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James Whitlow Delano
In the Eye of Burma’s Cyclone: A Firsthand Account
Three days of driving rain had already begun to ruin the dry season rice harvest, leaving the crop under water, before I returned to Yangon from Bago on the day the cyclone struck. Just hours before the cyclone arrived, a steady stream of brand new, Chinese-made military trucks blasted their horns, bullying all manner of traffic from bicycles to 50 year old Hino timber trucks out of their way so that they could speed toward a military base. I would later see a line of them entering outside the former capital.
There was vague gossip on the street about a cyclone in the seas south of Burma but it was not until I was checked into my Yangon hotel, and able to receive CNN, did I realize that a category 4 storm was about to bare down on Yangon and the low lying Irrawaddy River Delta. Myawaddy, one of the Burmese television stations, had not forecast that such a severe storm was going to make a direct hit on Burma.
By midnight, the windows of the hotel room rattled violently. I got up and taped the large one and opened the two movable ones a crack to equalize air pressure. By 2am, trees could be heard snapping in two and tumbling down, some of them a century or more old. At dawn, a wicked wind but little rain sent sheet metal panels, torn from rooftops and outdoor adverts flying like newspapers but trailing sparks down the street. By the time I got downstairs, the wind had completely changed direction, had intensified, and sent curtains of stinging rain horizontally. In the blinding rain, I sheltered behind a pillar outside the hotel attempting to shoot one frame at a time, then dry off the entire camera and try again. I looked downwind. A street sign 6 feet wide (2m) and 3 feet high (1 m) shuttered suddenly and then a gust sent it frantically flying into infinity never to be seen again. It simply disappeared.
I remember thinking throughout this storm how people sheltering in their flimsy bamboo houses would surely not survive in the Irrawaddy Delta if this storm was punishing a relatively high-sitting concrete city so brutally.
Over the next six days, I would make my way south every day. First I simply took a small boat across the river from the city but later I would travel right down to the core of the Irrawaddy Delta where the 4 m high storm surge, not the wind, claimed the most lives.
The Burmese people, ever resourceful, were on their own. Mostly soldiers were restricted to clearing trees in the former capital. Few were to be seen down in the delta and none of those soldiers, that I saw, were distributing food or water. They were clearing trees and debris.
I wrote the following account after traveling by boat to the worst effected part of the delta. Now, in large part because of what the few of us reported seeing in the Irrawaddy Delta, the military has erected roadblocks to keep foreign eyes out.
I went down with two photogs to a town called Pyapon,
about 60 miles (90km) from Yangon, we had visited the day before.
We rented a boat and headed straight in the direction of the sea
which is less than 10 miles (15 km) south.
By simply crossing over to the other side of the river, we
were able to identify the first body, blown up and bloated in the
scorching midday sun.
At first villagers pointed out bodies. We asked if they
knew these people, left discarded on the beach? They
said, that they did not know these people who had been
washed up the river from villages closer to the sea and in the
path of the storm surge.
Within 30 minutes we had counted over 30 bodies. Most
were women and three were children. One child, no more
than two years old, had a length of twine tied to its ankle,
suggesting its mother’s vain attempt not to be separated
from her beloved child. It had failed.
We left the boat and climbed up to a village named Nawpyando.
The houses were shattered. People had died from their village too.
Water had reached a level of 5 feet (1.4 meters) and people
had climbed up high into their houses hoping to survive, praying
that their houses held together. Most of the people in this
village had survived, though they were still listless from
the trauma of the storm.
Women would still do their washing of clothes in the
river, where bodies of the dead and animals bobbed.
Drinking water had to be obtained back in the town.
They appeared to have rice
but not much else. No help,
from the government, had arrived.
