The New York Times advertises their trips as, “Journeys for the Curious Mind.” Robert Frost encouraged us to take the road less traveled and Ralph Waldo Emerson reminded us that, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” There is something that fascinates me about people on a journey and I am drawn to photograph them…people living their daily lives, putting one foot in front of the other to discover the unknown or return to a place of knowing. I have a deep curiosity about where a person is headed to and why. New understandings unfold through the accompaniment either in silent observation or animated interaction. Is the person walking fast or slow, bent over or standing tall, smiling or deep in thought? So much can be learned about the other and leads to a connection of “you AND me”.
On The Journey
Tender Moments Along The Journey
I also try to check in and explore the internal territory of my journey and was very focused on this with the beginning of the new year. What path am I on and is it the best for me at this moment in time? Am I creating touching moments for those on the same journey and am I taking the time to just stop and say, “Thank you” for so often being on the receiving end of welcome, touching kindness and generosity. May I just take this opportunity to extend my sincere and heartfelt gratitude to those who have walked beside me for a bit or for the long haul! You have and continue to add much sweetness to my journey and I wish you all a journey of wonder, undiscovered paths with the curiosity to explore and times to just sit and enjoy the view.
Dreams definitely do come true. In reality, maybe not as often as we would like! There is always a fine line between “magical thinking” and hope. However, this moment in my life had the quality of blessing for me.
Many photographers I know would say that growing up they would spend hours pouring over the pages of National Geographic. We were living vicariously through the compelling photographs of far off lands and people and tucking away the images into our dreams. I would see photographs of the Long Neck Women and think they were so beautifully exotic and meeting them seemed so far out of the realm of possiblity. Time passed, travel across continents became much easier and (some) borders opened up. I was off! I cannot even begin to explain the gratitude I felt when I got off the boat with cameras around my neck and climbed up onto a dock and was welcomed by these beautiful and exotic girls and women. I had so often seen the photographs, but now I was in them! Just writing those words brings forth a wellspring of emotion for me.
A very common site to see while in Burma are people smoking both long and short truncated cigars called cheroots. Rudyard Kippling mentioned them in his famous, “Road to Mandalay” as he described his Burma girl:
“An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin white cheroot, an’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s feet.”
The color of cheroots can vary from green to black and are made with a mix of tobacco leaves and pieces of bark. The smoker may enjoy a distinctive sweet taste when honey, star anise, tamarind and jaggery are added into the tobacco mix. (Being from Philadelphia, I had no idea what jaggery is but discovered that it comes from the sap of palm trees and is mixed with sugar cane juice. We just have the Liberty Bell, not many palm trees!). Cheroot filters are made from small corn husks and it is all rolled together in thanal-phet leaves with sticky rice acting as the sealant. In the midst of stilted villages, floating gardens, fishermen balancing on one foot and small havens where cultural traditions are still carried on, the Inle Lake region is a must see for any traveler wishing to get caught up in the magic of Burma. We saw girls sitting crossed legged, hands moving at lightening fast speed as they separated the spices and rolled the leaves of these subtle fragrant cheroots, following in the footsteps of generations before them.
Often, older, older women whose faces have been deeply etched by the forces of nature are photographed puffing on cheroots with smoke snaking around their serious faces. We are so drawn to the wizened crone characteristic and the stories that lie beneath those many lines and wrinkles. Actually, there are 98 photographs of these women on Google Images (I counted!) So many photographs are both striking and compelling but I noticed that there were only 8 where the women were smiling. If this is an enjoyable past time, I wondered why such an absence. I will probably never know the many back stories to those photographs but I would like to share my experience with these women. Let me begin with a quote. An 18th century German composer, Robert Schumann stated, “The artist’s vocation is to send light into the human heart.” David Heath and Win Kyaw Zan are two men I hold in high esteem as true artists. I was so fortunate to have their mentorship throughout my recent trip to Myanmar. There is such an obvious brotherhood between David and Win. It has been forged during their 16 adventures together, documenting life and traditions hidden away from the Western world for so very long. I was thrilled they brought me “into the fold” and made me feel like family… but then that is what I saw them do time and time again with many others, which brings me to the main point of today’s post. Sitting in thatched huts or out in fields, we too were drawn to photograph these brown skinned, weathered and wise women enjoying a good smoke! We could have photographed with a long lens, never making our presence known while in a way stealing something from them and or we could respectfully enter into the intimacy of their world and not miss out on an amazing opportunity. David and Win went for the latter. Outgoing and fun loving, the camera went down while their smiles, introductions, compliments and jokes brought about quick friendships. We all lingered and laughed and loved every minute! The Burmese women easily allowed us to photograph them. They showed us the pensive look, but now they also flashed those wonderful smiles that were definitely contagious! The “strangerness” melted away into that “light being sent into the human heart” and we were family, connecting continents, cultures and hearts. I was so fortunate to travel with two masterful photographers. They encourage and challenge me to truly be mindful of the artist’s calling. May we all discover that vocation and pass it on now…it is so needed and our children are watching.