02/17/2015 03:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Photography Becomes More Than Just Taking Pictures

We wanted to take the best photograph ever taken in Myanmar. My guide, MM, and I were tired of the same stale images being photographed of his country over and over. We felt we could do something better and if not better at least more original. Of course we are as guilty as all the other photographers that took the same tried and true photographs, great images initially but ones that were starting to bore us.

The one photograph that we were swearing off was the "light ray" photographs being taken in the Buddhist temples of Bagan of young Buddhist monks reading in the dark. We agreed "light ray" images were impressive, but since Marcelo Castro had won a National Geographic award for exactly what were talking about, from this point on it was duplicative and unimaginative.

However, the light in the temples was so nice for photography I did not want to abandon the interior of the Bagan temples. If nothing else the temples, whose ages varied from a 700 to 1100 years, gave mystery to the images.

"Find me an old man wearing a turban," I said. MM made a phone call in Burmese. We drove to a temple we had used before and knew well. Within five minutes of arriving at the temple a scooter pulls up. Riding on the back of the scooter was just what I had asked for, an old man wearing a turban. He was exactly what I asked for and better. He was smoking a cigar he had hand rolled using corn leaves. There was no denying; MM was good at his job. The phrase "ask and you shall receive" was floating through my head.

I said hello to the old man in my primitive Burmese. I was told his name was Aba Thi. We walked him into the dark temple. We placed him near some light that was bouncing in through a nearby portal. We asked the old man to start puffing on the corn leaves and I started taking photographs.


As I took pictures of this docile man I noticed his face never changed. It displayed a mixture of concern and bewilderment. I wanted him to occasionally change expressions. We attempted to get his facial muscles to move without much success.

We worked with Aba Thi for about fifty minutes. As I watched him I became curious. What was his life like? What had his eyes seen? I took shots in different locations within the temple and finally said, "Pebe," in Burmese meaning finished. Aba Thi stood leaning on his cane

I had been visiting ethnic tribes in the hills of Myanmar and had a hard time wrapping my mind around the way the indigent families of Myanmar live. Maybe he could help me understand what it was like to live on two or three dollars a day. I started asking questions.


He was 72 years old. He was married with five living children. Two had died at an early age. He did not know the cause. He had never traveled more than a few miles from his home.

He worked up until 8 years ago climbing toddy trees that can reach a height of 100 feet. Toddy trees are a version of palm trees that bear a sap that is used to produce a wine and a sweetener used in Myanmar and many parts of the world. Aba Thi climbed to the tops of over 50 trees a day for 50 years to obtain pots of the sap. He would climb up the tree with empty pots and climb down with pots full of sap. At age 65 he found the climb too difficult. He had developed cataracts, probably from the long days in direct sun. He was fast to add most toddy tree climbers changed jobs in their 30s due to the day to day strain of the climbs. He was the rare exception that could climb the toddy tree into his 60s.

Since his retirement he has volunteered to pick up litter in Bagan near a tourist spot. He was not paid but it gave him satisfaction.

He lived in a house with a palm branch roof. His hut had recently received electricity, a gift from a tourist that agreed to pay his power bill for one year. This enabled his son and grandson, who both lived with him, to obtain an old television. I asked him what he watched on television. He said he did not watch but listened to shows that taught him about his Buddhist religion.

When I asked him what made him happy a frown came to his face. This was the only spontaneous change in expression while I was with him. He said happiness had left him years ago when his wife became blind. She lost her vision slowly and now is without any sight. A foreign doctor had come through and examined his wife eyes. The doctor told them it was too late to save her vision. I am guessing she had a preventable blindness that was never treated.

I changed the subject. I asked him if he had heard of the United States. He said no. I asked him if he had heard the name, "Obama." He thought for a moment, he said he thought he had heard someone talking recently about someone named Obama. President Obama had visited Myanmar a few months earlier.

I asked him if he knew anything about his country's government. He said no.

I asked him if he got enough to eat. He said at times yes and at times no.

We left Thi to be returned to his home on the back of the scooter. MM and I drove away in our car. We were scheduled to photograph sunset over a landscape filled with pagodas. I suddenly changed my mind. "MM, can we go visit Aba Thi's home?" I asked. MM made another quick call. MM was able to call our friend driving the scooter that was taking Aba Thi to his house. People in Myanmar are very proficient at riding a scooter and talking on the phone simultaneously. MM was given directions to where to meet with the scooter. When we got to the rendezvous site I was pleased to see that Aba Thi was still on the back of the scooter.

Our car followed the scooter to Aba Thi's house. I obtained permission to photograph his family and possessions. Here is what my camera saw.

This is Aba Thi walking in after having his picture taken in the Buddhist temple. Two dogs he raised from pups greet him.

Aba Thi's home is made of palm leaves and bamboo. There are no doors or windows. All rooms are open to the environment. Floors are dirt. He was proud of the way he and his family had constructed this home.

This is Aba Thi's fifty year old son that lives in the same hut. I asked the son if he had heard the name Obama. The son not only knew of President Obama he had a 2013 calendar with President Obama's picture.

Ancient pagodas can be seen near Aba Thi's hut. This means he is living in the archeological zone of Bagan and could be asked by the government of Myanmar to leave at any time.

Aba Phi with his blind wife.

All cooking is done on an open fire. Here Aba Thi's grandson boils water for green tea for their guests.

Wife and daughter shell peanuts for income. Granddaughter is also in picture.

This is the sum total of the kitchenware.

All Buddhist families have an altar at which they pray and meditate within their home. Most families have a statute of Buddha. Aba Thi's family had laminated pictures of the Buddha and a holy pagoda.

Large urns are used to store water. New power line can be seen above the hut.

Aba Thi's bed, a suspended weave of bamboo.

Aba Thi's chickens that have free run of the house.

I spent about an hour taking pictures at his house. I thought about asking him if I could spend the night at his home. I was interested in knowing what the family did after sunset and how meals were prepared. I am sure he would have said yes and given me his best bed and fed me the best food he could find. I thanked Aba Thi and his family the best I could and handed him more money. I felt a bit guilty. The geographical place of our births had made the difference in the lives we led. I will never know what it is like to see my child die without medical care or my wife go slowly blind when a cure was available. I will never go hungry for days at a time. I did not have to do backbreaking labor for fifty years. I was not even willing to be uncomfortable for one night. Instead I was driven back to my fine hotel and I ordered room service. That night I felt a strong admiration for Aba Thi and a bit less of myself.

All photographs by Stephen Wallace, M.D., J.D.
Oceanside California

A special thanks to MM (Mya Min Din) of Santa Maria Travels and Tours of Yangon.