James Whitlow Delano has lived in and documented Asia for a decade and a half. His work has been awarded internationally from the Alfred Eisenstadt Award (from Columbia University and Life Magazine), Leica Oskar Barnack, Picture of the Year International, Photo District News and others. Delano’s series on Kabul’s drug detox and psychiatric hospital was awarded 1st place in the 2008 NPPA Best of Photojournalism competition for Best Picture Story (large markets). His first monograph book, Empire: Impressions from China (Five Continents Editions) and work from Japan Mangaland have been shown at several Leica Galleries in Europe and Empire was the first ever one-person show of photography at La Triennale di Milano Museum of Art in Italy. His second monograph book, I Viaggi di Tiziano Terzani (Vallardi / Longanesi) was released in spring 2008. His work has appeared in New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Books, GEO, Newsweek, Mother Jones, Time Asia, Internazionale, Le Monde 2, Vanity Fair Italia, and others. His work has shown in international photo festivals from Visa Pour L’Image and Rencontres D’Arles to photo festivals at Angkor, Cambodia, Lianzhou, China, Noorderlicht, Netherlands, Rovereto, Italia and Foto Freo, Australia.
Editor’s Note: Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..
Many thanks… david alan harvey
51 thoughts on “james whitlow delano – in the eye of burma’s cyclone”
A lot of poor quality photos here. Fuzzy, too much contrast. You covered the event. Would have been good PJ stuff but the poor quality of the photos got in my way.
In my opinion, there are some strong images here but they get lost in too much ‘filler’.
The piece would be stronger if the weaker 1/2 was removed.
I’m also getting a little weary of the extreme vignetting that is in use, seemingly, everywehere.
With this piece I found this effect combined with the ‘glowing blacks’ to get in the way at times.
The ‘glowing’ might work well in print, at larger sizes, and I have seen years of excellent use of this
technique by James, but on the web at small sizes it smears too much detail for my taste
I think a little too much. Overall, the photography is good. Could be edited down by half. Also bothered by the vignetting and unique post processing.
I think these photos would be more powerful if they were presented straight. The post processing is distracting and undercuts the photographer’s credibility as a witness to tragedy. The plastic quality makes it hard for me to read the pictures — I can see what’s in them, but I don’t know why they are the way they are. I don’t mean technically. I mean, why present them this way?
I’m going to go and google the incident, because I just don’t want to look at these. The presentation hurts my brain.
Great work, sad story.
Truly horrific event, really bad pictures. If you’re going to use high contrast as one of your tools, get a good grasp of the craft (check out ralphgibson.com). I feel that the poor quality of these images is an injustice to the gravity of this tragic event. Edit tighter, too many repetitive images. Get closer to the story, make it more personal.
a potentially interesting PJ piece weakened drastically by too many weak photographs and clumsy post production.
A desolate adventure, the detail disturbing, critical of humanity in its response.
Broadly I can accept the piece but I do find it a little disturbing (the subject matter). While the treatment / post processing is a little unusual and gives a dated feel to the images, had you processed a crystal clear sharp focus high contrast set of images we may have been critical as to a lack of originality. That being said I personally wouldn’t be a major fan of the style – perhaps if the subject matter was different. I feel it is appropriate for a time, but probably a time lapsed, and for me the art (and the science) has moved on. There is an element of repetition in the set. Some have commented it to have been too long. I think it could have been truncated somewhat based on some of this repetition.
It can’t have been a particularly easy assignment. Well done for documenting it in the honesty that you have done. Unlike many of the ‘greats’, who on occasion cross the line between truth and needing to contrive, your images (at least I think) have documented the environment as you found it. Perhaps post processing in itself is to contrive the truth but if so then we all are guilty.
Well done on being published here. Critique can be hard on the soul. Keep the faith. You show much promise.
If you look at his website and other images of his on the web, all of them seem to have this effect. To me it looks like poorly scanned images. But this is obviously his style.
This is embarrassing! The comments i mean… Not the photographs!!
We each have our unique ways of seeing, as photographers and as human beings. James lived through a traumatic experience in Burma, saw it through his own eyes and managed to photograph much of what he saw. But, like so many here, I find that his post-processing does not enhance these images; for me, it detracts. And I would also like to see a tighter edit, at least for publication here on Burn. Twenty of his best would have told the story.
