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The man in conflict zones: why did a foreigner initiate a visual archive in Myanmar?

Written by Liu Chao-tze
Translated by Joanna Lee

Perhaps you may have noticed the appearance of large metal or timber box cameras in Taiwanese photography events in recent years. An all-in-one camera and darkroom, these special cameras hail from Afghanistan and are dubbed by locals as
kamra-e-faoree, meaning ‘instant camera’. Today, it is even more commonly referred to as the ‘Afghan Box Camera’. Its biggest advocate, as well as the man behind its name, is Lukas Birk.

Lukas’ background is a little different from other interviewees in this project. He is an Austrian artist who has spent extensive time in Southeast Asia and the Middle East for photography-related research – the ‘Afghan Box Camera’ project being one. By chance, Lukas was given a box of old photographs in Myanmar in 2012. In the year that followed, he began collecting all kinds of old photographs and film negatives in Yangon. Due to its large volume, and the lack of local archives to handle the resources, Lukas established the Myanmar Photo Archive in 2015 (MPA). To date, MPA has collected some 20,000 old photographs and 10,000 film negatives.  

From visual archives to collective memories

The history of the development of Southeast Asian photography is closely tied to Western colonization. Photography came to Southeast Asia from the West via colonial governments, in the short years that photography became available to the public. During this colonial period, Europeans traveled to Southeast Asia to capture ‘exotic’ images on camera. They were often accompanied by local apprentices, who then went on to start their own photography studios. About 30-40 percent of MPA’s photographs hail from these old studios, with the rest provided by antique dealers and flea market vendors.  One of the oldest pieces in the collection can be traced back to 1890, when Myanmar was still under British rule, from the Burmese-owned ‘London Art Studio’.

After collecting old photographs for over a year, the photographs began to pile up. Lukas looked at the 10,000 or so photographs scattered all over his home and decided it was finally time to do something. So, he began trying to categorize them in the most fundamental way. What did people use these photographs for? There were wedding photos, ID photos, outdoor snaps and studio portraits. Of these, Lukas was most interested in the studio portraits from photo studios. As cameras became commonplace in the 60s’ and 70s’, the public began frequenting the Yangon studios that emerged. Through the studios’ props and costumes, people played dress-ups and posed in front of the camera. These studios provided a temporary escape from reality, turning into personal heterotopia spaces[1]. Here, people utilized Western clothing, such as flared pants, leather, hippie jackets and so on, which were rarely seen on the streets of Yangon. With the same costumes and poses, people became equal in front of the camera – regardless of race, religion and class; in this way, everyone experiences the same era, sharing a collective memory.

“I think that's why a visual archive is really important to understand, also, who we are geographically – as a community, as a society, and as a country,” says Lukas.

When Lukas was in Afghanistan and Pakistan for research, he also collected many old photographs, establishing his own archive based on the subjects he was interested in. The scale and workload of MPA in comparison is far greater. For the Myanmar collection, Lukas decided to be as inclusive as possible, in order to create a more comprehensive archive. MPA encountered many challenges along the way. Traces of Myanmar’s photography history are hard to find. The rush to modernize as the country developed resulted in old or passé things becoming disregarded. Worse yet, the devastating impact of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 led to the loss of many family portraits and important historical photographs. “The real enemies of photography preservation are natural disasters and the climate,” Lukas points out. Myanmar is humid, and most homes lack air conditioning. By the time a photograph is discovered, it may already be covered in mold or chewed up by rats. And of course, there remains the issue of politics. In today’s Myanmar, discussions about events prior to 2013 do not raise major issues, since they point to the actions of the previous government. Discussions about the Rohingya and other sensitive topics of late, on the other hand, may raise red flags. The changing of governments has also led to the destruction and loss of historical documents. Not only do government archives operate under political ideologies, they are not accessible to the general public. It’s under these conditions that Lukas visited almost every photographer or photo studio that still existed in Myanmar, to collect any old photograph or negative that still remained.  

