Since 2011, Myanmar has undergone a heartening series of transformations: the military-ruled country relaxed its strict censorship laws, released the Nobel Peace Prize-winning pro-democracy figure Aung San Suu Kyi and convened independent commissions on human rights. And yet, many believe that the work has just begin. Or, to put it differently, not much has really changed.
In Kachin State, in northern Myanmar, the anti-government sentiment runs particularly strong. In fact, rebels have a strong enough presence that control over Kachin is effectively split between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The KIA is the last remaining major rebel group in Myanmar that has not signed a ceasefire agreement with the government. While the country at large has begun opening its doors, the government has simultaneously banned UN agencies, international NGOs, and even foreigners from entering into KIA territory. Effectively, this leaves the people of Kachin with little access to the outside world.
The women of Kachin have few opportunities in this isolated region, outside of serving the KIA. From the age of 16 women are eligible to join the army, and often remain there until they are discharged for marriage. While some join out of dedication to their people, others are forcibly recruited. This is a look into the lives of the young women going through their first experiences of military training with the KIA.
Many people dream of traveling the world, camera in hand, ready to document their discoveries for others to see. Instead of simply dreaming, Adriane Ohanesian went out and did it. Promptly upon receiving a photography degree in 2010, she moved to Nairobi to begin her career in photojournalism. Since then, she has spent time in both Africa and Southeast Asia, pursuing her passion and making compelling work. Assistant editor Alexander Strecker got in touch to find out more about this remarkable photographer.
LC: Were there any pivotal moments in helping you establish yourself as a professional photographer? Or a moment when you decided, when you felt deep inside: “I need to be a photojournalist.”
AO: I think that each and every photography job or project that I’ve worked on has helped me to become a photographer. In 2010, I moved to Sudan and decided to give a photography career a shot. From then on, I’ve just taken each opportunity as it has come my way.
Working with Reuters as a stringer in South Sudan really helped me to improve and understand what it meant to work as a photographer. I was pressured to be constantly photographing and to spend time on stories that otherwise may not have sparked my interest or attention.
LC: Can you discuss “KIA” a bit more? How did you first get know about the women of the KIA?
AO: I first became interested in Kachin State when the conflict broke out in 2011. I felt that the political situation in Kachin had many similarities to the war that I had been photographing in rebel controlled South Kordofan, Sudan. Both are relatively small movements of oppressed minorities fighting to establish autonomy within their region.
But the short answer to how I first got to know about the issue: Google. I originally knew very little about Myanmar or the KIA besides from what I had read in the news. I had searched for images from Kachin State and noticed that there were women in the army. I have long been interested in women’s involvement in armed conflict because it feels like a way to highlight and explore alternative issues related to the realities of war.
LC: Let’s talk about access—once you had discovered the subject, was it hard to photograph these soldiers?
AO: I spent about six weeks meeting with anyone that I could find, and sending countless emails to every organization and photographer that had worked in the region. Through the assistance of local NGOs, I was able to make contact with women who had been soldiers and from there I was able to get into contact directly with the leaders of the Kachin Independence Organization (the political branch of the Army).
Once I made contact with the right people within the KIO/KIA the logistics and access were relatively straightforward. When I got on the ground, I explained to the women what I wanted to do, which was to follow their lives from morning to night. I also made sure that they knew that they could ask to me stop photographing at any time. I think that part of gaining the trust and respect from the women was the fact that I accompanied them at all times. I went on every patrol, to every boring military lecture, even if I wasn’t photographing. We were exhausted on patrols together, we were drawing together during boring lectures, and we were falling over slippery rocks in the river when it was time to wash.
In general, my most powerful organizational tool for this project was emailing—a painful amount of emailing. I emailed everyone, and I had meetings with everyone who would offer to see me, even if they seemed to have no relation to the project.
That being said, I don’t think that there’s one right way to do anything. I like to keep in mind the concept that you should “be wrong as fast as you can.” The path becomes very clear after you’ve met with 500 people and only one of them says, “Yes.”
LC: You’ve succeeded in traveling all around the world making photographs. Do you have any career advice for aspiring photojournalists?
AO: It has been difficult for me to balance paying work with the time and funds to work on my own photography. For example, the project with the KIA was something that I wanted to do for myself and for my photography and it was self-funded.
In terms of working as a photojournalist, I initially positioned myself in Sudan because of my interest in the country, but also because it was at a time when I knew that the pending referendum would prove newsworthy. The two biggest factors are deciding where you want to be positioned and whether or not that location or surrounding locations will be of interest to the news. I think what really helped me in the beginning is that I was one of few photographers working in Sudan and South Sudan for an extended period of time. Recently, this has allowed me to get enough work in order to have the funding to be able to shoot for myself on the side.
LC: What are your thoughts about the internet and contemporary photojournalism? How does the internet add (or subtract) from photography’s power to convey visual storytelling?
AO: I tend to be overwhelmed by the internet, both in terms of the amount of outlets of photographic work, but also by the amount of images that come across my screen on any given day. It seems that generally more people have more access to more information than ever before—but I’m not convinced that this is making people more informed.
For photographers, the challenge is the same as it’s always been: what is the best way to reach and have an impact on an audience? I think that the internet adds to this mission of visual storytelling, but hopefully will not completely distract us from the importance of spending time with printed images.
—Adriane Ohanesian, as told to Alexander Strecker
Adriane Ohanesian’s work, along with photographs from ALL the LensCulture Emerging Talents, was shown in an exhibition at the Galeria Valid Foto in Barcelona. See a review of all the winners here in LensCulture.