Asian photographers who live and work in Asia, and especially in developing countries like Myanmar, don’t often get much attention in the West. This is now beginning to change, but only slowly. One such photographer breaking through is Burma’s most famous all around lensman, Kyaw Kyaw Winn.
Like a Burmese version of a Horatio Alger story, “K.K.’s” life is an inspiration – a poor country boy growing up and making good in the big city and beyond. He was born in a small village in rural Myanmar, Magway Division, where his father was a farmer scraping out a living from a small plot of land.
At the age of 9 K.K. was lucky enough to receive a rarity in Myanmar at the time, a camera! Never mind that it was a banged up Chinese made rangefinder – the Seagull KJ1 – that it was in good working order was all that mattered. Although he did not understand it at the time, those initial images were documentary – his family at work in the field, at play around the house, and an environmental portrait of his mother preparing a meal. But it was only with the last click of the last shot on that first roll of film that he came to a sudden realization – he had no way to develop the film!
The nearest town with developing facilities was 27 miles away, up the legendary Irrawaddy River, which is the longest on the planet that runs source to sea within a single nation’s borders. With no money to satisfy his burning desire to see his photographs, he instinctively knew just who to turn to – his mother. Like mothers everywhere put under the irresistible pressure of earnest cuteness, she dug out some of her rainy day savings and unwittingly put young K.K. on a career path that would never, ever waver.
Returning from his first film run with his first photographs, K.K. could not stop looking at them, nor wipe the smile from his face. Before long he drew the attention of other riverboat passengers, one of whom would ask the boy to take his picture. This ended up being a rather unruly group portrait as half the boat laughingly tried to press themselves into the frame, but this frenzy gave K.K. an idea. He never imagined the idea was to set the course for his entire future, but that’s just what it did.
In 1990 few people in Myanmar owned cameras, and most of those who did lived in Yangon or Mandalay. In rural areas, one didn’t have to look far to find a person who had never had even a single photograph taken of themselves. Very often family portraits were painted by local artists, and any photographs one might have were usually of poor quality, cracked and faded.
Within a couple of days, once the shy K.K. had worked up the courage, he took his camera and approached a neighbor family with his idea, quietly proposing a family portrait. The kindly neighbors accepted, and for the grand sum of about .75 cents, the 9-year old Kyaw Kyaw Winn became a professional photographer!
In addition to portrait making, by the time he finished high school K.K.’s virtual photographic monopoly in the tri-village area had him well experienced in shooting weddings and other events. He knew what he wanted to do and where he had to do it – Yangon. And so armed with “big fish small pond” confidence, he left home for Myanmar’s largest city.
The very first thing K.K. did, even before having a place to stay, was to seek out the Myanmar Photographic Society and enroll in a general photography course. By the end of the first class he was a little crestfallen. The work of his instructor and others during a slideshow presentation had made it clear that there had been a role reversal.
He realized he was now a little fish in a big pond, with quite a lot to learn! He freely admits to not being very good during that first year, but it only made him more determined. He studied and worked hard, taking and developing all the pictures he could.
It was early in his second year in Yangon that he began to pick up some work through the Society, and by the end of 2000 had saved enough to purchase his first brand new camera, a Nikon FM10. And the rest as they say, is history.
A history, for the 3-time Myanmar Photographer of the Year, that includes over 500 local and international image awards and major competition wins. He’s been published in numerous print magazines and newspapers around the world, and been exhibited throughout Asia as well as been part of a number of collective shows in a number of Western countries, including the United States.
Some of K.K’s most meaningful work comes from his position as chief photographer for UNICEF in Myanmar, and he is honored to be the British Embassy’s official snapper as well. In 2014 he was named executive editor of the U.K.’s Digital Photography magazine (Burmese edition), and was chosen to team with the likes of Steve McCurry, Michael Yamashita, Abbas, etc., to photograph EDM Books multi-media project, “7 Days in Myanmar”.
K.K. also leads one day workshops for both Nikon & Fujifilm, as well as two week travel photography workshops for Luminous Journeys.
All that said, Kyaw Kyaw Winn is only 35-years old, and having been hidden away in Myanmar and Eastern Asia for most of his career, is just getting started!
This guest post was submitted by Bennett Stevens, a writer and photographer based out of Thailand. You can visit Bennett’s website here and see more inspiring images from Burma, India, Israel, Cambodia, Vietnam and other countries.