Questioning historical images via photography publishing

Three years after the visual archive was established, MPA published its first photobook,
Burmese Photographers, which garnered widespread attention. The book included the works of photographers from the colonial period to the present, detailing the history behind the images. Burmese Photographers, which was published in two languages (Burmese and English), quickly sold out of all 300 printed copies in its first run. With several reprints, it has now sold 3,000 copies. Because of the book’s success, and the widespread support Lukas received, he realized the public had a burning desire to get to know the visual history of their own culture. He thinks the book owes its success not only to its fair pricing, but also because Myanmar had yet to see a publication detailing its own photographic history.

Bookstores line the streets of Myanmar, a country with plenty of readers, though mostly of literature. To print in Yangon, Lukas needed to establish a relationship with the printers first. Bored of literary books with simple designs, the printer was unexpectedly interested to try photographic printing. After a long, hard search for the right paper stock, paper used for manuals, which is lightweight, of high-quality texture, as well as cheap, was chosen. As for bookbinding, the books were threaded by hand locally, in the same way as literary classics. In the end, Burmese Photographers hit the shelves with a per-unit cost of 6 Euros, similar to literary books. Using the same distribution network as the latter, the book broke into the publishing market, now even being sold at Yangon airport as a souvenir item. High in quality but fair in price, Burmese Photographers shattered perceptions of photobooks as ‘expensive, hardcover imports’ for the public. Riding on this success, MPA has continued to publish photobooks, taking on and using the same local approaches to publishing.  

“What I want to introduce is to have the photobook not actually as a conveyor of a photo story, but also as an object. As a space. And by creating something different, making someone say that, ‘Hey, I have not seen this before, I'm going to open it up!’– then yes, I create a different space that allows me to talk about something. And for that, we need different covers, we need materials, we need tactility, we need the kind of thing that makes you want to touch it, want to be engaged. And this is something that Myanmar just does not have. And this, I don't have to explain to anybody. You just have to make a nice thing and everybody wants to touch it. It's quite simple.”

Photobooks published by MPA are not photobooks as we know them to be. Every photograph is accompanied by a caption, so the amount of text within the books makes them seem closer to history books about local photography than anything else. As to whether or not images could be reduced to being secondary to text, Lukas has his own stance. For him, his method as a photographer or visual storyteller is to tell stories to the public by using images. The photographs that remain from Myanmar’s colonisation period have never been properly discussed, nor have the ways in which we read these images changed much. The wider public is even more in the dark about discourse on how photography was reduced to a medium that promotes exoticized imagery, or how the colonizers systematically classified the world through photography. The need for narratives within the books, then, is precisely so that the public can further understand the meaning behind the photographs, as well as for the photographs to be recognized and discussed. For Lukas, this is also the social responsibility of an archivist.

In recent years, MPA is not just involved in publishing; it also participates in the Yangon Photo Festival, organising MPA photography exhibitions, as well as photobook workshops to help local photographers with photo editing and photobook production. Many documentary photographers and photojournalists are avid fans. Self-publishing in Yangon is still new, lacking in educational resources and promoters. Without art schools and academic art education, as well as institutional support, art and photography remain somewhat unfamiliar to the wider public. However, Lukas is optimistic about the growth of the self-publishing scene; he believes that it will be a wholly different landscape in three to five years time. MPA plans to create an online, open-source archive in the future, allowing people to not only search, view and download resources online for free, but also submit their own old photographs for the archive – becoming a database created by the people.  


As to the question of whether he belongs within the local community, Lukas thinks nationality is irrelevant. Rather, it’s about whether or not one can give back to the community, as well as intention. Lukas says he wants to ignite a spark in Myanmar, to kickstart the local community’s understanding of photobooks. Though he has witnessed a photography scene that lacks institutional support, he has also met a lot of practitioners who possess a huge interest in photography and photobooks, but lack an entry point. As he sees it, it’s all necessary, and perhaps, we just need a bit of a spark.