I would love to see the original unprocessed photos. I’m sure they are strong.
I have no problem with the way in which this work is presented. If this work was printed in a multi-page essay in hard print, it would look amazing and its grittiness would be a major pulling factor. Once again the internet slideshow form of presentation reveals one of its weaknesses as viewers do not have something tangible to hold and look at and feel in their hands.
I like the work, it is a hard piece to look at and to grasp the enormity of the event, which ever way it is recorded. But James has shown these pictures, they are a record. I don’t see the validity of arguing about vignetting or style. It is what it is, and it is his way of looking at the world and making a record (and perhaps a statement) for others to see.
Good on you James for doing it in the way that feels right to you.
More magazines should devote pages to personal work of important events such as this.
I agree with james. very embarassing. i think that people should concentrate on the problems with their own work rather than try to criticise others.
this is a great essay. some particular images struck me as being exceptional but i enjoyed the whole, it gave me the sense of your movement through the desolated landscape, capturing what you saw. i don’t think you would have done the subject any favours by cutting out more images. i know people like tight edits, and thats fine, but i’m sure people also like not having their homes destroyed and loved ones killed by storms. you have shown an essay that tells your eyewitness account, inserting what you think is important, not what you think i want to see sitting here at my laptop. after a glance at your bio, i see that you are quite clearly justified in your choice of style too.
thanks for sharing this work, like with many essays on burn i feel that i have learned a little, about the world, about what other photographers are doing and a little bit more about my own work too. top stuff.
I have to disagree about the way these are rendered. They are flat not contrasty. This essay is very detached. I see much destruction and a few victims of this terrible event coming in and out of the essay. I would really like to know more about how they are coping with this and such.
Lots of Spot News but little depth. James you have a very distinctive style, reminds me of early days of film. But the style I see in your other work would have served you well with this essay.
I do not discuss content or style. I am at peace with that.
I would like a show of hands:
Okay, how many of you think I use film or how many think the
essay is shot in digital? I am just curious.
The other question is: How might a government like the junta
in Burma effect the access of foreign journalists with cameras?
Thanks, unsheath the stalettos. Here is some more fresh meat.
Remember that if we all shot the same way, the world would
be a very boring place.
Now, I take my leave.
not only for the Subject/theme but also for your
I cant help but conclude that everything is in the eye of the beholder, so if its a voyouristic experience, its your voyouristic experience.
Only if these images get through the editors and wake us up out of our so protective inviroment. These people dont have a state to look after them even as crudely s we thought the Bush administration responded to New Orleans.
I also think stylistically this work brings the grittiness yet, looking through what could be the haze and detachment of a car window.
Its upsetting to say the least to see such images but this is what the built up third world has to deal with.
Literally having ones world turned upside down.
I find the aestheticisation issues overpower my reaction to the content of the pictures. I find them hard to look at because they are so dark and processed in a way which disrupts viewing. Is he trying make a point about looking at painful pictures – making it more painful for us. If so, I don’t think it works here.
I am inclined to think they would be better in a magazine or on a gallery wall than on the web too.
Sebastian Salgado was criticised for beautifying issues of human pain. I think he won out because he took printing to a whole new level that we hadn’t seen before. I am not sure that is the case here. I would prefer to see these pictures straight and in colour because this treatment seems to be superficial aestheticisation if its not for the reason I suggest above. An attempt to sentimentalise the event. It just sort of makes me not want to bother looking. In fact, I didn’t get to the end of the slideshow for this reason. And it could be what the artist wants which would be too ironic. I don’t know. Its the sort of thing that the artist should say at some point rather than let the uninitiated flounder in ignorant frustration.
Without this treatment, I’d be able to look and actually think about the event itself. And that I think warrants thinking about and witnessing. On that score, I think its enough that the photographer was there to do that. It needs nothing else.
I think it’s an interesting approach, good subject, I like the contrast as well… but maybe not so many for one essay, short and sweet is sometimes required, especially with the intensity of the subjects…
A country very close to my heart.
