Giving a face to the man in the street
Published on Jun 10, 2014 7:46 PM
It must be about noon. A woman is balancing a water pot delicately atop her head, with another tucked under her arm. She is wearing a floral sarong skirt - or longyi, as it is more commonly known in Myanmar. Behind her, lush green fields stretch into a pale blue sky.
It is a moment of idyll in the embattled Rakhine state, now often snarled in sectarian strife. My good friend Lamin, who took this photograph and posted it on Instagram, included a brief conversation with this woman as a caption:
"How often do you fetch water like this?"
"Five times in the morning and five times in the evening."
"Don't you have someone to help you? Like a husband or kids?"
"No. My husband left me for another woman and I'm raising my three young kids on my own."
This was just one snapshot in a slew of evocative photographs that Lamin, a Burmese film-maker, has captured over the past few months. His subjects have included street kids trying to make a living, a kindly woman who gives medical attention to injured stray dogs around Yangon, and good-natured retirees dispensing advice on life ("Don't do heroin!").
During a recent visit to Yangon, I caught up with him over dinner.
How do you do it? I asked. How do you get all these strangers to confide the intimacies of their lives in you?
He laughed, and then asked me the same question.
Connecting with people and coaxing them to let down their guard is crucial to both our professions - him as a film- maker, me as a journalist. It's one thing to get a conversation going with contacts you encounter regularly, and another to extract a response from someone unaccustomed to being in the public eye.
We mulled over this. Neither of us is particularly outgoing. We're comfortable and chatty with friends, but would rather sit in a corner and observe people at a party. We decided we must simply appear non-threatening to the people we strike up conversations with - before then stirring up our own courage to ask them deeper questions about their lives.
Our conversation turned to the other side of the globe, where Brandon Stanton, the now-famous photographer behind the website Humans Of New York, has helped to popularise a different brand of street photography. He walks up to people on the street and asks them the "big questions": What advice would you give to a large group of people? What was the happiest moment in your life? How about the saddest?
His open-hearted, non-judgmental view of the world has led thousands of people to open up to him about their lives, and to connect a community of people from across the globe as they view and comment on these images on Facebook.
In Singapore, we have our very own People Of Singapore, where photographer Robin Ann Rheaume has unearthed stories from domestic workers, construction workers, couriers and cosplayers and posted them online to a wonderfully warm reception.
Whether it's Lamin's unofficial "Yangon Lives", Humans Of New York or People Of Singapore, I think the reason why people find such a strong affinity with these photographs is that they do not capture a majestic landscape or a brazen celebrity. They turn the public gaze from sensationalist headlines to the quiet beauty of the everyday.
I think we crave that sort of collective empathy, to know that someone has gone through the same experiences and emerged on the other side. It gives a face to the stranger standing next to us on the train, the nameless cashier behind the counter, the teenager tapping away on his smartphone.
With so much commentary on racism, violence and fear in Rakhine state, it was refreshing - and also quietly devastating - to hear from someone simply trying to live a life, drawing water from the well.
These photographs are a good reminder that, at the end of the day, each of us is that man or woman in the street. And that we all have a story worth telling.