Michael Sheridan traveled to Myanmar, camera in tow, and was enchanted by the culture, people, and scenes he encountered. We caught up with him to learn more about his trip and his relationship with travel.
What drew you to photography and travel?
Travel definitely came first. I went to a study abroad presentation during university on a whim, then immediately changed my plans and moved to Malaysia for a year. I bought my first pocket camera to document my travels.
Although I had been intrigued by an introductory class to darkroom photography when I was 15, I had no idea what all the camera buttons did, so my interest lay dormant until I moved. I used that pocket camera for years, oblivious to the world of manual photography, but eventually broadened my toolset with a compact system camera and a photography course for my birthday one year later.
Once I worked out all the buttons, and realized that you can create things the eye doesn’t see. Most say a photograph can never do a scene justice, but sometimes a photo can isolate the absolute magic of a place, or, at the very least, convey a sense of atmosphere to the viewer that can be difficult to describe with words.
Five years later, that same pocket camera is still going strong — it even traveled with me to India, where I worked with Stories for Good collecting case studies for charities who require on-the-ground communications, interviews, and photographs of their participants. This was an incredibly rewarding way to take photographs — spending days with families and getting to know them was unlike anything I had done before.
I loved the humanitarian work and, after getting positive feedback, I set up a photography website. From there, I won photography competitions in National Geographic Traveler and the Telegraph in the U.K., which has brought me to where I am today.
What made you decide to visit Myanmar?
Having traveled through most of Southeast Asia already, I had no plans to return so quickly, but the lure of the sun and lack of tourists were too much to resist as winter approached. Having spent our “summer” in Siberia, my travel companion and I decided to make our way through China, trying to escape the impending winter. While hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge in southwestern China, we had two near-identical conversations on the same day with travelers who had just returned from Myanmar with glowing reviews.
Knowing next to nothing about the country also made it seem very exciting. I love to research where I’m going, but the thought of going in blind on a last-minute trip seemed fun, so we changed our plans and booked flights straight to Yangon.
How did it differ from other locations you’ve visited in Asia?
Myanmar was vastly different than the parts of Southeast Asia I’ve visited.
While its accommodation and transportation infrastructure is nowhere near the standard of its neighbors, that means the idyllic beaches are just that: still idyllic. If you’re willing to put in some effort to explore Myanmar, the rewards are well worth it.
But there were also some parallels between it and its geographical neighbors — the most prominent being the ancient city of Bagan and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat , though I found Bagan far more rewarding. The temples were lovely, but my favorite experience was renting a bicycle and getting lost in the tangle of dirt paths that link the temples throughout the vast, dusty landscape.
Did anything about the country surprise you?
The food in Yangon blew me away. Because it was a last-minute trip, I had no real expectations because I simply didn’t know what I was walking in to. Yangon immediately overtook Bangkok as my favorite street food destination due to its wide array of delicious dishes. Depending on which corner you choose or which alley you get lost in, you could come across anything from delicious and refreshing coconut ice cream to Indian classics such as palak paneer.
However, the dish that won me over was served at a manically busy road junction by a less-than enthused vendor. Samosa Thoke is my kind of salad, and by that, I mean that it’s not really a salad at all. A hot and spicy potato and chickpea samosa is aggressively cut with a pair of scissors and thrown into a plastic bowl. After that, extra chickpea falafels are thrown on top, along with shredded cabbage, finely chopped raw onions, mint, coriander, and cinnamon. A ladleful of thick masala lentil soup is then poured over the top for everything to swim in. When you’ve finished it 30 seconds later, you’re eyeballed until you get off the stool and make space for the next samosa thoke addict.
What do you hope your photos capture about Myanmar?
Being a country of such variety, I hope my photos provide a sense of the atmosphere in Yangon and introduce viewers to the country’s appeal outside of the beaches and temples. I always try to take in a sporting event and travel by public transport when visiting a country, since I find they are the most welcoming windows into local life. I hope my photos convey a sense of this regular day-to-day life, as well as the obligatory Bagan sunrise photo.