I captured this image nearly 20 years ago in 1998, and it still stands as one of my favorite images. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston agrees and recently added it to their permanent collection. I can remember clearly taking this picture on a hot sunny day in Rangoon. I spent slightly more than three weeks in Burma, but this scene unfolded before me within the first two days of arriving in the country.
About arriving in Burma. Back in 1998, Burma was essentially blocked from trading with the entire world. It’s a remarkable feat, really, to have pissed off all the world powers, but they had managed to do so. One side effect was that a requirement for entering the country was to bring $250 of U.S. currency – no travelers checks or credit cards, just cash – and trade that at the airport for FECs or Foreign Exchange Currency. That was one way that the military dictatorship that ran Burma acquired hard cash to buy things such as arms on the open arms market.
I, like every other tourist, had signed an agreement to bring the said $250 of cash with me. That was a prerequisite to getting a visa. And so I boarded my quick flight from Bangkok to arrive in Burma with my visa clearly taped into my passport. Oh, and I had cash. Enough to get me through a month in Burma. Only, I had most all of the cash hidden away in different places in my backpack and I had no intention of trading my cash for FECs. I also had two $5 bills in my money belt. And an emergency $20 tucked into a sock.
At the Rangoon airport, the handful of tourists on my flight dutifully handed over their $250 and received $250 worth of FECs in return. They would spend those FECs in Burma and receive Kyats, the local currency, as change. Any FECs left at the trip would be all but useless. Even trading Kyats for dollars was tough.
When it was my turn to hand over my $250, I presented a credit card, knowing full well that due to all of the banking blockades, no one in Burma – not least of all the government – could take a credit card. The authorities made a big show of pointing out the paper I had signed agreeing to bring $250 of cash into the country. I pointed out that in the rest of the world a credit card was the same as cash and shrugged my shoulders. They confiscated my passport and started asking questions. “How are you going to pay for your hotel?” they asked. I told them I would go to the bank and have money wired in. “It is Sunday, the banks are closed,” they pointed out. I’ll go tomorrow, I told them. “How will you pay for the cab?” They asked incredulously. Oh, I told them, I have $10 with me.
I opened up my money belt and fished out the two lonely $5 bills I had placed there before leaving Bangkok.
The police at the Burmese airport demanded the $10. I laid $5 on the counter and insisted that I needed the other $5 to pay for the taxi into town.
The net result was that a $5 bribe got me out of paying $250 in exchange for FECs. The police took my $5, gave my passport back and sent me on my way. Two weeks later, after spending four days together – a guide in a remote part of Burma asked me to explain what happened at the airport. He then proceeded to let me know that I had been followed and tracked ever since arriving in Burma and that he, as my guide, had to report to the police on everything that I did. Among other things, the government wanted him to find out from me was how I ended up with money to pay for my travels when I had arrived with no money. “I worked it out at the bank,” I lied.
There was a lot to see and photograph in Burma. I had stepped out of my backpacker hotel the first night and stepped into a scene that was utterly unrecognizable – the sheer magnitude of people living on the streets and going through all manner of life that we go through behind closed doors and just laying it all out there for everyone to see. That was Rangoon at night in 1998.
During the day, the chaos still existed, but it was more recognizable. I remember watching the public buses pass through the streets filled beyond capacity with people moving around the city. And then this unfolded before me. I had but a moment to get into position, move around yet more people headed toward the door, focus, set exposure and shoot. I was shooting film, of course – digital didn’t exist yet. And I had limited film with me and, of course, no assurance that I could buy film in Burma. So every click of the shutter was precious. I took one picture of this scene – unheard of today – and this is it.
I love every nuance within the scene. Look carefully and you’ll see someone in the doorway staring out at me, looking directly into the camera. For me, he makes the shot. This image alone sparked the idea for me to create a series called The Daily Commute. I have played with this idea off and on over the years and while I have yet to launch the collection, I have plans for this series that I am, to this day, still excited about and plan to pursue again when I have a free moment.
This image works for me on many levels. It’s a fascinating moment in time. It’s well framed and composed. And, truthfully, it’s a stark reminder as to the varied lives that people across our planet are living right now, even as you read this. I am grateful that I was able to travel in Burma, grateful that I’ve had the broad range of experiences that exposed me to how people live in countries both wealthy and poor – and grateful that I was able to capture this image on film.
I recently printed this image again and framed it in our new framing facility. It now sits on the floor in my house awaiting a decision as to where it will hang. Soon enough, this daily commute will again, albeit as a 2-dimensional image, be a part of my daily life.