Keeping Their Own Records<br>The Record of Truth Participatory Photography Project

The Karen are the largest ethnic minority in Myanmar (Burma) (see CSQ 24:3). Due to an ongoing civil war with the Burmese military regime, more than 120,000 Karen have fled Burma. Many now reside in refugee camps in Thailand.

In refugee communities undergoing a rapid political and cultural transition, the entire population must face the challenge of adapting their culture to survive. The community must recognize the importance of active dialogue about cultural survival. Critical examination of cultural traditions and shared experiences is a crucial step in this process.

In a refugee camp along the Thai-Burmese border, The AjA Project participatory photography programs provide young Karen refugees the opportunity to explore and record their personal and community histories through documentary-style photography and writing.

A Photo and a Story

As he held an 8-by-10-inch photograph he had just printed, Saw Moo Doh Wah told the story of his flight from his home in Burma, across the border to the refugee camp. In only two weeks, this 10-year-old boy and his eight classmates had demonstrated a keen ability to grasp the fundamentals of documentary-style photography, though most of them had never touched a camera.

Saw Moo Doh Wah participates in the Record of Truth participatory photography program in a Karen refugee camp located on the Thailand-Burma border. This community-based project is supported by The AjA Project, an international NGO whose mission is to provide innovative educational programs for refugee and displaced youth. The program fosters the development of refugee children’s analytical and critical-thinking skills, and provides them with the visual tools and opportunity to tell their stories.

Themed Exploration

A team of local Karen instructors transformed the participatory documentary concept into an extensive teaching curriculum, incorporating lessons on visual literacy, the mechanisms of photography, and expository and creative writing. The lessons revolve around themes such as dreams, fairytales, community, and fear. The instructors work with a new group of students each month.

Situated in the middle of the refugee camp, the classroom and darkroom are constructed entirely of bamboo and serve as classic examples of Karen-style architecture. Students typically arrive at the facility around 6:30 a.m. to take photographs before the class starts at 9 a.m. They stay until 4 p.m., developing and printing their photos. As daylight wanes, the students return home to take a bath—a post-darkroom ritual that developed spontaneously over the years.

The participants demonstrate great enthusiasm for the program. They experience the complete process of creating a documentary photo essay: planning, shooting, developing, printing, editing, and writing. The process gives them a sense of ownership of their work and their stories; something that had been missing from many of their lives.

One week, Saw Moo Doh Wah and his classmates were assigned to do projects revolving around the theme “Journey.” Before the students set off to capture their journey, their instructor, Saw Tah Nah Moo*, emphasized the idea of incorporating feelings and symbols in the photographs. Equipped with simple point-and-shoot cameras and Tri-X black-and-white film, Saw Moo Doh Wah took photographs depicting his escape from his home village. Each student took photographs addressing the titles “Old Home,” “Why I Left,” “How I Left,” and “New Community,” and wrote a paragraph for each of these segments of their journey. They spent hours on each section to ensure their stories were accurate. All the Karen teenagers were emphatic about representing themselves accurately.

Negotiating Change

Karen society is experiencing the most dramatic period of transition in its history, resulting from a seemingly endless violent political struggle, the mass migration of a significant section of its population who are now trapped in refugee camps, and the displacement of much of the remaining population within Burma. Under these circumstances—in which new ideas and values are constantly emerging—it is particularly important to look back and examine cultural traditions, societal values, and personal and community histories.

In the refugee camps, new and emerging values and identities are evident among the younger generation, many of whom have spent their entire lives in the camp. The confluence of increased access and exposure to Thai popular culture and media, involvement of international NGOs in the camp and specifically in the schools, and more structured and extensive school curricula have exposed these young people to an entirely new set of perspectives and worldviews. Gender and familial relations, political attitudes and beliefs, personal goals and priorities, and notions of individual and community identity all come up for critical review. Without opportunities to reflect on these emerging values and identities, many communities in transition are caught between an automatic reckless adoption of newly encountered ideas and values, and an insular—and likely impossible—adherence to old ways and perceptions.

Saw Tah Nah Moo believes that the process of taking, analyzing, and communicating through photography provides an effective medium for exploration and self-reflection. Students take a deep interest in their cultural inheritance, their personal and community histories, and their immediate environment and refugee situation. This sort of critical analysis is the bedrock for meaningful contemplation and deliberation of identity, values, and visions for the future.

Assignments like “community” and “fairytales” compel the students to investigate and contemplate their community’s oral histories and communicative cultural traditions. For the “fairytales” assignment, the students recreate popular Karen fairytales in photographs and writings. They collectively write out the tales and then act out scenes from the story while their classmates photograph the action.

The resulting works have been exhibited at local libraries and schools to promote community reflection, learning, and participation in the program. The works have also been exhibited internationally; they have been displayed in New York, San Diego, Denver, and Bangkok, and will be part of a exhibition at the National Geographic Society’s Explorers Hall in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 2003. Personal stories such as Saw Moo Doh Wah’s reveal both the experiences of individuals and of the larger community, and are instrumental in the cultural evolution—and documentation—of a community in struggle.

The students’ works can viewed at www.ajaproject.org.

Warren Ogden and Stanley Durham graduated from Duke University and are founders of the AjA Project. Ogden has worked on humanitarian land mine issues for Terra Segura International. He has coordinated programs and worked on NGO projects in Nicaragua and the United States. Durham is a documentary photographer who has initiated and taught participatory photography in refugee camps in Thailand, Colombia, and San Diego.

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