I think the judgement on their esthetic is much less urgent than the welfare of the burmese people.
In your text, james, we can only guess how personally you have been touched by the human distress provoked, I do not doubt it, but as you write it, it all comes out a bit impersonal, like a good survey, which the photos confirm. How I wish you had 2 or 3, even one human story to tell.
I think this would have provoked less criticism directed at your style.
It has taken me a while to understand the charm of these images. ‘Up close and personal’ is a convention that we have become used to – here is a more gentle, less violent approach – in sympathy, perhaps, with how I understand the Burmese people.
Where else could we go when faced with the horror depicted in some of these photographs? How close do we need to get?
Sure, James’ style here is a little out of the ordinary. So is the way he portrays such evident compassion for his subjects.
Jim Powers and CO. I’m tyred of seeing your negative comments. I have seen your work and is very very very poor. You have very bad images as if you were only a fan of photography. Is very easy to stay all the day in front of the computer criticizing others. It would be interesting to see you working in places like Burma!
People in this forum looks like more interesting in the style, etc… than in the subject. Very sad.
James, good work as always. I’ve been following your work and I know this is your style. Keep straight!
I couldn’t imagine how complicated should be working in Burma.
This touched a nerve with me and led a long time reader to begin contributing to the discussion here.
I certainly agree with others that the story could be told with a tighter edit, weighted, in my humble opinion, towards the latter half of the essay.
The post processing doesn’t distract as much for me, it at least gives the work a unique voice.
Aesthetics and presentation aside, these images are important. We are absurdly fortunate (for lack of a better word) to be able to comfortably sit at our screens and watch the unfolding of peoples lives and deaths. Surely the focus here should be as much on WHAT we are being shown as to our opinions on it’s presentation.
Thank you James, I congratulate you sir.
Difficult. Beautifully, horribly difficult.
I tried several times to say something more but had nothing that much mattered beyond that.
First, I’m happy to see JWD’s work here, even though I new right away that we’ll have to deal with some embarrising comments. I find the work powerful, sad and stimulating.
When you critisize work like this you got to look for the context and put it into perspective. To critisize the style, especially of someone who is well past the first steps in photography, is pointless. Given the situation it is close to impossible to jump around Burma and photograph, so the ‘style’ might be the product of neccessity. Even if it’s not, he at least has a ‘style’, his own vision.
My first reaction to this work is a great respect for the photographer who would go through, I imagine hell, to get this work out.
Sorry for the spelling mistakes…
To have this essay shown here is an incredible victory for Burn.
James Whitlow Delano is one of the most intrepid and distinctive photojournalists working in the world today. I hope he returns to answer any questions. To have a discussion with him would be an incredible opportunity to learn about this craft.
If he does come back, here are a few questions:
Do you pursue mostly personal projects or are you working on assignment? Can you address how you balance the time required to complete a story such as this or your Central American immigration story with the challenges of publishing in today’s market? I’d be interested to hear a little about how you plan some of these stories and how you gain access to your subjects. The realities of working on the ground in Burma are beyond me, let alone how did you even manage to enter the country?
And I believe the answer to his “show of hands” question is: Leica M3, 35mm lens, b+w film printed then scanned to create a timeless look.
Brilliant work, thanks for sharing it here.
Glad that Burn has this piece on here. I remember hearing from you as you were about to head into Burma before the storm and I was stuck in Bangkok wondering if i could get access. I personally loved this series back when you released it, it is indeed your vision and it’s good that not everyone shoots the same.
As for the comments on quality here, christ on a lollypop this place is turning into Flickr at a worryingly quick rate. Anyone who’s spent time inside Burma (and not on that lovely tourist package so often used) knows it’s anything but a beautiful place. I think the images sum up the feeling and the mood.
I’m surprised to see so much hate for James’ work here. I’ve long been a fan of work, and welcome such a refreshing eye to photojournalism. This essay is no exception; a harrowing and beautiful look into a story that few have told.
to respond to James’ show of hands….. film.
