Brian Pineda‘s adventures in Myanmar brought him to the bustling streets of Yangon, the dusty roads of Bagan, and everywhere in between. We caught up with Brian to ask him about his travels around this fascinating Southeast Asian country.
Why was it important to you to film life in Myanmar?
Ever since I started traveling in my early 20s, I’ve had this fascination for and curiosity about Southeast Asia. Myanmar was the unknown country that piqued this curiosity most. Eight years ago, I decided to visit for the first time and complete a personal photo project there.
I traveled solo throughout the countryside taking portraits and landscapes while also exploring and taking in the country’s culture. The people I met along the way were incredibly warm and friendly. They would invite me into their homes for tea and homemade liquor — at one point, I was even encouraged to play music with them in a makeshift practice space. Being able to meet these people and film their lives was a special opportunity for me. I love seeing and experiencing cultural contrasts firsthand and finding shared values — a common ground. That contrast paired with my curiosity evolved into a drive to learn and see more.
How was Myanmar different than the other countries you had visited in Southeast Asia?
Each country in Southeast Asia is unique in its own way. Personally, I found that it’s the people that make Myanmar so special. I was invited into more homes , and was asked to have tea with more locals in Myanmar than any other country in Southeast Asia. I think part of the reason for this is that the people are just genuinely curious and want to know more about the visitors who are traveling to their country. The great part about this experience is that both parties get to learn more about each other’s culture. Also, Western influence isn’t as prevalent in Myanmar as it is in other Southeast Asian countries.
Did you find that people were generally receptive to being filmed?
For the most part, I would say yes, they were very receptive. Through years of taking travel portraits, I’ve figured out methods for approaching people and asking to film or photograph them. Whenever I approach someone, I try to be as respectful toward them and as mindful of their time as possible. Of course, I will get an occasional “no” from time to time, but, as a travel photographer, you’ll never know unless you ask.
What was your favorite part of the country and why?
The area surrounding the ancient city of Bagan is incredible. It’s filled with dusty roads, golden sunrises, and beautiful temples. What attracted me to Bagan most was that it is much more rural and has a slower pace compared to the old capital city, Yangon. My local fixer and I rode these electric motor scooters with camera gear on our backs along dirt roads surrounded by temples and small villages, the hot sun and dust on our faces. As we rode, I would suddenly see someone or something I wanted to film. We’d stop, dismount, talk, and film them — some people even invited us to eat lunch with them after we were finished. That openness is one of the things I love most about traveling — embracing the random moments I want to capture and experience, the knowledge that something unexpected is always waiting for me.
Were there any unexpected difficulties related to either visiting the country or taking photos in it?
When I traveled to Myanmar for the first time, there was a bit more paperwork required and, due to the political climate at the time, you needed special permission to travel to certain areas. But this time around, it was fairly easy, as I already knew what to expect. One of the biggest obstacles I encountered was finding and hiring a local fixer. It was tough because I didn’t know any locals there, so I had to scour the internet and ask around on social media. Eventually, I was able to find a someone in both Bagan and Yangon. To ensure that the filming process is as smooth as possible, it’s incredibly helpful to have a local fixer: someone who can speak the language, understand the culture, and help with logistics. They often can access a place or leverage a situation you wouldn’t be able to on your own.
Do you have a favorite memory from your trip?
One of my favorite memories from the trip was in Yangon at the Shwedagon Pagoda — this beautiful golden stupa in Yangon surrounded by stone altars and statues. I was there filming in the late afternoon, which is a popular time, so there were other people everywhere. It took a bit of patience to navigate through the crowds and find the shots I was looking for.
As the sun went down, I had all the footage I needed, and was ready to pack it up for the night. Then, this small group of young monks sat close to me in rows and started chanting. I filmed them for a few minutes, but then decided to put the camera away and be present.
It’s funny; while I’m on these travel jobs, there is always a moment where I put the camera away and just take in the moment. As a photographer and director, it’s my job to record these special scenes, but putting the camera down and just being there is always an experience I look forward to — it becomes an important process for me during my travels.
To see more of Brian’s work, visit his website.
While Passion Passport will continue to cover Myanmar editorially, the government is allowing ethnic cleansing to occur while denying its existence. Passion Passport appreciates the beauty of Myanmar’s people and its lands, but supports U.N. resolutions to end military campaigns against Muslim Rohingya.