Internet cuts, arrests of journalists, leaden blanket, Burma screams in silence. The UN envoy is alarmed by the “risk of civil war at an unprecedented level”. 550 people have died in two months of protests. You can see on their faces that people are in shock.
Protester near a barricade in Rangoon, 30 March 2021 - Photo STR /AFP. Click to enlarge
A young man, in the middle of an almost deserted street, poses in the centre of the image. Sneakers, fashionable jumper, jeans. Around his neck, a rolled-up scarf that we can guess was used to protect his face. Burning rubbish and tyres, dense smoke invading the frame. An image that could be that of all the protests that are shaking the globe.
Yet it is a rare testimony to the anger of the Burmese street. Taken near a barricade in Rangoon on 30 March, the photo is signed STR, short for “stringer”, a freelancer status sometimes used by news agencies like AFP. When it is sometimes impossible for their photographers to go to the scene of a news event, the agencies resort to occasional local photographers, who provide them with images without necessarily being credited with their name, most often for security reasons.
For photographer Guillaume Binet, founder of the Myop agency, the composition of the image is interesting “with this very handsome young man, who closes this line of force marked by the bend in the road, the pavement, the volume of the buildings”. To the right of the image, he continues, “there is this empty space where rubbish bins and tyres are burning, which represents the calm of the insurrection.” For the photographer, who does not necessarily recognize himself in the definition of “ the decisive moment”, as defined by Henri Cartier-Bresson, a good photo is “a moment”. “One must be able to walk around in an image, as in something suspended.”
This one, he stresses, is “silent”. “The whole volume creates this silence. We understand that we are in a moment, the one that follows a day of violence, and where the calm of the insurrection arrives. It's both a violent and a silent photo, and this contrast,” he points out, “gives it strength.“
The symbol is all the more powerful because the cry of the Burmese street is muzzled by violent repression and censorship. Journalists and photographers are targeted by the junta and arrested.
Internet access has been cut off to restrict access to information. The ruling military on Thursday ordered service providers to suspend wireless internet connections “until further notice.” The authorities have already ordered the suspension of mobile data transfers and this latest cut-off risks crippling online communications in the country where very few people have access to fixed lines.
550 people, including many students, teenagers and 46 children, have been killed by security forces in two months, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). Hundreds of others, held incommunicado, are missing. According to the group, some 2,751 people have been detained or sentenced.
For Guillaume Binet, who has often photographed popular uprisings from the Arab revolts to the African streets, this image brings a particular view of Burma, far from more “exotic” visions. The young man, “with his trendy T-shirt, the densely populated buildings, with their profusion of satellite dishes”, give an impression of modernity that is not always visible in the more conventional representations of Burma. Only the panels and the longyi (the traditional Burmese sarong) worn by the people in the background provide information about the geographical origin of the photo.
The risk of identification
“The photographer is protected behind the anonymity of the term ‘stringer’”, notes Guillaume Binet, but this is not the case for the protester. Even if the photo is taken from a distance, he is probably not unaware that he is being photographed,” he points out. The protection of people being photographed is an increasingly important debate. He himself does not like the use of blurring. Nor does he steal photos. “When I photograph, I am always identified as a photographer, I don't hide.”
Ethical reflection, he says, is made increasingly necessary by the rivalry of images due to the internet. A photo can go around the world in a few hours, or disappear and reappear years later. “This forces us to constantly respect what we photograph throughout the image distribution chain,” starting with editing, which allows the photographer to “sort” among his shots those he offers for sale. The choice of words in the captions, as well as the contextualisation of the images, is essential, he reminds us.
At Myop, “We sometimes sell images in bundles of three, or only in full reportage, so that these photos are always seen in a context that clarifies their meaning.” “You have to “tell things”, he insists, and never forget that an image is always the result of a subjective choice, a message told by its author. Nor that “the power of images is one of the first things they try to censor”.