However, Lukas’ own struggles lie within his identity as a double ‘Other’. Due to both the cultural context and the process of history, Lukas is an Other to Myanmar and as it is to him. On one hand, the language and cultural barriers he has as an outsider makes his archival work difficult to carry out; on the other, in the context of colonial history, it is inevitable for him to avoid othering Southeast Asia due to his own cultural makeup, and escape any pre-existing notions. Moreover, as the nature of ‘geo-relationships’ and the analyses that derive from ‘conceptual history’ indicate, photography and archival research are cultural concepts; to Lukas, an Austrian, and a person from Myanmar, they ultimately mean different things. So, just what are the deeper implications behind the study of photography history, as it pertains to the identity of the Burmese people? Within today’s post-colonial theory, it’s only natural to compare the idea of ‘igniting a spark’ to the one-sided spread of ‘civilization’ from the West in the 19th century. The two cannot be totally separated from one another, yet they are not equal to one another, but how we can constructively discern their similarities and their differences may be an even more important topic of discussion. We may not be able to provide any conclusions to the above for now, but perhaps thinking of the ‘spark’ that Lukas mentioned as ‘inspiration’ might be a good start.

Info box

Lukas Birk

Born in 1982, Lukas Birk is an Austrian artist, archivist and publisher. Most of his works are based around the archival resources collected via travels and field research, with special focus on areas of cultural and political conflict. His most famous research project, in collaboration with Irish anthropologist Sean Foley, is the ‘Afghan Box Camera’, which also extended into a documentary on war tourism, ‘Kafkanistan – tourism to conflict zones’. He established the Beijing artist residency program Austro Sino Arts Program, and the artist residency organization Sewon Art Space in Yogyakarta, allowing Austrian artists to have cultural exchanges with the local art scene. Lukas is now the founder of Myanmar Photo Archive and Fraglich Publishing.

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身處衝突地域的人:為什麼外國人要在緬甸成立影像檔案庫? ——專訪 Myanmar Photo Archive

撰文 劉兆慈

或許有不少人已經留意到,近期台灣的攝影社群活動中,不時能看見一種用大鐵盒或木盒製成的相機。這種來自阿富汗,集照相機和暗房於一身的特種相機,被當地人稱「 kamra-e-faoree」,意為拍立得相機。今天它更多的以「阿富汗相機(Afghan Box Camera)」名字出現,此一命名者,也是它的推廣者,正是 Lukas Birk。

Lukas 的背景與此次計畫的其他受訪者稍稍不同,他是一名奧地利籍藝術家,長期在東南亞和中東地區做攝影相關的研究,阿富汗相機計畫便是其中之一。因緣際會下,2012 年 Lukas 在緬甸獲得了一箱別人贈與的老照片,那隨後的一年時間裏,他開始在仰光收集各種老照片、老底片。由於數量過於龐大,當時緬甸也沒有任何民間的攝影檔案機構可處理這些資料,於是他在 2015 年成立了 Myanmar Photo Archive(下文簡稱 MPA),至今已收集了兩萬多張老照片以及一萬多張底片。


東南亞攝影發展的歷史,與西方殖民息息相關。 攝影術被公之於衆後的短短幾年,便透過殖民政府由西方傳入東南亞。殖民時期,來自歐洲的旅遊者到東南亞各國遊歷並拍攝異國風景時,通常會有當地人以學徒身份隨行;而後這些學徒便在當地經營照相館。MPA 的照片,約有三四成都源自這些老相館,其餘則由古董商人、跳蚤市集專業戶所提供。檔案庫最早的收藏可以追溯到 1890 年,當時緬甸還處於英國殖民時期,出自一間由緬甸人經營的「倫敦相館(London Art Studio)」。

Lukas 收集舊照片一年多後,照片數量多到不行。在堆滿這些照片的租屋裏,他看著那一萬多張舊照片令人發愁地散落在各處,不禁下定決心:「好吧,是時候該做點什麼了。」於是,他便開始嘗試從非常基本的層面去分類它們:人們用這些照片做什麽?這裏有婚禮照、證件照、戶外遊玩時拍的合照、沙龍照......其中,Lukas 特別有興趣的是相館沙龍照。1960 到 1970 年代相機正開始普及,仰光相館林立,民眾時常去相館拍照。藉由相館的道具、服飾、物件,人們在那裏裝扮自己、在鏡頭面前擺姿勢。相館如同一個可供人短暫逃離現實、得以化身為另一個自我的異質空間。相館裡備有當年在仰光街頭少見的西方流行服飾,例如喇叭褲、皮衣、嬉皮外套等等,人們拍照時都可以借用。於是,某人的阿姨跟某人的姑姑擺過一樣的姿勢、穿過類似的服裝,不論兩人的種族、宗教信仰或貧富階級,在相機面前,人人平等;大家都經歷過同樣的年代,分享著共同的集體記憶。

