Monks playing “Chinlone”, early morning Hsipaw, Myanmar, 2017 (Fuji X-T2 and XF 18-135)
As I sit reflecting on my just completed photographic expedition, it’s been quite an amazing experience having spent a month photographing the wonders of Myanmar. I think for me the huge difference has been (compared to when I was there last five years ago – or especially 12 years ago), everybody now has a device in their hand. For weal or woe change is coming quickly to Myanmar. The changes are obvious as people rush to catch up to the rest of the world. It’s a shock to see everybody with a device in their hand – in a country where the average wage is only $2-$5 per day (sim cards and devices must be very cheap there). I preferred it to how it was on my last two visits but nobody can blame them for wanting to catch up with the new millennium. However, for now it’s still a very special place. I am not sure how long that will last, but at least for now I leave with some very special memories and 6 times 64gig SD cards filled with the evidence of those experiences.
I have travelled Asia now extensively for over a decade shooting street and environmental portraits. Even having been to Cambodia over 12 times, and countless times in Vietnam and other places, I can still say that Myanmar is the most special in all of Asia. I think it’s the combination of the lovely friendly people, the gorgeous little kids running around with the Thanaka paste on their faces, the men spitting their disgusting beatle-nut everywhere, and the gorgeous light – oh that light. It seems that every corner one walks around or every step one takes, another photo opportunity presents itself. Where I live in Australia is like a moonscape (photographically speaking), compared with the photographic opportunities in Burma – no wonder my cameras stay locked in their cupboard for most of the year!
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Do your own thing
I had planned this trip over 2 years ago and made sure that I did all I could to maximize my opportunities here. With my wife’s holidays at her new job she was unable to come for a month, so I travelled alone. Though I missed her I think it was a blessing. My photographic holidays are really no holiday at all – they are boot-camp on steroids – especially for somebody like my darling who cares not a tittle for photography .
Unless one is as focused on photography as I am I would have driven them nuts banging around in the hotel at 5am every day – horrors, aren’t holidays supposed to be for sleeping in? In the month there I never had one sleep-in. I really needed it after a year of teaching Western Brat teenagers, but how can you sleep in when so much photographic potential is waiting outside your hotel door. I was up every morning by 5 or 5:30, and I’d hit the streets in the dark. You have to maximize those magic moments at dawn. I’d shoot till around 9-10 then back to my hotel to eat and charge batteries (oh boy, please don’t get me started on Fuji’s woeful batteries)! After lunch I’d head out again and shoot until dark. As one famous photographer penned “… you aint gonna bag any magic shots laying on your back in the hotel room”.
No Tour Guides Please!
I always keep well away from the tourist destinations – those shots have all been done ten thousand times before. You must get way out to catch the real pictures that the tourists miss. I never hire a local guide or waste money on tour groups or package deals. I always hire a motorbike from my hotel. Don’t hire from down the road, because if something goes wrong the hire companies can be ruthless. However, the hotel is more likely to look after you. They want a good rating when you fill out your Booking.com survey – so they are not going to screw you thousands of dollars to buy a new bike if it got stolen (yes I’ve heard these horror stories from other travellers – their passport was held so they had no option).
I never worry about getting lost. Take the card from the hotel and get the girl at the desk to write down in the local language where you want to go. I just head out for the day and stop at villages or places that are not on the tourist route. I can tell by the reactions from the locals on this trip that I was a rare commodity in that region. The look from the kids was kind of like “look dad, the Martian has arrived”.
‘Red Bulls..t’ Sad to see them selling this rubbish even in Myanmar – I guess that’s the price they pay for ‘coming of age’. Yangon Circular Train, Yangon, Myanmar, 2017 (Fuji X-T1 and XF 35mm F2)
However, stick around until they get used to you a bit, then they will get back to the flow of whatever they were doing – then you will get your magic shot. When it comes time to head home at the end of the day, I just stop and show folk my destination that is written down in their language – they just point in the given direction. I drive a bit more then show somebody else. I have always returned home to my hotel and have never been lost. This works in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and everywhere else I travel.
