Street-Market Portraits ~ Bago Local Market, Myanmar

Portrait: Burmese man with beetle-juice teeth in woven bamboo hat

People are always ready to take a break and smile, unselfconsciously, for the outsider with a camera.

One of the many things I love about being in Asia, is people’s willingness to be photographed.

Personally, I don’t like having my picture taken. If I’m in the sights of a lens rather than looking through a viewfinder, I get tense and awkward – which results in a bad photograph; only proving, through a sort of circular logic, that I am not photogenic.

Because I don’t like being photographed, I’m very cautious about making pictures of other people. That is “making” – not “taking”. “Making” is a co-operative process; “taking” is intrusive and uncomfortable. I usually make a point of being sure I have implicit permission before pressing the shutter: this might mean fewer “candids”, but at least I feel I have been given the “rights” to the portraits I have.

A burmese bicycle rickshaw driver sits on his vehicle in a busy market street. Bago, Myanmar

A rickshaw driver at the top end of a Bago market street spots me with my camera, and smiles.

In Myanmar, as in many parts of Southeast Asia, street portraiture is relatively easy. So much of life is conducted out of doors in public spaces. People generally have little choice about this, as “homes” and “offices” can be small, dark and stifling hot. Because people are used to being in the public eye when conducting personal business, the concept of privacy is different. Being photographed is less of an intrusion than it might be in other places.

Take the following photograph, for example. I don’t know if the man in the maroon longhi and crisp white shirt is a lawyer, an advocate, or a regional head-man, but he was clearly in consultation with the man in the bamboo hat. They were discussing, at length, an issue of much importance to the man in the hat, in the impromptu “office” at the top of the steps.

Two Burmese men sitting on cement steps; one telling a story, the other writing.

The office on the steps: a villager tells his problem to a head-man who makes notes of the story.

I waited until they reached a pause in their transaction before moving closer for a portrait, but, with life’s unhurried pace here, I don’t think they would have minded being interrupted. The “respectful distance” I had kept was more about my sensibilities than theirs.

Portrait: Burmese man with beetle-juice teeth in woven bamboo hat

With his story told, the beetle-chewing villager is now relaxed and happy.

A Burmese woman walking into an umbrella-lined dirt road.

I love following the life of the village into the markets.

Portrait: A burmese woman with thanakha on her face stands in front of a stand of thanakha bark.

The thanakha seller sits tall in front of her stand of Thanakha or Elephant-Apple Tree pieces.

Portrait: Young Bamar woman with thanakha on her face.

The younger woman at the stand next door was keener to engage with the stranger. She showed me how to grind the bark, mix it with water, and apply it in the protective facial-paste many Burmese still wear.

Bamboo tubs of seeds for planting, with paper seed packets behind.

The Bago market is a boon for local market gardeners, with seeds of all descriptions.

Portrait: A Burmese Indian man with a Bamar woman behind him. Bago market, Myanmar

Seed-sellers in the market.
This region is ethnically diverse: Burmese Indians are common here.

Older Karen woman in typical hand-woven cotton head scarf.

– as are ethnic Karen (or Kayin) people.
Karen shopkeeper in typical hand-woven cotton head scarf.

Portrait: Male toddler, chewing on the corner of a Burmese 500 kyat note.

A small child shops with mum –

Old man carrying a small child stand in a crowded shopfront, Bago, Myanmar

– while another watches the street from the shopfront with Grandpa.

Burmese man sits on his motorcycle on a street corner, Bago Myanmar.

On a street corner, a motorcycle driver offers me a lift…

Portrait: Burmese male in round helmet. Bago, Myanmar

… but settles for a picture.

Seated Burmese woman with metal rice bowl. Bago, Myanmar

It’s lunch time, and a woman takes a break from chatting with her neighbour, to offer me some of her rice.

Portrait: Three Young Burmese Men on a Bike

Three young Burmese men on a bike stopped for a portrait before roaring off down the dusty road.

Portrait: Solemn-faced burmese boy in dark shop front.

Back on the main street, a young boy watches me solemnly from a dark shop.

Burmese women crowded into the back of an open bus. Bago, Myanmar.

And, as I prepare to climb into my air-conditioned bus, a group of Burmese women are piled in a local transport for their hot, dusty ride home.

If I carried a reflector and posed people, or moved them into better light, I guess I would spend less time post-processing. I know photographers who do set up their shots – and there is nothing wrong with that – but I am too self-conscious, or too “British” and worried about imposing, or too impatient…

Text: Keep smilingBesides, I like environmental portraits, that tell us a little about people’s lives. So, while my results can be patchy, they are realistic. The beauty of Asia is that the people are very tolerant of outsiders, so there is plenty of opportunity for practice!

And, they are always ready to smile.

Photos: 12September2012

  • Gabe - November 29, 2012 - 5:13 am

    Ah those busy, colourful markets of Asia!ReplyCancel

  • Signe Westerberg - November 30, 2012 - 12:54 am

    lovely as always, bright cheerful people.. just wonderfulReplyCancel

  • maureen mcgettigan - November 30, 2012 - 1:30 am

    Another great capture of life in Myanmar – great photos & captions – keep it up

    • Ursula - November 30, 2012 - 2:23 am

      Hey, Signe and Gabe!
      I’m always pleased to have you along. 🙂
      Thanks for your kind words, Maureen!
      The people make it so easy, don’t they? 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Lisa - December 1, 2012 - 3:55 pm

    What a fun market! The young “solemn boy” is a such an expressive portrait! Nice job. LisaReplyCancel

    • Ursula - December 2, 2012 - 8:41 am

      Thanks so much for dropping in, Lisa. 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Michael LaPalme - December 6, 2012 - 12:07 am

    Enjoying your Burmese days and series of portraits from the market!ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - December 6, 2012 - 1:37 am

      Thanks, Michael!
      Myanmar certainly provides a rich environment for photographers. 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Patrick - October 25, 2014 - 11:34 am

    Nicely done, Ursula.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - October 25, 2014 - 12:37 pm

      Thanks, Patrick! The people make it easy. ReplyCancel

  • […] markets are a rich source of photographic – especially portrait – material (e.g. Portraits ~ Bago Local Market and The People of Shwezigon Pagoda, […]ReplyCancel

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