Chasing Monks and Light: Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery, Nyaung Shwe
Novice in the Shrine
A young Burmese novice in the shrine-room at Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery, Nyaung Shwe.
David DuChemin, a man whose words are as richly textured as his magnificent photographs, recently wrote a blog post on the difference between an “Iconic Photograph [and] a Photographed Icon”.
“If I can find something that resonates more strongly with the human heart or imagination, I have a shot at the kind of connection in a photograph that one day others might call iconic. It’s the connection that matters. It’s the meaning.” (DuChemin)
I can’t help but agree with him. He goes on to say that one’s best work often comes from being somewhere often enough or long enough to see something different – something that tells a story or makes that connection.
Of course, we don’t all have the skills, imagination, time, or talent that DuChemin brings to his craft. Taking our own “copy” of an iconic image can be a big part of the travel experience. If we can also bring something of ourselves to the image, it might be original, and if we have some talent and skill, it might even be art. But, too often when travelling – especially with a group – our experiences are constrained or dictated by others, and there is little time to experiment.
Travelling with a photo group, as I was when I visited the Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery, just outside Nyaung Shwe in Myanmar, brings a special set of opportunities and challenges. On this occasion, I was travelling with photographer Karl Grobl, who is good at coming up with photo-concepts, and local guide Mr MM, who makes those ideas come to life. A photo group can help you take short-cuts: you can share models and ideas, and you should be in the right locations at the best light.
But, you are not the only person trying to get that iconic shot – and when your turn comes up, the moment might have passed. I had done my homework before arriving at Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery and I knew I wanted some novices in those iconic oval windows.
For a number of reasons, it didn’t work out that way.
Entrance to the Monastery
A gilded entry arch leads into the red-painted teak Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery.
Old Burmese Teak
Built in the early 19th century, the monastery is focussed on providing a home – with religious and secular education – for boys from poor families in the region.
Novices at Study
Novice at Study
It must be difficult for the young boys to live in the dormitory without their families.
Novice With Kitten
Many of them have kittens to keep them company.
It’s the iconic scene: the windows, where tourists wait and hope…
Novice in a Window
… that a monk or two will look out and be framed by the ancient teak.
Novice with a Book
Novices are scattered around the monastery rooms, …
Novice with a Book
… trying to find patches of light in which to study.
Novice in a Window
Light and Dark
Novice in a Hallway
Monk at Study
Novice in the Light
Textures are everywhere.
Back outside, it is bright and sunny. Novices cool down at the wash basins.
The central sanctuary has an arched walkway all around. Light angles sharply into the dark corridor.
Each Buddha is dressed in robes and its niche is inscribed.
The walkway is dotted with niches – each one with its own Buddha image.
In the central courtyard, women look after the drying rice.
At the door to the kitchen-dining building, the abbot watches over proceedings.
Traditional protective tattoos are visible on his hands and other exposed parts of his body.
Novices at the Windows
Finally! Some novices smile out of some windows; but, it’s the plain windows of their dormitory – not the oval windows I was hoping for.
Like the abbot, the chef has protective Sak Yant tattoos.
The Dinner Gong
The chef uses a brake drum as a very effective dinner gong to call the novices to lunch. Theravada monks and novices don’t eat in the afternoons, so this will be their last meal of the day.
Lining up for Lunch
The novices line up with their bowls as the abbot and the chef dish up food.
Monks at Lunch
All the monastery residents sit at low tables to eat their mid-day meal.
It is a balancing act: knowing which photos you want to take, so you don’t miss them, against being open and ready to participate in what is there.
I’m still working on it: I was upset with myself for not getting the “iconic” shots of monks in teak-framed windows that I had wanted – but I still left the monastery with a rich experience I hadn’t been expecting.
Until next time,