Cotswolds for Condé Nast Traveler USA
Alex Atala for Nowness
Corin Mellor for Port
The Beaumont for Condé Nast Traveler USA
Maureen Paley for Another Magazine
Mark Hix for YCN magazine
Brazilian cocoa for Nowness
Dishoom for YCN magazine
Old Parsonage Hotel
Chanel for Amarello magazine
Mandoo for Sabor magazine
Umu for Amuse
Designers in Residence for Design Museum London
Rio graffitti for Nokia
It’s a while now since I returned from Myanmar, bursting with life - a feeling quickly dissolved into the everyday, replaced by a deep longing, its grip strengthening with each passing month, each new country I visit. It creeps up unexpectedly: a little breeze in the sun somewhere in the tropics and there I am, transported back to Burma. I want to see it again. I wanted to before I even left it.
For years, stories of a place stuck in time, just starting to crack open after decades of isolation and abuse by a ruthless military dictatorship; of a complex people, scarred yet kind; a land of golden temples, mighty rivers, and ancient ruins, populated my mind.
I arrived late at night to a hug of warm air, a grinning driver, and a ride through roads lit solely by the bare bulbs of street food stalls. The next morning I lay in bed and took my time before looking out the window. As if the moment I did, the moment I saw this new place I’d been hearing come alive since the small hours – dogs fighting, people chatting, the rumble of speeding old trucks shaking the ground and the building – that would be it. I’d have to get out there and start this journey. One that was not just about seeing a country before foreign money and tourists changed it, nor just maintaining my much cherished but slightly fading ability to travel alone.
I’d known for a while that my digital camera made me a lazier and probably even a worse photographer. I'd grown used to its speed, unlimited shots, and zoom that allowed me to stand at a distance and have little contact or conflict with people – during a time in which I had fallen out of love with our fellow human beings anyway. But now I missed the opposite, the lack of speed and the intimacy of my little film camera and its fixed lens, the way it forced me to look more, choose better, get physically closer. I didn't want to be detached anymore. So, with a bag full of film rolls and a keenness to connect, I promised myself I'd only use the digital camera for recording video. Two blocks out I had already failed.
I wasn't quite succeeding in easing into the country, or myself, either. In Myanmar life happens very much out on the streets, from tea shops to racks of drying laundry, and I roamed amidst them in Yangon, a little uncomfortable, for a couple of days. But I had high hopes for the 24-hour train journey I was about to embark on. This was the time in previous trips when I usually found absolute peace, the closest I ever get to feeling fully in the moment. Yet I felt strangely disconnected. From the moment and from the land that stretched flat in all directions. No bliss, no wonder, no great epiphany. Not even that old foe, the magic hour blues, showed its familiar face. Just the now cool air, alive with the smells of burning wood, cooking spices, and sometimes incense from countless villages on the way. To the deafening soundtrack of metal against metal.
The train was too decrepit even for me, with my great love of decrepit trains, to enjoy. It swayed, shook, and jumped to alarming heights and angles. Trying to sleep was futile. I switched trains before dawn and started to regain some sense of wonder as a rooster in my carriage announced the day ahead and a pig emphatically complained of being loaded on by six men. Shy children, women whose traditional headdress was literally a towel wrapped around their heads, and men with beautiful faces in a mix of sarongs and leather jackets made their way in and out, settling on the seats or on the floor, amidst parcels big and small.
We climbed tightly against tiny stations, market stalls, and people selling food through the glassless windows: delicious corn on the cob and other things I wasn't brave enough to try just yet. Then in a rare moment of greater speed I got hit by a wild branch that ripped a hole in my down jacket and knocked my glasses off my face. For a second all I saw were feathers and bits of corn flying around, the cob still firmly gripped in my hand. It seems I wasn't prepared to lose my breakfast. Locals had the courtesy to check I was alright before a big communal laugh at my face.
Some days later, a more serious blow: my digital camera died, quite possibly a victim of my poor cycling skills. Instead of grief, I felt liberated. Free of the conflict, of carrying that heavy weight around, of people shying away from a picture by such a big camera. I was left with the beautiful limitations of my old film companion.
By that point I'd begun to suspect that a simple raising of one's eyebrow or a half smile as a friendly sign of acknowledgement were not enough, but a full-toothed grin opened up even the sternest of this country's faces. So I wore mine practically stuck on and, as fascinated by them as they were by me, was thoroughly enjoying other people's existence. I was in my element again. I had cracked open.
Then one morning, past the tourist trinkets in the depths of a local market by a lake, I sat over cups of tea half filled with condensed milk and platefuls of what I assumed to be fried dough. Up front an ancient lady sat in wait. To her left a man in a conical straw hat smiled profusely at his friends. I was so drawn by his face I later followed him to ask for a picture. He said yes, his smile vanishing, and looked through the camera with deepest eyes. On a corner to my left, engulfed in smoke and gentle light, men seemed to discuss serious matters over food and cigarettes, while others took turns joining and leaving them, like a scene from a Chinese mafia film. It was then, alone, feeling so one hundred percent there, yet with my own self watching quietly, unimportant, an observer in the background, that I was able to tap into that most elusive and exhilarating of feelings: remoteness. To truly feel, in every dimension, far from home.