Burmese Light by Tom Vater and Hans Kemp (Visionary Press)


Stone Buddha statues poised near the golden evening glow of an intricately carved temple wall, the gleam of gold radiating from the legendary Shwedagon Pagoda that defines the Yangon skyline, a line of young nuns garbed in rose-pink robes—this book’s introduction to Burma is portrayed through images of that country’s strong spiritual faith, which underpins Burmese Light as it does the country itself. The beauty of its temples, the bare feet of monks as they walk on their alms rounds, the playfulness of novice nuns and monks who are still children, the 4000 temple ruins stretching across the plain of Bagan, all shown against a glorious open sky with its rich variety of light, are the images that comprise much of this book. They are almost otherworldly in their undisturbed relationship to the world that swirls around them, a backdrop that is both natural and man-made, enduring and temporal, changing faster in the past year than it has in previous decades.

A procession of oxcarts makes its way to a traditional village Nat Festival; there they will watch men in heavy make-up and ornate robes become mediums for the spirits that briefly take up residence within the body of the men who channel them. A heavily laden motorcycle transports young lambs to market, one sprawled across the driver’s lap, two more peering from a basket that’s tightly bungie-corded to a platform built over the rear tire. In Yangon the traffic that flows past the Shwedagon is decidedly more modern—vans, SUVs, shiny new automobiles. Burma missed a large portion of the 20th century; now it’s eager to leap into the 21st.  “By the end of the 19th century,” author Tom Vater says of Yangon, “it boasted public services on a par with those of London.” Infrastructure has crumbled since then and inhabitants are hungry for civic improvements.

Although showing colonial buildings in Yangon and the old palace moat in Mandalay, Hans Kemp’s photographs linger longest in the countryside where women sell bundles of firewood and men harvest rice by hand, where cheroots are smoked and betel is chewed, and women beautify their faces with swirls of a sunscreen and cosmetic paste ground from the bark of a thanaka tree. The diversity of the country’s people is well-represented in Burmese Light; with “some 135 distinct ethnic groups” bringing their cultures and customs to that of the Burmese, “who make up almost 70-90% of the population and dominate public life.” Beautiful, proud faces fill the pages of this book, jostling with the stunning landscape shots for pride of place.

In their creative collaboration, Kemp and Vater provide a taste of a country that is transforming itself, documenting Burma as changes began to come. This is far from a typical coffee table book. It’s a springboard into more exploration, more illumination, more… I'm begging for a sequel.~Janet Brown