Believe it or not you actually get better shots being out as a stranger (without a tour guide), in places where they have never seen a Foreigner. On the odd occasion over the years that I have taken a local as a tour guide, it has always backfired on me. You can be communicated with through your guide and you can be told not to go there or not do this or that – then you miss your valuable shot. When I go alone I just smile and point to the camera, and permission is usually always provided. If you have to negotiate through an interpreter it will work against you.
I usually never pay money for my photos. Though Steve McCurry is my hero, you can tell that a lot of his shots are posed and set up by the ‘fixers’ that he speaks so often about. Over the years I have only ever paid the odd bit of money here or there if I think I have taken too much of somebody’s time. I refuse to set up any of my shots – my whole modus operandi when I travel is to shoot the spontaneity of life. I could easily pay a ‘fixer’ to get some local Monk boys and pose them in front of the temple twilight with 12 lit candles, holding their little umbrellas – but that is not life as it really happens. I always rely on serendipity to let me to be at the right place at the right moment to snag that magic shot.
It was a bit of a pain to lug around, but I took over a huge bag of gifts this trip for the children. I bought lots of little good quality model cars for the boys (all sealed up in an individual box), and hair bows and ribbons for the girls, bags of natural lollies (none of that sugar crap with artificial colour), and various other things. The kids are always so delighted when you spontaneously pull something from your bag of tricks and hand it to them. The adults are delighted too. These people are so lovely and gracious, and the smallest thing (because they have so little), is always accepted with the greatest of enthusiasm.
Pigeon Poo and Feral dogs
Just as a warning, one of the most annoying things is the ubiquitous feral dogs that seem to plague Myanmar. With obviously no way of stopping the breeding, the place is riddled with half starved, diseased, mangy looking mongrels – everywhere. I can’t stand dogs at the best of times, so for me this was a bit of a pain. Several times I counted up to 15 dogs in a group, wandering around making a nuisance of themselves. Some of them were very territorial so I spent a large amount of time – most days – whacking at dogs nipping at my heels. I was never bitten and I’m not scared of dogs, but just be prepared to always be looking behind to see what is snapping at your heels. The other perennial nuisance is the feral pigeons.
For some strange reason they are encouraged (especially in Yangon). They have feeding stations everywhere, where the locals buy a bowl of grain and feed the pigeons on the street. There are literally tens of thousands of the brutes everywhere. They poo on you from above and make it really smelly under their roosting spots. This was an unusual sight for me and took a while to get used to. In Australia – or at least the town where I live – we call them ‘rats of the air’ and shoot and exterminate them whenever we can. They foul water tanks, bring disease and especially at the school where I teach, make a real mess around the children’s sitting areas.
However, this is not a complaint. I wasn’t there to change the way they do things, and in a funny way the pigeons and dogs kind of added to the chaos of the place. I just say this to be aware if you go there you will be greeted by lots of pigeons and dogs.
We are inundated on the news with lots of woeful things about the changes in Myanmar. About the “emerging economy”, “long time civil unrest”, “brutal military regime”, “..democratic change”, “..cruelty to the Muslim minority Rohongya ..”etc. I don’t know enough about the facts to comment too much on these things. However, after spending many months in this country over a period of 12 years, I can say I have never felt more safe in a country. My wife being Vietnamese – we spend many weeks of the year in her country. I love Vietnam and I even own my own motorbike and keep it at her dad’s house. I always head off into the ‘blue yonder’ to get my photos, each time we go there. However, I am always very nervous about leaving my bike in isolated areas whilst photographing in Vietnam. I even had a guy attempt to stone me in Vietnam when I wandered in an illegal gambling den. I don’t always feel that safe in some of the isolated places that I go to. The same in Cambodia and Laos etc – I’m always advised not to leave the motorbike unattended.
However, I never got such a feeling in Myanmar. I hired motorbikes extensively throughout this month’s trip and left them at every imaginable isolated destination – unlocked. I wandered the streets of Yangon and Mandalay late into the night and in dark alleys. I would NEVER do this in my so-called privileged country of Australia. I feel very unsafe in the town where I live from drug addicts, junkies, the unemployed, robbers and local thugs. No such deal in Myanmar. The old joke there is if you see somebody running after you in a dark alley – it is to hand back the wallet that you just dropped!
