THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

23 March 2017

Yangon Photo Festival 2017

This is a guest blog written by Lukas Birk, grant holder for EAP898.

Last autumn I was able to digitise 4000 negatives from Bellay Photo Studio in downtown Yangon for EAP898. The images were taken by photographer Har Si Yone, primarily in the late 1960s and 70s. Bellay Studio was founded only a few years after General Ne Win seized power in Myanmar and subsequently introduced ‘the Burmese way of socialism’. The studio was frequented by many ethnically Chinese members of Yangon’s society, a community that suffered greatly under Ne Win’s political doctrines, many had to leave the country by the late 70s.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Bellay Photo Studio-resizeDaw Aung San Suu Kyi speaking at the award ceremony of the Yangon Photo Festival

The exhibition Yangon Fashion 1979 curated for the Yangon Photo Festival is the first narrative from the many fascinating photographs taken at Bellay Studio. The exhibition sheds light onto a hidden part of Burmese society from the 1970s; private fashion photographs. Although wearing western clothes, miniskirts, or tight blouses was not forbidden, they were certainly not worn on Yangon’s streets, as the political atmosphere was much too conservative for such individual expression. The outfits were often inspired by Burmese movie stars, musicians, or illegally imported fashion magazines. Some tailors would also provide style catalogues for outfits only used during a photo shoot. The studio was an outlet for freedom of style and young people, who could afford it, would be seen there frequently. These photos were often exchanged with friends and dedications can be found on the back of many prints.

Lukas Birk_ Yangon Photo Festival_5 - resize

YPF YANGON FASHION EXPO-23 - resize

This year’s Yangon Photo Festival branched out from its usual location, the French Culture Institute, and was held in public. It is the first time that the government allowed an uncensored public display at Maha Bandula Park in downtown Yangon. Besides Yangon Fashion 1979, the festival showed revealing photo stories by young Burmese documentary photographers, as well as a series from the World Press Photo Foundation. The festival was opened by mayor U Maung Maung Soe and state counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi juried the festival’s photo competition. Thousands of people came to see the exhibition on the first weekend and the fashion photographs became the centre of interaction and selfie-taking. The exhibition inspired many conversations; after all, everybody has a sister, aunt, or mother that had had her photograph taken in similar fashion. It was the commonality of the images that brought people together. The son of the photographer, now the proprietor of Bellay Studio, Tun Tun Lay was very moved at the sight of his father’s work being shown in a historic light and enjoyed by a huge crowd in the park.

Lukas Birk_ Yangon Photo Festival_4 - resize Lukas Birk with Mayor U Maung Maung Soe and Yangon Photo Festival curator Christophe Loviny