「在我看來,影像檔案之所以非常重要,正是因爲它可以幫助我們以地緣關係的角度,就地方社群、社會集體而言,乃至國家而言 ,進一步了解我們究竟是誰。」Lukas 說。

Lukas 之前在阿富汗和巴基斯坦做研究時,其實也收集了很多舊照片,並以他有興趣的主題建立起自己的檔案庫。然而與之相比,MPA 的收集規模和工作量都更為龐大。在他所能收集到的緬甸老照片中,他快決定盡可能做到不挑不選,為的是讓檔案庫可以更為宏觀全面。MPA 建立的過程充滿挑戰,緬甸的攝影史料難尋。在發展中國家現代化的激流勇進下,人們無暇顧及所謂「舊」的、過時的東西;更糟的是,2008 年那場重創緬甸的強烈風災,也讓絕大部分緬甸人的家庭照片和重要的歷史照片永久遺失。「真正同照片的保存作對的,是自然災害與氣候。Lukas 指出。緬甸濕氣太重,一般人家也沒有冷氣,照片找到時泰半已發霉或被老鼠咬破。當然還存在著政治上的原因。譬如説在今日的緬甸,如果談論的是 2013 年以前的議題,由於是舊政府的作為,所以不成問題,但如果是關於羅興亞人事件等近年的敏感議題,就可能會有麻煩上身。除此之外,新舊政府的交替也往往導致著歷史資料被遺棄、銷毀。政府的檔案庫不僅存在於特定的政治導向,更絕非一般人所能查在這種從一般家庭與官方機構都難以獲得實體資料的情況下,Lukas 於是拜訪了幾乎所有還活著的緬甸攝影師和健在的老相館,盡可能收集所有還留著的舊照片和底片。


檔案庫成立三年後,MPA 發表了第一本攝影書《Burmese Photographers》(緬甸攝影師們)並且得到了廣大的迴響。這本書收錄了從殖民時期到近代緬甸攝影師的作品,詳細講述照片背後的歷史故事。《Burmese Photographers》分別發行了緬甸語和英語兩種版本,首刷 300 本很快就銷售一空。幾經再版加印後,至今總共賣了 3000 本。因為這本書的成功,Lukas 受到特別大的鼓舞,發現原來大眾對於了解自身文化的影像歷史,有著如此迫切的渴求。他分析這本書之所以如此成功,一是因為價格低廉,二是因為緬甸此前還從未有爬梳攝影歷史的出版物。

緬甸的閱讀人口眾多,以文學書為大宗,街上書店林立。Lukas 首次嘗試在仰光當地印刷,先得與印刷廠搞好關係。廠商印倦了設計平庸的文學書,意外地對於嘗試攝影印刷特別感興趣;印刷紙材則經過一番尋覓,最後找到了說明書印刷紙,摸起來有質地、特別輕薄,價格也十分低廉。裝幀上也採用文學古籍的線裝方式,在當地手工縫製。《Burmese Photographers》以成本價 6 歐(折合台幣 200 元)販售,跟文學書無異;且運用文學書的銷售通路,在出版市場上殺出了條血路,今天甚至在仰光機場被當成緬甸紀念品販售。大眾對於《Burmese Photographers》都感到好奇,這本書打破了大眾對於「攝影書就是進口昂貴精裝書」的刻板印象,並因攝影書原來也可以物美價廉感到驚喜。乘著這波熱潮,MPA 陸續發表數本攝影書,皆是以取之在地、用之在地的方式出版。


MPA 出版的攝影書並非一般認知上的攝影書,其中文本的份量讓它們反而更像是關於當地攝影的歷史書,幾乎每張照片旁都附有文字解說。影像是否會淪為文本配圖對於 Lukas 來説他自己的答案。如他所說,身為攝影師或影像說書人,他的方法就是圍繞著影像檔案來跟大眾講故事。緬甸自殖民時期以來留下來的照片幾乎不曾被好好談論,閱讀這些照片的方式也幾乎沒怎麼變過。對於攝影是如何淪為傳送異國情調的媒介,統治者們又是如何透過攝影將世界系統化分類等影像論述,是一無所知。正因如此,書中的文字有其必要性,為的是讓大眾更了解照片裡的意涵,並且讓這些照片開始得到關注,開始被談論,這也是他認為自己身為檔案管理者肩負的社會責任。