I’d love to see this work in high-quality print form, I don’t think that the online slideshow is ideal for these photographs. And I don’t mean that as a negative comment in any way.
There are some amazing images here. I think the essay (in the current online form) could benefit from a slightly tighter edit.
It’s a powerful, important body of work.
Some great photos. Important work. Thanks.
In general,I like the style. Unfortunately, several of the images are extremely posterized, at least on my screen (Apple), so I think more work is in order. And count me among the crowd that doesn’t like the vignetting. I don’t mind seeing so many images though. I think the aesthetically weaker ones are important for the story.
And let me say (first time commenter) that I appreciate the honest criticism here. After the photography, that’s what I like best about Burn Magazine. There are plenty of sites where they’ll tell you how great you are, regardless.
And finally, I’ll take a pass on guessing film vs. digital. I can, however, tell you that they look a lot like how they would look if they were processed with the Power Retouche Soft Filter and perhaps the Black Definition.
Been following burn for a while but i felt compelled to comment today.
I wasn’t prepared to see some of these images, but they definitely hit me. there are some quite powerful images there. The post-treatment did not take away from the experience, I think it added something, the photographer’s vision. Its not a style i would use, because its not the way I see. And I think that’s important – why does everything ‘real’ have to lack the subjective experience of the photographer?
For my preference, however, I would rather see a much tighter edit of carefully selected photographs. There are some images that were amazingly strong but some weren’t (to me), and with so many, it just didnt feel as strong of a story.
But that’s what I think and James seems seasoned and confident enough to know what he likes, so Im trusting that he will reflect on the comments that make sense to him. Why is everyone always apologizing for other people’s criticisms? I think its great to be able to share work and have people say what they do or don’t like about it. the photographer can take it or leave it. So if you feel bad about negative comments, instead of trashing the commenter just focus on telling the photographer what you like – that will probably be more helpful.
um, so hopefully no one will trash what i said but i welcome your constructive reflection.
Interesting technique. Almost looks as though the film has been over-processed and pulled back in the darkroom. Nice work though :)
I like this essay and the “dirty” way in which the story is told, a stylistic choice which seems to me typical of Delano’s works. It is not a too-long essay imo: there is plenty of interesting details, above all the almost sinister black palm trees which, in many frames, stand high above the grey corpses… as if nature was better accustomed to manage its own disasters; #30 has a “vietnam” feeling, with the hovering helicopter and the naked boy running at the centre of the frame; in #37 the mickey mouse shirt detail conveys a dramatic irony; #3 has a sort of timeless beauty…
Thank you James for joining the conversation here: for what concerns film or digital… really I don’t care: the shown results can be obtained in a darkroom or in a lightroom as well.
It’s more interesting to hear about the restrictions imposed by the junta: my guess is that in the aftermath of the cyclone, due to the chaos, photographers and journalists could enjoy more freedom of movements.
Dear James and to Burn,
I saw these pictures a while ago, quite soon after the event and have to say I was very impressed. To work in such a traumatic situation (which is beyond any of my experience and possibly that of many people here at Burn,) to not only make these images but to then get them out of Myanmar, given the government there, and the difficulty for journalists working there (I’m thinking here of the videographer shot by the Myanmar army during the Buddhist protests,)deserves great respect.
This is one of the most important essays I have seen so far seen on Burn. The photographer has covered an important crisis of humanity and this work records the plight of marginal communities in the face of international indifference.
In the style I can see the influence of Philip Blenkinsop. I can’t usually sit through long essays on-line but I watched all of these. I don’t quite see why people found them too dark to look at, either photographically or in terms of the content. Yes the content is traumatic but these events happened and it should be recognised and noted that such terrible and devastating things do happen. This is a warning of what could befall any of us and to turn away just because it is uncomfortable or hard to look at is morally reprehensable.
However I do feel that some aspects of the processing work to the detriment of the subject. The historical ‘vintage’ atmosphere the images conjure allow the viewer too much distance from the actual event which ultimately dilutes the message.
