RANGOON—When he first came to Burma in 1993, at the age of 29, Yuzo Uda didn’t think he would stay for very long. A freelance photojournalist from Japan, he planned to spend about five years covering the country’s repressive military regime before shifting his focus elsewhere, perhaps moving to cover another dictatorship in another part of the world.
But, as the bespectacled 49-year-old knows now, plans can change.
“I never shifted my focus to another country, because that’s Burma,” he told The Irrawaddy last week. “I’ve been sticking to this country for 21 years.”
There was always more to see, he said, so he kept coming back to Burma with his cameras, often traveling to areas so remote that they could only be reached on foot.
Hoping to document the lives of ordinary people under the military regime, he became the first foreign photojournalist to visit every region of the country. On one trip, he went all the way up to Burma’s northernmost town, Putao in Kachin State, and trekked for two weeks to photograph ethnic Rawang communities living in relative isolation. Another time, he went to a fishing village at the southernmost tip of Burma to record the daily lives of ethnic Pashu Muslims.
Now, after more than two decades, he has become Japan’s most authoritative photojournalist on Burma.
“If a Japanese publication or someone in Japan needs a photo of Burma, they come to me because I’m the only one in my country who works here,” said Yuzo Uda, whose photographs have also been widely published by Burmese exiled media, including The Irrawaddy, Mizzima News and the Democratic Voice of Burma, as well Thai newspapers such as The Bangkok Post and The Nation.
“I have a very rare opportunity to travel around Burma, and I’ve managed to visit places where even local people can’t go,” he said during his latest visit to Rangoon, where he was working on his second photography book, which documents communities around the country from 1993 until 2012. The book, “Peoples in the Winds of Change,” is bilingual, with text in Burmese and English, and will hit bookstores in Rangoon, Naypyidaw and Mandalay early next month.
“My publisher said I’m the first international photojournalist to publish my photos from Burma here [in Burma],” he said. “I’ve spent half my life here. For me, it’s natural to publish my work here because my feelings, my ideas, have always been stimulated by things that happen here.”
Wai Lin, chief of operations at Myanmar Consolidated Media, which is printing the book, said the government’s newly relaxed stance on media censorship has allowed Yuzo Uda’s photographs to see the light of day.
“Plus, the content of the book doesn’t badly damage our country’s image,” he added.
Yuzo Uda, a Kobe city native, developed an interest in photography in his mid-20s and went to study photojournalism at the New England School of Photography in Boston in 1990, three years before coming to Burma.
After completing his courses in 1992, his awareness and sympathy for people living under dictatorship pulled him to El Salvador in Central America, where he documented the end of the country’s military regime. Bound for Burma a year later with six cameras and several lenses, he spent three months in Karen State, trekking through the jungle near the Thai-Burma border to cover areas of fighting between the Karen National Union and the government’s army.
“I’m against the military regime,” he said. “I can’t be neutral; I feel a connection to people living under the military regime and resisting it. I just want to be a voice for the voiceless under a regime that shows no justice.”
After nearly a decade in the border area, Yuzo Uda moved in 2002 to Rangoon, which was the country’s capital at the time. Here in Burma’s biggest city, he says he experienced the fear of working as a photojournalist under the military regime. After taking photos at the headquarters of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy, he remembers dodging the watchful eyes of plainclothes police officers by changing taxis three or four times. When military intelligence officials were on his trail another time, he tried to lose them by spending the night in a town about 50 miles outside Rangoon. Every day for nearly a month he became physically ill when he heard a knock on his guesthouse door, fearing the police had come to arrest him.
“I was very scared and I started realizing how it feels, the fear, to live under a military regime—a very big experience for me,” he said. “It’s my desire to document the lives of people surviving under the repressive regime that has kept me here so long, covering the country.”
Yuzo Uda has been interrogated and harassed by security forces, including once at gunpoint, but he says he has never been deported or detained. “I’ve never broken the law and I always managed to get the travel documents I needed, so they couldn’t take action against me,” he said.
As President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government embarks on a platform of reform, he said he only feels partly secure—about “70 percent”—to travel around the country.
“It [the reform] has come from the government, and at any time there might be backsliding,” he said. “Burma’s history tells us this. If the changes were from the people, I would feel 90 percent secure.”
Asked why he felt so attached to Burma, the veteran photojournalist said he believed the country had, in some ways, chosen him.
“Somebody, something here picked me up,” he said. “I don’t know who or what. But when I started as photojournalist at [the age of] 27, I was an amateur. Coming here and spending 21 years in the country has taught me a lot.”
After more than two decades documenting the daily lives of ordinary people, Yuzo Uda is thinking about a new challenge: taking photographs of people in higher places, such as the country’s ex-dictator Than Shwe, to record changes inside the country.
“They’re part of Burma’s history and we have to accept their existence,” he said.
And if these high-ranking officials would rather not stand before the camera? To this, the 49-year old replied: “Look, now the country is changing, and I’m trying to cover the change. If they don’t say ‘yes,’ they will be out of my record.”