A Year of Change
2016 was a big year for me. After a long period of not being very happy with where my career was heading, I went back to school that fall to kickstart my transition towards journalism. My full-time class schedule meant we had to squeeze in whatever traveling we wanted to do that year before my school orientation in September, however, which we did: four holidays in five months, plus another month back home in Canada over the summer. I was stuck in Hong Kong for the fall semester, but in December I had an opportunity to do an internship abroad in Yangon, which was a fantastic experience. In fact, this whole coro-nostalgia bit I’ve been on lately started when I was looking back at my Myanmar photos last month. 2016 was a good year indeed.
In February, Ashley and I spent a week driving around Iceland and its breathtaking landscapes. The photo above was taken on our first full day on the island, on our way to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula a couple hours north of Reykjavik. There was something fierce in the weather that morning, with the storm clouds above and the wind howling and shrieking around us. It was utterly wild to us softies from Hong Kong, and the drive was both thrilling and terrifying – maybe made more so by the fact that we were the only car on these icy highways for long stretches at a time. This picture really captures all of that I think, but what puts it over the top for me is that heavenly light in the distance, hinting at better things to come.
I like how few elements there are in this photo – just the black of the roads and hilltops and the bluish whites of the land and sky. Scenes like this were common throughout our drive around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, our lonely little vehicle trundling through a desolate landscape.
I don’t recall exactly where this was taken, only that it was on the road connecting Reykjavik with the towns on the southwestern coast of Iceland. We’d started driving in the early morning in order to make sure we had enough time to see everything we wanted to see that day and still make it back to the capital for dinner, and there was one section of the drive that offered this view of a small town and the coastal plains below. Whenever I look at this picture I feel like I’m getting a glimpse behind the curtains of this world, before the stage lights come on and the play begins. There’s a sense of anticipation, and then the sun rises.
This is mighty Skógafoss, a waterfall on the south coast of Iceland. I’ve got other pictures that aren’t as zoomed in and show the entirety of the falls and the cliffs, but this one stands out to me. I can’t even say that I like the whole photo, just different elements that kind of come together – the sunlight hitting the eastern face of the cliffs, the snow clinging to ledges and shadowed ridge lines, and the streams of ice water from the highland interior pouring over the rocky lip.
These are the basalt columns of Reynisfjara, a black sand beach with a deadly reputation. Its a simple but lovely photo, Ashley comfortably nestled on a small ledge looking up at the ancient volcanic pillars rising up into the mountainside.
Just a little bit down the coast from Reynisfjara is the peninsula of Dyrhólaey. Ashley went wandering off and I took a photo of her clambering across this rocky landscape on her own. She’s always been a little more adventurous than me, willing to go that much closer to the edge of a cliff, or take that extra step onto precarious footholds – a far cry from her desk-bound job back in Hong Kong – and I like when I can capture that side of her.
This is more of a conceptual image than a nice landscape photo or anything like that. The wavy basalt columns look like they’re exploding from out of Ashley’s mind or imagination as she looks out over the ocean, like some Lovecraftian nightmare come alive.
This is a cross-section of the Sólheimajökull Glacier, one of hundreds spread across Iceland’s mountainous interior. You can see the deep blues of the compacted ice, a process thousands of years in the making, streaked through with the black remnants of past volcanic eruptions and ash falls. The two ice climbers really show the scale of the glacier, and this is already the thinner section closer to where the ice begins to give way to the rubble and rock of the valley floor.
In April, Ashley and I spent a few days in Kyoto with her family. I took this photo in the hills above the Ginkakuji temple complex, on the eastern side of the old capital. For a while I had this photo as the background on my laptop, and I love that wave of forest emerging from the middle of the city in the background, elevating those distant streets and neighbourhood buildings in its upward momentum and giving the picture a bit of depth and dynamism.
There’s nothing about this photo of Kiyomizudera that’s especially interesting or unique, but I like it because I grew up seeing this hillside temple in Japanese comics and cartoons and it was a cool thing for me to finally be able to see it in person. The school lives of Japanese students in those fictional worlds always seemed to involve class trips to mountain onsens and the temples of Kyoto, and a younger me had always wanted to inhabit those experiences. Coming to Japan in my adult life and visiting places like this temple’s famous wooden veranda has never gotten old for me.
I really like the layers of this picture. First, the sunlit tree in the foreground on the right. Then, the towering temple gate, partially obscured by the tree but tall enough to still loom over the other elements of the image. Just behind the gate there’s the tiled roofs and crowded narrow streets on the hill leading up to the temple complex. Then, finally, the rest of the modern city in the far distance, backed by the silhouette of the hills that surround Kyoto on three sides.
