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A few tips on portrait photography in Burma

A few dos and don'ts with regards portrait photography in Burma

Now¬†portrait photography in Burma does amount to pretty much the same as taking people photographs anywhere else but with a few subtle differences so, here’s a brief run down. You have two basic strategies: either ask permission for a close-up shot or discreet shots with zooms. If you have a guide with you it’s easy to ask politely though hand signals are usually pretty straightforward. You could try: ‘dat pone ko kyuntaw u yin asin pyay ma lar?’, please can I take a photo?’ or words to that effect, though that is admittedly a bit of a mouthful. The brief, and more easily remembered, ‘Ya la?’ means ‘ok?’ which combined with hand signals should suffice.

Friendly vendor in Hpa-An Market
Friendly vendor in Hpa-An Market

Now when travelling in, for instance, Thailand or Cambodia it would be extremely rare for anyone to say no but we have seen it occasionally on Burma tours and some people can be very adamant about it. In fact, even looking like you night be about to take a photo results in some very firm refusals on rare occasions. Particularly in rarely visited rural areas locals can be very shy and for various reasons object to having their photos taken. Others, see our previous post, may want money in return. Many may simply giggle and not answer – tricky – whilst the majority will agree with varying degrees of reluctance or enthusiasm. A problem with this technique is that those who agree will then inevitably pose so it can be very difficult to get any kind of natural-looking image. A Palaung lady we’ve met many times persistently refuses to smile for photos which we didn’t understand until the guide whispered in our ear that she was embarrassed to smile because of her betel ravaged teeth!

She doesn't like this photo
She doesn’t like this photo. Palaung woman near Kalaw

Buying something from the market vendor may make both the vendor and yourself more comfortable but you’ll still have the same posing problem. Simply going up and sticking a camera in someone’s face isn’t going to get a natural pose either, is rude in any culture and can occasionally elicit aggressive reactions anyway so please do not do it.

Photo request often elicit hysterical laughter
Photo request often elicit hysterical laughter

Option two we feel works well in the case of busy markets. Sit yourself down in one of the ubiquitous tea shops, blend in as much as you can, attach your zoom and wait to see who walks past. A longer shot with a zoom is far less intimidating than sticking a 50 or 70mm lens right in front of someone and in market situations it wouldn’t need to be a long zoom or telephoto anyway. Note wide angles can be effective as well as someone to the side of the frame wouldn’t even suspect they are in it. You’ll get natural shots but won’t get the close-ups so again, pros and cons.

portrait photography in Burma. On the boat to Bilu
On the boat to Bilu, near Moulmein, Mon State

The vast majority of the local people are friendly and obliging but respect their wishes and remember that ‘no’ is no! Rudeness and persistence are only going to make life harder for the next visitor hoping to try some portrait photography in Burma!