James, thank you for being there and recording this,
Congratulations for being published on burn and for your very successful career in photojournalism. I was quite impressed from your work on your website.
I’d like to say a few words about the commenting here and your “show of hands”.
It is admirable that you had access to this event in a most isolated country. Certainly not anyone can do that. It is also to your credit that in such a catastrophe you had the bravery and professionalism to work consistently for a fantastic piece of photojournalism. Quality photos, movement and diverse approach together with the first hand experience detailed in an informative opening statement.
It’s also obvious that this style, is your style. One can see it throughout your website. You are “at peace with that”.
But this is the point of most comments here. Whether film or digital, makes no difference to me, this work is obviously post-processed (unless there’s a technique I cannot figure out, in that case I apologize). Probably you also took more than 30 photographs throughout this time. If so, the way it is processed and presented and the editing were conscious choices made after the shooting. You chose this style and you chose these photos and their number. It has nothing to do with digital or film or the restrictions of the junta.
You are “at peace with that” but a lot of people feel that a more straight on approach would add credibility and do the photos and story more justice. It IS an artistic choice of yours and people here have an issue with THIS artistic choice. The post-processing/style and loose edit. I have to admit that I agree with them.
It’s not personal and nobody’s going to “unsheath the stalettos”. At least that’s not what I’m doing here.
All the best, and congrats again.
this is a great set of images! Not to mention the story they tell.
I was meant to go to Myanmar after the cyclone last year as a volunteer, but at the time the government weren’t issuing visas for foreigners as many people know, So in the end it didn’t happen at all. But it’s great that a photographer like james was there to capture this striking sad images and show another natural disaster that raises that question: have we done that?
You hit on the very issue that concerned me. Working oneself
up over style is beside the point. The Burmese are the point.
I appreciate that this series has opened up a discussion like
this. Someone mentioned the style is more like a dream than a
nightmare. The sword cuts both ways. They are the same thing.
Kenji is right. It was because of that I was fateful that I was
there when the storm hit. Even getting a visa before the storm
I had to show evidence of a day job. This is my day job. So,
I had to take a chance and apply in Bangkok. My wife, who is
Japanese, and I cooked up an English language school in Tokyo.
Had I applied in Tokyo, they could have read the kanji (Chinese characters).
So I brought her letter in Japanese and English and flew to Bangkok
where they do not read kanji. Through an agency in BKK, I was able to
obtain a visa. It was a hit and miss proposition. Some foreigners still
got in a few days after the storm but then the door was slammed shut.
I have been to the country three times now. I have doubts about
whether I could get back in now. When the time is right, I will
The more people who go the share the truth about this regime,
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Generally speaking I do not think that the comments here are necessarily unfit for Burn. They are critical, and as such they stand in stark contrast to the comments one can find on other sites.
I have had a look at James work elsewhere. To me its exceptional and magnificent. Clearly deserving all the successes achieved to date.
This particular work must have been very difficult to do in a number of ways. It is also important politically. However, I do understand the above comments with respect to the quality of some of the photographs. It doesn’t matter whether its film or digital. Although the posterized look to most of the shots in the essay is certainly possible with film, the end result here to most clearly looks overly processed and ‘digital.’ I don’t think style is beside the point when published on Burn. Many points can co-exist. After all style is part of passing along the message. That said, the Burmese surely are the main point.
Thanks for having work here at burn. Your efforts are above reproach I my mind, and your involvement as a concerned photographer is clear to me. But I want to address what you just wrote to Herve:
“You hit on the very issue that concerned me. Working oneself
up over style is beside the point. The Burmese are the point.”
While I have immense respect for your work toward bringing attention to the situation of the Burmese, and while I agree that in general excessive focus on style is a poor use of energy, I am at odds with the surface treatment of this body of work simply because for me it detracts from my being able to absorb and understand these particular images on a level that I would wish to.