I would have photographed hundreds and hundreds of people on this trip. I think I got about maybe 3 or 4 ”no photo” – the rest were met with smiles and laughter. It has gotten to the stage in my country that I only ever bring out my cameras onto the street on very special occasions. I have been yelled at, sworn at, threatened and accused on many occasions. It was such a wonderful experience to photograph such beautiful people in such a beautiful country. I felt so safe and never once was I ever threatened or taken advantage of. Take if from me as one who lives in the ‘advantaged West’, this is a marvelous thing and I hope it lasts.
The important part – how did Mr Fuji stack up?
I won’t ‘flog a dead horse’ here because I wrote a blog especially to deal with the new purchase last year into the Fuji system. Check out the blog on my website – it’s called ‘Fuji X-T2/X-T1 – Recce in Bali’. My wife and I went there for a week in November last year. I trialed my two new cameras and tested everything in preparation for this trip to Burma. I can tell you I was very nervous, after shooting with Nikon for over 30yrs – I felt very ‘underpowered’ with my two tiny little Fuji cameras and just two lenses. However, you will read on there that the trip was very successful and it was with increased confidence I headed off to my month in Myanmar with the Fuji X-T2/1 and the XF 18-135 and the 35mm F2 lens – that was it.
I can now categorically say, after shooting over 13 thousand images on this trip, that these cameras are definitely ‘the real deal’. If Fujifilm opened up their coffers to me for an hour and offered me to go in and select any two lenses from their range – I would stagger out clutching the 18-135 and the 35mm f2. These lenses were brilliant – absolutely brilliant. Dust sealed, water-proof (oh yes – more on this shortly), the 35mm – brilliantly sharp with gorgeous rendering, and the 135 – such a magic all-round lens. Oh boy – did I say I love this lens?
I had the 135 ‘glued’ on the T2 and the 35mm stayed on the T1 most of the time. When I needed wide, tele, or very slow shutter speeds (brilliant stabilization), I used the 135mm. For everything else – especially my close up shots of people – I used the gorgeous 35mm lens – always shot wide open on f2. Believe me after lugging around the amounts of gear over the years that would make a Sherpa weary, it is so liberating to have two small cameras with two small lenses. No fiddle fluffing around, no decisions on what lens to take or what to change to, no changing in the field with dust coming into the camera – this is the way it should be.
I wrote about this on my Bali blog – but I have the two lenses mentioned and the 55-200 and the 18-55. As mentioned on that blog (and now I’m even more convinced), that the 18-135 and the 35mm f2, can stand proud compared to the other two lenses. My 55-200 is sharper at the longer end than the 135, but it is not weather sealed and has lots of play at the lens mount (wobbles and clonks sideways when I zoom), I hate this and it feels very junkie and does not reek of quality like the other two lenses. The 18-55 is definitely not as sharp wide open at 55mm as the 18-135, and is even more lacking wide open. In fact it is outstanding at just how much sharper and better the 18-135 is all around when compared to the baby sister. I think baby sister was hiding behind the door when the quality stakes were being dished out! I am afraid baby sister is destined to hit ‘fleabay’ in the not too distant future.
A ‘Dumping’ in Inle Lake
I can now say (unfortunately), that I have the final word and the last say on the weather sealing properties of these new cameras and lenses. Nobody can argue the toss with me or try to say this or that about Fuji’s weather sealing properties – I know the real deal – categorically so. There was some guy who recently wrote a thread on ‘that forum’, complaining how he got a sprinkle of dust on his T2 in the Grand Canyon or something. Upon returning he sprinkled some water from his drink bottle over the top of the camera – and the thing ended up fried and into Fuji for extensive repairs. Well, I wasn’t there so I can’t comment on that story, but it certainly does not inspire confidence in one regarding the weather sealing properties of our new cameras. Well, not until I came onto the scene anyway!!
