Mayco Naing has been turning heads and provoking debate with her recent exhibition ‘Identity of Fear’; using art photography to challenge conservative notions of political and sexual expression. Ben Hopkins met with the photographer at her studio flat in Yangon’s Bahan district.
Mayco Naing is determined not to get pinned down or pigeon holed in her work. “Some people ask me what are you doing, what are you saying?” she says. “They want everything to be black and white. But I like to explore new avenues, I like to explore the grey areas”
In her series, ‘Identity of Fear’, Mayco Naing’s photographs explore freedom of expression within a political context. The images, created in 2014, portray people between the ages of 22 and 25 semi-submerged in water; one young woman gazes out serenely as if into an uncertain future, another turns sideways, praying for peace while a third looks determined to shout his intent to the world.
Far from obscure the message is clear. “I started this series in January 2014,” Mayco says. “The run up to the elections had begun and people were becoming more confident in expressing themselves”. The pictures express the notion that we have to live even though we cannot breathe properly and show determination to see when our vision is blurred. All of the subjects were post graduates, emerging into a fast-changing Myanmar, about to reach the surface and make their mark in an uncertain world.
On first meeting, Mayco seems younger than her 32 years. Slightly built and brimming with enthusiasm her measured sense of purpose and experience betray her age. Born into a modest family in a small town in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy region, she was taken under wing by her grandmother at the age of five when her father died. “I had a happy childhood. My family weren’t rich but they always gave me support,” she says before adding she’d be visiting her beloved 88-year-old grandmother as soon as our interview at her studio flat in Yangon is over.
By the age of 16 she’d uprooted herself from the rural backwaters of her home province and took up work in a Yangon photo studio where she’d stay for the next nine years, creating personalized photo stickers, mostly for students and young people. The kitsch and cartoonish stickers were the ‘smart-phone’ selfies of their day and it wasn’t long before Mayco became branch manager, at one point overseeing a studio of over 50 employees, most of them teenage girls.
During these years Mayco would find herself experimenting with images in the dark room, accentuating tonal depth and developing the skills that would later define her style. “I wanted to develop my own style”, she says, “to make my pictures unique”.
After graduating with an economics degree in 2005, Mayco opened her own studio in Yangon, focusing on portrait photography to create something more permanent than the throwaway stickers of yesteryear. Many of her customers were female students. “I wanted to bring out their individual character” she says. “Most of these girls lack confidence and think they’re ugly. I’d use ideas in fashion to bring out their confidence”.
Keen to learn more and push the boundaries, Mayco drew much of her inspiration through interacting with other photojournalists and artists, and in 2013 was invited to study at the French National School of Photography in Arles after winning creativity prize at the Yangon Photo Festival.
Though she’d previously exhibited at the 2010 International Biennial Exhibition in Lyon, France, the study trip to Arles represented a huge reality check and a steep learning curve. “When I got there it changed me because we don’t have that kind of education in our country,” she says. “We were so surprised. In the first week the teachers said we were so good. Then they criticised us. They judged us strongly and openly. I was shocked. I wanted to jump out of the window”. However, she’s fast to add, “their criticism improved me”.
Remembering the past – planning the future
Returning to Myanmar in January 2014 with a headful of new ideas, Mayco Naing threw herself into the ‘Identity of Fear’ project, taking photos of herself submerged in bathtubs of water to better understand how her subjects would feel. Later that year she followed it up with a series of female nudes called, ‘Humanity, Dignity and Nudity’. Living in a conservative society, Mayco was keen to challenge Victorian attitudes of female nudity with artistic images that make no judgment on the female form.
The series of nudes was shown alongside the ‘Identity of Fear’ exhibit in December 2016, drawing an overwhelmingly positive response from the media and gallery pundits – a far cry from its previous showing at the ‘Institut Français’ when sponsors (not the institute) asked for it to be taken down.
“In future, I would like to show different body shapes”, says Mayco while acknowledging that attitudes are changing in Myanmar and people are becoming a little less conservative.
Mayco’s future plans are to continue addressing socio/political issues with art photography while training Myanmar’s emerging generation of artists with PhotoDoc, the Photographer’s association that she created with Pyay Kyaw Myint and Christophe Loviny, the artistic director of the Yangon Photo Festival.
However, on a personal level, one particular project she’s working on at present may prove to be the most poignant of all, one that explores the grey area of loss and remembrance.
“I miss my father and I want to remember him” she says. “I am 32 now and he was 35 when he passed away after studying engineering in Chin State. I went there to understand how he felt when he was there as a 30-year-old engineer. I’ve been once and will go back to complete a photo project in his memory, using black and white painterly tones”.
Mayco Naing is featured on the front cover of January’s Myanmore Magazine which will be available in every coffee shop, restaurant, hotel and bar worth visiting.