Saturday, 10 January 2015

Photographing Novices: A Contrast of Values


The Huffington Post recently published a collection of photos of novices in Myanmar by Stephen Wallace, and which can be found here. Just as a previous post discussed the dynamic between Western and Burmese attitudes in regards to the imprisonment of Mr. Philip Blackwell, this photo collection raises similar concerns. To most Western travelers, the site of young, playful monks is something that brings a smile to one's eye and the camera immediately to one's face, as these young novices seem to represent an irresistible mix of the noble and the playful, the mature and the innocent, the wise and the young. However, many photographers ultimately end up taking pictures that would be considered highly inappropriate to Burmese, and what is more, then sharing and even selling these prints to other like-minded Westerners. This is certainly true of those photos in Mr. Wallace's collection, where novices are seen half-clothed and playing in some of the country's sacred temples. 

Again we see cultural attitudes come to play. The Western attitude here may be, "I am just taking photographs of what's really happening before me. What am I supposed to do, not take the photos? If novices are not supposed to be behaving this way, then their teachers should teach them how to behave, not blame me for taking the photos."

The Burmese attitude, however, may be one of anar, an essentially untranslatable word that means to not behave in a way that would disturb or disrupt other people. One may feel anar...

· when being offered the last piece of mango slice.
· when one has been helped by a friend who had to exert some effort on one’s behalf.
· by having one’s meal suddenly paid for by a friend.
· by being invited somewhere and not being able to come.

Similar to ignoring the demands of “face” in other cultures, it is said in Myanmar that one who behaves without this fear of anar is not acting in the “proper” way, since it shows a disregard for others in favor of one’s own wants or needs. As one local man explains, “When you ask us if we would like to join you for lunch or dinner, make sure you ask us twice or more because we will say no the first time, even though we’d love to because of our culture.”

In this way, simply because these scenes may be happening do not automatically give the foreigner license to photograph anything he wishes, let alone to then share or make a profit from his photographs. A similar observation was made by Australian journalist Peter Olszewski in Land of a Thousand Eyes, when he notes that the Burmese concept of modesty means that when a woman must breast-feed in public because she has no other place to do it, people automatically avert their eyes; and when neighbors talk about personal matters through thin walls, one simply decides not to listen. In this case, following the principles of anar, the culturally appropriate thing for people such as Mr. Wallace to do is simply to choose not to take photographs of such scenes. However, as one can see, Western cultural attitudes contrast with this.

Perhaps nowhere has this contrast between modern tourism and a search for exoticism, and the traditional Buddhist faith come more into contact than at Maha Gandayone Monastery in Amarapura. This was overseen by many years by one of Myanmar's great 20th century monks, Sayadaw U Janaka.

In addition to his many Burmese lay supporters, U Janaka also welcomed foreign visitors in the post World War II era. Initially this was a beneficial exchange. The Sayadaw remembered how “many foreigners came and talked with me. They looked around and said that they were quite pleased with everything they found here.” One Korean monk during this time was so moved that he commented: “This place is an ideal for monks and we hate to leave it. It is sad that we were not born here. We hope to mettā gain and hope to become this Venerable Monk’s disciple and pray that we reach nirvana together.”

Unfortunately, the monastery today has ended up on the tourist trail, with large tour buses showing up and treating it like a cross between a museum or a zoo, freely taking photos, walking around, with many of the foreign tourists unconcerned with dress or basic protocol. Monks report that nearly as many as one hundred visitors may come in a single day, and they usually do so just after 10 am in order to watch the monks take their meals. For many of the monks this ritual is part of their mindfulness training, but tourists strain to observe the exotic scene and record it with photography and video. There is even at least one package tour group that organizes visits here strictly for aspiring photographers.

Other monasteries may be threatened by similar issues in the future, and it’s worrisome to consider how this will affect their training, signs of which can already be seen in neighboring countries Thailand and Laos, where seeing an alms rounds is on the “to-do” list of most tourists. In some ways, the schizophrenia of the modern Western world’s relationship to traditional Burmese Buddhist sites and practices can be seen playing out at Maha Gandayon in real time. For example, in one past edition, Lonely Planet recommended that backpackers try to visit Maha Gandayone specifically during lunch to watch the monks eat; then, in a subsequent edition, they stood by their recommendation but advised against wanton picture taking; and in the present edition, they now call picture-taking at the monastery “worth avoiding.” In other words, while they may be commended for their growing awareness, they are now frowning on the very behavior they were hyping only a few short years ago!

One may wonder how the Maha Gandayone monks themselves regard such an increase in this frenetic activity. One response has been to plaster English signs throughout the grounds advising tourists on basic monastic discipline. They also have tried to restrict tourist access to just certain parts of the monastery, so the disruption can be contained. Towards this end, “No Entry!” signs hang throughout. Burmese tour guides are often implored to make certain that their foreign visitors are properly attired, but money talks loudly, and so this is not always adhered to.

The obvious question may be, why do the monks tolerate this? When asked, some senior monks admitted that they are not so fond of the noise, disruption, or occasional inappropriate behavior; however, as one monk commented, the Mingala Sutta teaches how even glimpsing the sight of a monk may give one faith in the Dhamma. He went on to say that “Buddhism is to share, and not to own. Foreigners may come for tourism but still find some happiness while here. The Buddha would also allow this, because the Sasana is open to all, it is like the moon that everyone sees.” He added that a foreign visitor may become more curious about the Buddha’s teachings, and in asking may learn something valuable. Such a sentiment is even found on the large English sign advising visitors on basic monastic etiquette, where Point #9 reads: We all the monks from this monastery thank for your visit and pray for your happiness and goodwill.