burning village. The soldiers sprang out from hiding places to shoot defenseless, unarmed, children. Her uncle and father had to carry her to safety after she was shoot. The uncle was later killed.
The x-ray above shows the girl’s shattered thigh bone with pieces of the bullet still imbedded in the leg. As a physician I know the pain she experienced was extreme. She received nothing for pain for days. I examined her medical records. The records verified the father’s story. The father asked me to tell his daughter’s story in the United States.
This woman told me the Myanmar military raped her six times, and then locked her in a house while the house was set on fire. Her face bears the scars. Before being locked in the house she watched her husband being shot. As he was dying he asked her for a drink of water. A soldier heard the request, returned to her husband, and slit his throat. They then threw her baby into a pile of burning debris. Her eight-year-old daughter sat in a corner speechless, crying, as her mother spoke to me. The eight year old had scars on the vertex of her head from being hit by a machete during her escape. This woman’s story hit me like a huge ocean wave knocking me over emotionally.
During my travels I have heard some terrible things. Once I spent a daylong car ride with a member of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge Army who admitted at the end of the day that he had killed innocent people during the 1970’s. I have talked with the survivors of the My Lai Massacre where the United States military, during the Vietnam War, went on a rampage killing unarmed women, children, and old men. Yet nothing has caused me more sadness than seeing and talking with the Rohingya. The grief of these people is overwhelming. Bangladesh wants to send them all back to Myanmar. The Rohingya have no hope. I believe, as a U.N. representative said, that what is going on in southwest Myanmar is “textbook ethnic cleansing.”
Notwithstanding what I experienced in Bangladesh, my travels within Myanmar have been peaceful. The people could not have been more kind to me. I believe the tourist areas of Myanmar are safe. I do not believe most of the citizens of Myanmar know the atrocities their army is committing.
After traveling extensively over the last ten years, I can tell you that getting the photograph is not my only goal. Photography for me has become more than taking pictures. Photography is the gateway to new experiences. I have seen great sadness but I have also seen great joy such as the when I photographed the Kumbh Mela where a hundred million Hindus celebrate their religion every twelve years. I was taught to shoot curare darts from a blowgun by a shaman deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I was the only still photographer at a ceremony that ended a practice of superstitious killing in Ethiopia. I have seen the great migration of wildebeest across the Serengeti plains. I have watched the sunrise burn away the fog around the Taj Mahal.
My experiences through photography have helped make me a whole person, a better person. My hope is the world will continue to help the Rohingya, for this story will be going on for decades.
Thanks to Scott Kelby and Brad Moore for providing me with this forum.