I really love this photo and the story it seems to be telling. Ashley and I visited Bali in May that year, and we signed up for surfing lessons one morning on Kuta Beach. Ashley took to it almost immediately, while I just was never able to consistently stand up on my surfboard. So we’ve got an upright Ashley riding this little wave towards the beach, and then there’s me in the background, floating in the ocean like a dummy with a “how is she doing that” look on my face. There probably was a bit of that going on in my head, but I’m also half-blind without my glasses so that facial expression is also me squinting to get a better look at her.
This photo I really love. We spent most of our time in Bali in the central town of Ubud, where we booked a little villa by a field of rice paddies. That first afternoon we were just relaxing by the pool and doing a bit of light reading when I looked over and the lighting on Ashley made it seem like the light was coming from her. If I could describe this picture in one word, it would be radiant.
In June we headed down to Hanoi for a few days with a group of friends. It was a pretty low-effort trip, the main goal being to just eat as much as we could. This photo was taken inside a cafe by St. Joseph’s Cathedral, but I don’t remember much else about it. I get a nice, cozy vibe from the picture though, and I do recall the coconut coffee being to die for.
This photo was taken on a street corner in the Hanoi Old Quarter. The mostly empty streets and the pale yellow buildings with the water damaged walls, along with the towering leafy trees, give this scene a bit of a sleepy feel, like its a certain hour of the afternoon and everybody’s inside because it’s just too damn hot outside. And then you have this couple on a motorbike, a dash of action and movement streaking across the street like they’re the only two people in the world.
There was a fantastic chicken pho stall behind our hotel that we frequented multiple times, and when we asked this nice old lady what was inside the broth she scooped these pale orange balls out with her chopsticks and smiled. The secret ingredient was chicken ovaries.
Fast-forward to December and I was back in Southeast Asia, doing an internship with a local English-language news publication in Yangon, Myanmar. My responsibilities were pretty minimal – file a short story every two to three days on the various business and cultural events taking place around the city – so I ended up having a lot of time to myself to wander the city with my camera. I took many, many photos. This picture was taken on Pansodan Road, one of the main arteries from when the city was called Rangoon, and when Myanmar was a part of British India. There are some truly beautiful, though in many cases crumbling, examples of colonial architecture that line this street, and I spent many aimless afternoons walking up and down this corridor.
Sepak takraw is a Southeast Asian sport played with nearly every body part except for the arms. In Myanmar its known as chin lone and the objective is to keep the rattan ball in the air while kicking and bumping it over a net. The flow of the sport is fast yet graceful and it makes for some really dynamic action shots, legs and arms churning up dust clouds and whipping about in the air to find the best angle to land a shot.
This is the inside of the small ferry terminal linking the city with the island of Dala across the Yangon River. The office to the left is where foreigners pay for the tourist ferry tickets, the one on the right apparently the manager’s office. This photo exudes mid-day torpor, one person slowly counting off the ferry tickets in a dark room while the other sits at his desk in his undershirt, the weak daylight filtering through the makeshift curtains.
On the ferry to Dala I sat near this old woman sitting on her own in a green plastic chair, taking deep drags from her unfiltered cigarette. It’s likely that she’s lived through many of Myanmar’s most seminal moments since at least independence in the late 1940s, and maybe the weight of those memories and experiences had settled onto her physical person and features. Or maybe she just wanted a moment to herself on a crowded ferry.
This little girl was one of many children selling cheap snacks on the ferry. Her face is covered in thanaka, a paste or cream made from tree bark believed to protect from sunburn and nourish the skin. A Burmese man ended up buying all their snacks before giving it back to the kids to feed the seagulls hovering by the boat.
This photo was taken on the bridge over Strand Road, the last major street before the city hits the river. This man with all the birds was presumably heading towards the market by the ferry terminal, and I passed by him before I had a chance to take out my camera. He likely noticed my hesitation, though, and he turned around mid-step and paused, giving me an extra second to take this picture.
There was one afternoon where I tagged along with another intern to help them cover a commercial trade deal announcement having something to do with Indian textiles. It was a dull affair in a nondescript building in I don’t even know which part of town, and my contribution to the story was a few photos of the delegates and the press conference. When we walked out of the venue, though, this woman with a tattoo of Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on her upper arm happened to be walking by on the street, and I had to get a photo of her. By then the treatment of the Rohingya was already international news and there was increasing pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi from global leaders and organisations to do something about it. The landslide victory by her National League for Democracy party in the general election the year before, the first open elections in Myanmar since 1990 (which was promptly annulled by the military dictatorship), however, meant she was on much firmer footing domestically.
Every time I look at this picture, taken at Shwedagon Pagoda, it looks more painting than photograph. I feel like I’m looking at one of those old Orientalist artworks, with the people in the shadows of monumental architecture, the hyper-detailed ornamentation, and the contrast between the brightly lit foreground and the darker spaces in the back hinting at some exotic mystery. Is it okay for me to talk about orientalism, being a person from a culture that has been similarly othered? Maybe not.
