Cristina Maria Chiorean

Minzayar Oo is a 27-year-old photojournalist and documentary photographer most famous for his jade mining documentary project which reveals sensitive issues surrounding Myanmar’s secretive and highly lucrative jade mining industry in the Kachin State. His striking photographs taken during his many trips in the area appeared in numerous magazines and their impact was huge. He was awarded numerous prizes in Myanmar and abroad for this work. 

On a rainy day, freelance jade miners search a slag heap for rocks containing the precious stone. It is a perilous job especially when the heaps of loose earth are destabilised by monsoon rains. Landslides routinely swallow 10 or 20 men at a time. In April 2015, a deadly landslide in a company mining site reportedly killed at least 11 people, although according to witnesses the toll could be double or triple that number.
On a rainy day, freelance jade miners search a slag heap for rocks containing the precious stone. It is a perilous job especially when the heaps of loose earth are destabilised by monsoon rains. Landslides routinely swallow 10 or 20 men at a time. In April 2015, a deadly landslide in a company mining site reportedly killed at least 11 people, although according to witnesses the toll could be double or triple that number.

Few know that Minzayar Oo studied medicine but his true passion was photography. In order to pursue his dream he decided to sell his piano to buy a camera. During the photography workshops he attended at the beginning of his career Minzayar Oo learnt that the art of telling stories is much more about the message and less about the technique. And he indeed concentrated his efforts on documentary photography. Minzayar Oo managed so far to send strong messages through all his photo documentaries. Two of his projects which touched me most are the Rohingya Skype story which presents the sad and serious issue of human trafficking and the photograph showing a puppy standing by the remains of a dog believed to be its mother, days after it was killed in an area plagued by the violence in Rakhine State, in 2012.

A puppy sits next to the remains of a dog which local residents say was its mother in the days after it was killed in an area which was burnt during the communal violence between Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists at East Pikesake ward in Kyaukphyu.
A puppy sits next to the remains of a dog which local residents say was its mother in the days after it was killed in an area which was burnt during the communal violence between Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists at East Pikesake ward in Kyaukphyu.

Minzayar Oo lives in Yangon and has been freelancing for Reuters, The New York Times,  and other media outlets. His work has been published in TIME, The New York Times, The Guardian, National Geographic, GEO, La Repubblica, etc. Recently he worked with WWF on a project to raise awareness on the natural capital of the country, a critical aspect for a country undergoing unprecedented economic changes.

Probably one of his best-known photographs, which also represented an international breakthrough, is the picture of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi taken during the country’s 2012 by-elections and which appeared on the front page of the International Herald Tribune.

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi makes her way through the crowd as she arrives at the headquarters of her National League for Democracy (NLD) in Yangon a day after she won a parliamentary seat for the first time during the by-elections in 2012.
Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi makes her way through the crowd as she arrives at the headquarters of her National League for Democracy (NLD) in Yangon a day after she won a parliamentary seat for the first time during the by-elections in 2012.

 

Meeting him a few months ago I was impressed by his gentle, open and warm personality. I believe he is a great example of someone who believed in his dream which, after years of intense work, has proven to be the right decision.

I challenged him recently to reply to 14 questions, some of them different than the ones he usually answers

  1. Please describe yourself in three words:

Awesome, ambitious and a tiny bit artistic.

 

2. Your biggest achievement so far?

My long-term documentary project on jade mining in Myanmar.

 

  1. What don’t you like about yourself?

    Sometimes I am indecisive and I often get confused when choosing between two things.

 

  1. Who do you admire most?

    There are many – for example anyone with a big heart and honesty, or great photographers who can tell important stories.

 

A woman and a girl cross the road in downtown Yangon with large numbers of birds sitting on electricity wires above.
A woman and a girl cross the road in downtown Yangon with large numbers of birds sitting on electricity wires above.

 

5. What do you do when you are not photographing?

    I like to spend time with my wife and my close friends.

 

  1. We are curious about your biggest fear?

    Heights or to get separated from my loved ones.

 

  1. Which is your favourite place in Myanmar and why?

    Pyin Oo Lwin because I love the ambience there, the colonial buildings and mild weather.

 

  1. In which restaurant or bar in Yangon  do you love to hang out with friends?

    Maw Shwe Li restaurant, Ko San rooftop bar, Alpha or anywhere with a pool table.

 

  1. What is your favourite Myanmar dish?  

Easy question: Shan noodles.

 

10. A book about Myanmar you would recommend?

     The Trouser People by Andrew Marshall. 


11. Where do you think you will be after 10 years?

      I hope you will still find me in Myanmar.

 

12. How do you see the future of photography in Myanmar?

     Nowadays in Myanmar there is a new generation of young and talented photographers        with a lot of inspiration. Even though we are still far from having proper photography          institutions and training facilities, I do believe we have a promising and exciting future        for the Photographic Society in Myanmar. One cannot forget how lucky we are to be in        Myanmar at this time, and to know the country as a photographer and an insider.

 

13. What messages are you trying to project through your work?

      In general I do not know if I have any particular messages to send with my work.               However, at the moment, I believe I am visually documenting the changes in a country       that has been in the dark for decades. I am very excited to see the bigger picture that         my work will bring after some time.

 

 14. In your opinion does a visual storytelling help shed light on particular                    sensitive topics and generate public debate and change in society?

      Yes, I think that a visual storytelling is a great tool to reach directly to the heart of the       viewer and it makes people think and raise questions, especially when presenting               sensitive topics. For example, in my project The Price Of Jade, using visual language, I       try to show what is the human cost behind these gemstones and who finally pays this         price. I also try to question who is responsible for this, and if in the end it is worth             digging for these gems.

 

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