I very much enjoy your chosen way of working the image for a great number of your images and stories, (for me it echoes the use of glass negatives, though of course I don’t know what you do..printing in the darkroom with diffusion, then scanning the print possibly?) but here for me it acts as a loss of information and an addition of confusion that detracts from my engagement with the situation. Your hope, I believe, is for the viewer to be able to have a connection / understanding / concern / involvement with the Burmese through the photos, and here the “style” has made that more difficult for me, where as in other bodies of your work, that same style heightens the connection. Just my thoughts as to why the discussion of style may be worthy of thought..
Wishing you all the best and continued success..
I have spent some time contemplating your essay and want to congratulate you on a difficult and horrific assignment. Your dedication to your craft is obvious in the sheer determination to imbed yourself in the most inhospitable places for media and to produce such excellent work. Where to next, Iran?
When I first looked at the images I had the sense of looking at turn of the century pictures from British colonial Indochina. I am not sure if this was your intent to give a colonial feel to the images or to be consistent with your personal style. If you did intend to have this colonial feel to the images what does that say about the message your are trying to communicate? If that was not your intent then maintaining your style above the gravity of the images also makes one wonder about the real connection to the subject. It is this ambiguity that may be at the root of the criticism of the treatment or post-processing of the images.
I personally think your style is intriguing and lends itself to the optical superiority of Leica lenses (I am making the assumption you shoot with a Leica) and would also translate superbly to print. However in this context it leaves me feeling removed and isolated from the Burmese people in the photos. It is difficult to stray from a personal artistic vision which with one has achieved recognition and success, and balancing the needs of the subject matter hence the dilemma in the portrayal of these images.
Congratulations on being published on Burn, and being open to critical review from the passionate followers of photography.
Really stunning images.
Debation. Journalism, or another thing?
Photographic stories begin to rub the wrong parts sometimes. I begin to doubt whether I really give a shit about the subject or weather its the beauty that a photorapher attaches to it. I don’t want to see accounts or this magnitude photographically any more, it to crass for my understanding. The abilty to document this with meaning for me lies in transition of mediums, digested ideas, thoughts. I no longer want to be there, or to be a (false) witness.
Before I’ve looked at a picture its become, in its progression to my eyes at least 70% mirror. There are more eloquent ways to put this but not at this time of night.
I used to hate photographs, For some reason I ended up a photgrapher, not to document the horror of the world, but I guess the contraditions that I had doing it. I could and never still reconsile the personal with the apparent, when a photographe claims to do so, in one hit I have reservations, especially when it’s something exotic. I’m ranting, some nice photos though
“The discrepancy between human behavior and the rest of the universe has always been a source of anguish.”–Calvino, “Mr. Palomar
I wish to say at the outset that I am prejudiced, and for sake of frankness will offer to the readership firstly that James is a personal friend of mine. I’ve known his work for a long time. With my wife, I’ve been in a personal photographic project with James. I also respect and admire him greatly: as a photographer and as a person. You will be hard pressed to find a kinder, more intelligent, more thoughtful, more aware and engaged person than James. Moreover, he’s one of the kindest and least competitive photographers I know and is open and connected to many, regardless of their relationship to photography. Also, one of the first things I did when I was Editor-at-Large for Burn was to write James and ask him to submit and essay. I was thrilled and excited that he responded with this essay and was overjoyed that David was willing to take it on and publish it. I count James’ participating and willingness as one of the highlights of being the editor-at-large. But more importantly, I respect and admire his work and commitment as both photographer, a story teller and a witness. Because he is a friend, and because i sheparded this essay to Burn, I will not write a long exegesis. As i wrote earlier, i’ve waited for these last 2 essays to write, i hope, something that will shed, for me, the importance of all photography.