This photo always makes me smile. I took this photo on the walking path around Inya Lake and I get a very “high school” vibe from this scene, with the Westerners walking in formation, shades down, and the group of Burmese women hanging out on the side of the pavement, both seeming to act like the other does not exist.
This man was a fellow passenger on the Yangon Circular Railway. It was late afternoon when I boarded the train at Yangon Central Railway Station, and there were a lot of tired bodies slumped in the seats or curled up in corners by the train entrances. This is a portrait of a man carrying a heavy burden.
There were happier faces the day I traveled out of the city with my fellow interns to Mt. Kyaiktiyo and its famous Golden Rock pagoda. Our train had stopped at a small station in the countryside outside of Yangon at the same time another train going in the opposite direction was pulling in. These guys were having a good time while packed in the doorway like sardines, and I took a quick photo before they pulled away.
The Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is the third-most important pilgrimage site in Myanmar, and the hilltop upon which the pagoda rests was jam-packed with people when we arrived in the early evening. There were still places where one could find a little solitude and distance from the crowds, though, like this bare ledge facing the green hills below. I’m not sure what these two older women were doing in this space, but I really love the dream-like quality of this photo. I feel like there’s a weight to the lighting in this scene, a thick haze of gold and brown that permeates the atmosphere and gives the picture a sense of un-reality and an un-mooring from time and space. An eternal dusk.
I took this photo looking down the hillside at the small collection of stupas half-hidden in the foliage below. That thick golden layer made everything lovely, and the way the landscape just fades and blends into the light is just perfect.
This is the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, and immediately it becomes clear why it is also known as the Golden Rock. Balanced precariously on the lip of that platform, it has defied gravity and the elements for over 2,500 years, if you believe the legends. There’s also a walking path on another ledge below the pagoda so people seem pretty confident that the rock is not going anywhere any time soon. I love the lighting on this photo, and the aesthetic of the pagoda itself is so uniquely beautiful.
One morning when we were back in Yangon, one of the photojournalists invited me to come watch a shinbyu, the ceremony by which all Buddhist boys in Myanmar are initiated as novices in a monastery. I took this photo of one of the initiates as he was being carried out of the monastery on a gold-covered sedan chair, beneath a stand of trees by the monastery entrance, and a patch of sunlight happened to fall on his expressionless face.
That same day, as I was editing my photos from the monastery that morning, I heard a commotion outside my hostel. I grabbed my camera and headed out into the street, where I saw this man riding on a pick-up truck with the flag of Myanmar blowing in the wind, followed by a large procession of demonstrators waving smaller flags behind him. When I called my contacts at the publication I was interning at, they weren’t clear what the march was about either, but I was later told that it was in fact a rally in support of the Tatmadaw, also known as the Myanmar Armed Forces. This photo ran in the next edition of the publication’s weekly magazine, which was nice.
I took this photo of Aung San Suu Kyi at a ceremony honouring the 100th anniversary of the founding of the scouts and guides in Myanmar. At this point I was just five months removed from my previous job sitting behind a desk making spreadsheets and slideshow presentations in an office above a Hong Kong mall. Being here just mere feet away from a modern global icon on the sunny lakeside campus of Yangon University felt very far from my life in Hong Kong indeed. Her legacy has taken a hit in recent years, not only because of the treatment of the Rohingya but as a result of the ongoing decline in press freedom as well, but there’s something to be said about being a witness to living history.
From one impressive woman to another, this is one of my favourite photos of Ashley. Near the end of my internship period she flew over to join me for a weekend and we took the opportunity to check out Bagan, one of Myanmar’s most prominent tourist sites. I don’t recall which of the thousand temples this picture was taken in, but I love the details on the door, the light shining on Ashley’s face and parts of the inside wall beside her, and the the cool shadows of the temple interior, offering a brief respite from the mid-day heat.
Sunrises and sunsets are a big deal at Bagan. This photo was taken on the terrace of Pyathetgyi Pagoda in the late afternoon, when the sun was already approaching the horizon. This scene is pretty typical in Bagan, the wide plain dotted with low trees and the silhouettes of ancient temples, clouds of dust flying up from motorbikes and cars below as the stragglers scramble to get in position for the sunset.
This panorama shot of Bagan has a cinematic feel to it – I can imagine this to be a frame from an establishing shot of a movie set in the ancient city. From this distance it could be the 11th century peak of the Burmese empire, each temple a monument to a great king or auspicious event.
This last photo was taken at Low Ka Oushang Pagoda, where we caught the sunrise one morning. In general I’m not a fan of waking up too early when on holiday, but I’m glad we made the effort to see this one. The sun rises everywhere every day, but some sunrises can have a magical quality that puts the world on pause until the sun is fully risen.