Documentary, Portrait, World Photography Organisation

Portraits of 21st century rural life, as Myanmar re-emerges from military rule

Last year, Rubén Salgado Escudero won the Portraiture category at the Sony World Photography Awards for his project, Solar Portraits

When Rubén Salgado Escudero visited Myanmar on assignment, he was struck by the stark realities of rural life. Out of an estimated 68,000 villages, only 3,000 are connected to any power grid – with roughly 73% of the population living without electricity.

His project, ‘Solar Portraits’, addresses the lack of access to electricity in developing nations, as well as the benefits of solar energy in people’s lives. The work won first place in the Professional portraiture category at the 2015 Sony World Photography Awards; the latest edition of the competition is currently open for entry.

What was the genesis of the project?

A one month assignment for a humanitarian organisation took me to many villages in rural Myanmar, where I quickly realised how hard life was for most people once the sun fell, as they were living practically in the dark. After some weeks, I ran across a village which had solar panels placed on household rooftops. The difference in the quality of life for the families was crystal clear.

 

Ko Ba Aye, and his son Sai Kaung Htet Mon outside of their home.

Ko Ba Aye, and his son Sai Kaung Htet Mon outside of their home.

 

Ko Win Zaw Oo, fisherman and father of two by his boat.

Ko Win Zaw Oo, fisherman and father of two by his boat.

 

Small, inexpensive photovoltaic power (PV) systems can allow people to do more with their waking hours, from simple activities such as studying at night or cooking, or as important as for a midwife to be able to see during a complicated labour. I travelled for months across the country, documenting people who had solar light for the first time and portraying how their life had been affected. The photos are taken within the subject’s environment, set up using those same solar lights that are improving people’s lives as the only source of illumination.

What originally was intended to be solely a photography project progressively grew into something larger, something more than a photo hanging on a wall. After the series received international visibility, we decided to create a short crowdfunding campaign with the aim of gathering funds to distribute solar light in two rural villages in Myanmar’s Sagaing division. For me it was important to be able to take this project a step further and actually directly affect some of the people whom I was photographing. Four months later, I’m extremely excited to have just visited both villages and had the chance to engage with the communities which we are supplying solar lights to.

 

Grade 11 students do their homework in a solar-powered after-school community centre.

Grade 11 students do their homework in a solar-powered after-school community centre.

 

A Shan farmer with his cow.

A Shan farmer with his cow.

 

Development and infrastructure in Myanmar is a dense, rather academic topic. What drew you towards addressing these issues?

Myanmar has been my home for over two and a half years. It is where my photography career started, after I decided to leave behind a ten-year career in the video game industry in Germany. I initially came to Myanmar with my photography mentor for a one-month excursion but decided to stay. I was immediately drawn to the warm-heartedness of the people and their complex, beautiful and diverse culture.

I have spent much of my time traveling around the country, living within different communities with the aim of trying to understand what makes Myanmar’s people who they are, and the history that they have had to carry within themselves after decades of isolation. Documenting the historical moment which this country is going through after over a half a century of repressive military rule has been a goal of mine. Once one of the richest countries in South East Asia, Myanmar and its people have suffered extremely to have their basic needs met, such as proper medical care and education. The lack of access to light is just one of the many hardships which the average inhabitant of Myanmar has to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

 

Construction workers dig a household latrine.

Construction workers dig a household latrine.

 

Men playing Chinlone, Myanmar's national sport on a field in Pa Dan Kho Village.

Men playing Chinlone, Myanmar’s national sport on a field in Pa Dan Kho Village.

 

What challenges did you face shooting this project?

Solar powered LED lights illuminate in a slightly different way than ordinary light bulbs, so finding the right amount of light and knowing how to place them to use the visual language that I had in my mind was difficult. I had to use a lot of trial and error at the beginning. I wouldn’t call them mistakes as much as case studies which were key to understanding how to depict people’s stories in the most powerful way.

 

In the second chapter of the project which I shot on assignment for National Geographic, I wanted to work in an elephant camp with a community of ‘oozies’ (elephant handlers), with whom I had worked with extensively depicting how elephants are used for teak-logging in Myanmar. Some of the families in the camp use solar light, so to show this I decided to place solar lights on an elephant while a handler rode on top of it. It was a real challenge to keep the equipment intact – you can imagine what a three-ton animal could do to the bulbs or panel had it not been cooperative!

 

Daw Mu Nan, a Padaung farmer and mother of eight at her grandson's home.

Daw Mu Nan, a Padaung farmer and mother of eight at her grandson’s home.

 

Village leaders walk through Inn Gaung Village illuminated by a solar panel energy system.

Village leaders walk through Inn Gaung Village illuminated by a solar panel energy system.

See more of Rubén’s work here.

The Sony World Photography Awards are open for entry – the Open Competition (with a prize of $5,000) closes on the 5th January and the Professional Competition (with a prize of $25,000) closes on the 12th January. Find more information here.

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