近年來,不僅僅做出版,MPA 也參展仰光攝影節(Yangon Photo Festival)、舉辦由 MPA 出版延伸的大型攝影展,並積極地舉辦攝影書工作坊,帶當地攝影師做照片編輯、製作攝影書。不少紀實攝影師與攝影記者也都興致勃勃地參與。自出版在仰光還是件很新的事情,因為欠缺相關知識、也少有人推廣,且因當地沒有任何藝術學校和學院體制的藝術教育,也缺乏機構支持發展,大眾對於攝影與藝術的認知還是比較侷限。但 Lukas 樂觀看待現在剛萌芽的自出版圈,他相信三五年後肯定會是一番不同的景象。MPA 計畫在未來發展成線上資料庫,作為開放資源(open source[2]),讓人人都可以在網路上搜尋、閱覽和免費下載。也將會開放民眾投件自有的舊照片、並納入檔案庫,使 MPA 成為大眾集體創作的資料庫。


對於自己是否屬於本地社群的這個問題,Lukas 認為,國籍並不重要,重要的在於是否能回饋當地,以及行事的初衷。Lukas 說,自己想做的是為緬甸點引星火,開啓當地人對攝影書的認識。在這裡,他看到了欠缺體制支持的攝影文化圈,但也遇見很多對攝影創作、攝影書懷有極大興趣,卻不得其門而入的創作者們。在他看來,這一切需要的,或許僅僅是一點星火。

不過,Lukas 自己的掙扎和困擾之處在於,他始終置身一種雙重的「他者(the Other)」關係中。Lukas 之於緬甸、緬甸之於 Lukas,在文化脈絡與歷史進程下互為彼此的他者。一方面,身爲外來者,攝影檔案庫的工作,會因為他對當地語言文化的陌生而困難重重;另一方面,在特定的殖民歷史語境下,他也難免因爲自己的文化母體曾將東南亞他者化,而難以擺脫種種潛在的標籤。並且,在「地緣關係」一詞所指涉的意義中,以及在以概念史(conceptual history)為出發點的思辨裡,攝影及檔案作爲一種文化概念,對於身為奧地利人的 Lukas 與緬甸當地人,始終是不盡相同的東西。那麽,攝影史的研究之於緬甸本土族群的身分認同,究竟有著怎麼樣的深層意涵?在當今的後殖民思潮之下,「點引星火」的作為,與 19 世紀以來自西方單向傳播的「文明」,兩者必然會在討論中被併置比較。兩者不可能完全切割,但也並不宜直接劃上等號;如何在這組關係中,建設性地辨別出兩者的相同與相異,將成為更為重要的議題。Lukas 在訪談中所提到的「星火」,其原始的英文用詞是「spark」。也許我們暫時無法對以上問題給出滿意的答案,然而,將 spark 翻譯爲「靈感」,或許是個不錯的開始。

Info box

Lukas Birk

Lukas Birk 生於1982 年,是一名奧地利藝術家、檔案庫管理者以及出版人。他大部分的創作都圍繞在旅行期間、或是田野調查所蒐集到的檔案資料,特別關注在某些充滿文化衝突、有爭議的地區。他最著名的研究計畫是與愛爾蘭人類學家 Sean Foley 合作的阿富汗相機〈Afghan Box Camera〉計畫,並由此延伸拍攝了紀錄片《Kafkanistan – tourism to conflict zones》來探討戰地觀光。他也曾經在北京創立駐村項目 Austro Sino Arts Program 以及日惹駐村機構 Sewon Art Space, 讓奧地利藝術家與當地藝術圈做交流。Lukas 現為影像檔案庫 Myanmar Photo Archive 和自有出版品牌 Fraglich Publishing 的主理人。

[1]According to Foucault, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space (such as a prison) that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible.

[2] 開放資源(open source)指的是開放其內容讓所有使用者自由修改的一項機制,透過開放大眾的參與、討論與修改,進而加速其發展、增加透明度及大眾福祉的方式 。