Nic Dunlop spent 20 years photographing Burma under military rule. His new book, Brave New Burma, captures a country emerging from decades of dictatorship, isolation, and fear. Dunlop is also the author of The Lost Executioner, a book about how he tracked down Khmer Rouge leader Comrade Duch. He was born in Ireland and is now based in Bangkok, Thailand.
When I started out as a photographer, I saw photographs as evidence. I believed they could be a catalyst for positive change. Photographs humanize the abstract and show that human rights are about real people and real situations.
When I began working in Cambodia in the early 1990s, I became obsessed with the problem of landmines and what they were doing to ordinary people. I took the pictures with a burning anger and desire to see these weapons outlawed. In Burma, I set out to describe a military dictatorship and show how it affected the lives of people there. This approach to the problems in both countries seemed straightforward. But they opened up complexities that I was barely aware of.
More than anything else, it is photography’s inherent ambivalence that appeals to me now. A single image can contain a mass of contradictions. And it can be wonderfully subversive.
Take for example, the portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi. On first reading it is a straightforward portrait that celebrates her status as an icon of human and democratic rights. But for every positive attribute a less flattering one can also apply: she can be seen as courageous but arrogant, principled but self-righteous, determined but in-flexible. The more one looks at an image the more complex it becomes and conveys a truer reflection of a situation or personality.
This, for me, is central to photography’s longevity and appeal. It defies a singular interpretation and warns against what Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger the single story.”