Shwedagon Pagoda (Burma)
60 x 48 inches
1 of 6, Series - Collision Yangon
Printed with archival pigment on semi matte paper
Photographed on 4x5 inch Kodak Portra Professional film
Collision Yangon by Andrew Rowat
I first visited Yangon (formerly Rangoon) in Myanmar (formerly Burma) in the Fall of 2012 while on assignment for WSJ, the style magazine for the Wall Street Journal. I was charged with capturing the colonial architecture in the city and was immediately struck by some of the similarities between Yangon and Shanghai – a city I had called home for almost eight years.
I had moved to Shanghai in 2002 just as China was really starting to explode on to the world scene – it was becoming an economic powerhouse, its art was starting to be collected seriously, and the architectural projects that were getting the green light couldn’t have been built anywhere else in the world. It was a wild and wooly time for the next eight years as I lived at this intersection of change – with the world coming to China’s doorstep and China playing the role of self-assured debutante on the global stage.
Whole neighbourhoods were razed in the name of progress and development as architecturally unique districts with all of their attendant history were lost. When I first arrived in Shanghai there were three subway lines, and when I left eight years later there were 13. It was a breakneck pace and one that has slowed little today.
My experience in Shanghai sensitized me to the importance of capturing the essence of a place before it is completely paved over.
To be sure, Yangon is not Shanghai, nor will it ever be, but here you have two cities on a river. Two cities with a deep British Colonial past. Two cities whose river banks still bears testament to their former British rulers with hulking grand buildings. Twenty years ago Shanghai’s Pudong riverbank was still rice paddies, whereas today it is the financial heart of the city and home to a forest of some of the tallest buildings in the world. Yangon’s opposite bank is still undeveloped with rice paddies stretching as far as the eye can
see and a primitive ship building and repair operation dominating the landscape. You will find no buildings above two stories. This is a city on the cusp – the change is upon it.
Burma itself is a country of collisions: transitioning from 50 years of dictatorship (1962-2011) to some sort of hybrid democracy; a predominantly Buddhist country riven by deep religious differences and sectarian violence, often perpetrated against Muslims. It is a country that is a proxy battle- ground for China, Japan, and the US – a modern day Great Game playing out in South East Asia. Its neighbours in the region are also clamouring for a piece of the development pie – Singapore is looking to build office towers, Vietnam has broken ground on new shopping malls, and China has designs on just about everything.
It is within this context of flux that I felt compelled to offer my own commentary on this city in the middle of the maelstrom.
Shooting only large format film (4x5 and 8x10) I wanted to use a tool that was physically aligned with the character and age of what I was photographing. The large format process is a physically demanding enterprise, but ultimately yields negatives suitable for extreme enlargement while maintaining rich detail.
The Burmese people are striding forward into this still unformed future both caught in the slipstream of their neighbours’ progress while trying to chart their own unique path.
Yangon itself translates as ‘End of Strife’ and I hope that as the 2015 parliamentary elections loom that the strife which this country has experienced for half a century will be at an end – ushering in a new era of renewal built on the bones of its past.