It goes without saying that James is one of the finest journalists on the planet and has spent his photographic career telling stories in a way that is both visually refreshing and challenging but also deeply rooted to the places that he has lived in and spent years visiting, traveling through and inhabiting. Burma is no different. He’d been in Burma to continue his work on Burma, amid great risk and danger, to tell the story that he’d begun before and that he’d hoped to tell: about the people of burma, particularly under the repressive Junta. During that time, the country was devastated by the cyclone…and besides the horrific natural disaster, the human disaster consequential directly resulting from the behavior of the junta was as profoundly tragic as the initial cataclsym. For me, it is quite clear, all that is part of this visual record. But, I think too, that we must not confuse the essential importance of this work and story: this was on the ground documentation, the witnessing in the immediate aftermath when many journalists were unable to get into the country. Above all, this work must be seen (how can it now) as a document of both the death and the destruction but also of what happened in it’s aftermath.
there are a million ways to smile and alight with happiness, and yet the smiles contain the same meaning.
there are a million ways to grieve and express grief, and yet the grief contains the same meaning.
that some here, and elsewhere (a long standing discussion/argument in journalism) contend that there is a ‘right’ way and a ‘wrong’ way to photograph grief is, to me, not only odd but frankly profoundly troubling.
There is no way to photograph a dead child. there is certainly no way to ‘properly’ photograph, to ‘properly’ witness death and grief and loss and dignity. If the intent is to speak of that which was seen, to photograph that which appeared, than what matters is that it was spoken upon. A digital, color, automatic, RAW file photograph of that same child (and i’ve seen that too, with another photographer who was with James) is not more profound, or important or journalistic. That some are ‘troubled’ by the ‘appearance’ of the images, or that some are ‘troubled’ by the ‘processing’, of course, is there perogative and honest appraisal. The odd thing, however, to me, is that the images themselves and the way they look seem, for some, to override the essence of what these photographs me. To me, that is a failure on the part of the viewer, not the photographer. For me, that a photographer who has chosen to photograph in the way HE knows how is berated for a style or technique that another fails to like/appreciate, is not an indictment for the work, but for the failure of each of us, tha we have not yet been able to transcend the appearance of things for their true nature…
lastly, something to consider. there is an important chinese tradition in landscape painting, in painting about death and loss, that has to do with the equanimity of place, the equanimity of acceptance of death, as a way to ‘rightly’ speak of the dead…this is also connected to that which transformed….
this is a profoundly important essay…not because it is done by my friend james delano, not because the pictures are ‘beautiful’ but because they are photographs used as language to speak about what happened to this extraordinary country and it’s people….
how is it to value life, but if not to act upon a belief….these are nothing but documents, documents that have not been lost so that others will be reminded of what happened and cannot be washed away by failure of memory or bad re-writing of history…
Grate to see James Whitlow Delano work on Burn!
This publication add surely a big value for all the emerging photographers who were o will be published here… thanks James and thanks David for this!
Jim Powers I am sorry to say you this, but criticizing this work, you really put yorself is the ridicolous side :-/ I have to agree with shibumi… I’m tired to see all your negative comments, especially under a master piece like this… it is an offence for us readers. You don’t like anyone work, not even James Withlow Delano? So please go, shoot, and show us some pictures that you wuold not kill if they were published here… I am looking foward to see tham!
I have never left a message on this type of forum but the ‘debate’ i see here has left me with a strange feeling… I have seen Mr Delano’s work many times before and you are a wonderful, passionate, dedicated photographer. This work is very important to see — we rarely see, hear or understand what is really happening in Burma. I appreciate the work and am reminded that we all need to think and ultimately do a lot more about things and places we rarely see and maybe feel more comfortable keeping out of our minds…
At the same time i am constantly aware that there is (growing?) mistrust about photography and journalism (in australia, anyway).. It’s true that to speak on a technical level is obscene when it has to do with a subject such as this — but it is this interaction between subject and technique that makes it important and difficult to talk about. The fact is that you – we – alienate a certain number of people when we ‘clip’ blacks and whites severely and appear to be removing information in pursuit of style. Some people will ‘trust’ the image less and feel less for the humanity because of the photographer appearing to be concerned too much with graphic impact. I admire this work and it has brought burmese people again to my mind – i am not overly concerned about ‘style’ .. but we all have to think about how we want to communicate the meaning of our images to those who will see them.
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