I had booked the boat very early next morning for my sunrise shots on Inle lake. To cut a long story short, in the very dim dark twilight (whilst supposed to be boarding my little boat), I slipped off the end of the jetty and disappeared under the water (yes baby – we are talking total immersion). As I re-surfaced the poor hapless boatman, grabbed me by the scruff and hauled me onto the jetty – before I went down the second time, perhaps never to be seen again. I had my gear in two bags around my waist. They were the two smaller bags in the ThinkTank system. The Hubba Hiney and the next one down – a bit smaller. I quickly took them off and unzipped both bags. The cameras were dripping wet. The X-T1 was ruined and will be up for an insurance replacement – but that was my fault because I had lost the body cap so the T1 was sitting flat and pointing up at the bottom of my bag – of course the water and mud just went straight into the lens opening.
However, and here is the marvel – the X-T2 and 18-135 attached – a much different story. Though they were in the wet bag only a matter of perhaps a minute or so, the T2 was sitting on its flat (screen down), with the lens poking up. It of course was actually slopping around in about an inch of water at the bottom of my camera bag. I honestly thought they were ruined. I got back to my hotel like a drowned rat and toweled everything down. I took off the lens and there was water around the lip of the lens mount (body and lens), but the rubber seals had done their job well – not a drop inside. Though water was coming out all over the place around the screen – as I flipped it out – there was not a skerrick of moisture in the battery compartment, SD card department, or the other little door. Water was coming out of the little wheel at the back of the camera – when I blew with my blower brush. There was definitely nothing in the lens because I sat it in the warm sun and if there had been moisture inside, there would have been condensation inside the lens.
However, now writing this several weeks later and many thousands of shots later, I can say my T2 and 18-135 are completely normal. I have been watching for the slightest change or glitch, because these were all insured and could be claimed on. I am certain now that the seals all did their job very well and this is a marvelous testament to Fuji engineering. I am not sure about our little friend with the drink bottle and his few splashes of water, but I make no exaggeration when I say the T2 with lens attached got a thorough drowning and was dripping wet all over when I pulled it from the camera bag
Prior to the ‘drowning lessons’, the T2 and 135 did develop a problem that I am not very happy with. For no reason, on any given occasion (when I turn the camera on after its little sleep, turn it on from off, or change back from ‘playback’), the LCD and EVF flash off and on and off and on. It does this crazy little ‘dance’ and can do it up to 10-20 times before it will stop. It was so damned annoying because I would see my shot, touch the button to turn on, and then the crazy little ‘dance’ would start. I would have to stand there like an idiot until it finished before I could take my shot – alas, of course it was well gone by then. I did lots of searching online, asked lots of questions and nobody could help me. I reset the camera several times. I tried shooting for a couple of days with the 35mm f2 lens on there and it was perfect.
As soon as I put the 18-135 back on the T2, the crazy little ‘dance’ would start again. I am pretty mad that my new camera is doing this. I obviously couldn’t do anything in Myanmar and just kept using it best I could whilst on the trip. Now that I am back in Australia I will have to contact Fuji and try to sort this out. However, this has nothing to do with the drowning in the lake – it was doing this long before I decided to take a pre-dawn swim. Other than this my gear was great and I certainly have no regrets shooting Fuji. They are lovely cameras, well made, inspire one with confidence (well, normally), and the images are delightful.
This may be my last great trip for a while. I missed my wifie too much to travel that long, alone, again. We will go back to Vietnam this year to see her parents, and I’ll get out again on my old motorbike and head for the out-blocks where no Westerners go. I think she then wants to go to Taiwan for a few weeks or something. I’ll be happy to tag along and just make the most of the opportunities that come. However, this was a special trip. I was able to just concentrate on photography for a whole month. Daylight till dark – boot-camp style. Keep checking my website, because though I have a few new shots up now, there are well over 13,000 photos that I have to process and wade through. I love this part – all the hard work is done, all those damned horrible early mornings are over, now time to relax over the next few months and play around on Lightroom with the lovely memories of Myanmar.
‘The real Cowboy’. Little kid showing the cow who’s boss, banks of the Irrawaddy River, Mandalay, Myanmar, 2017 (Fuji X-T1 and XF 35mm F2)