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Moral Problem?

In the beginning of December Steve McCurry was in Milan, in a photo gallery-bookshop, to sign his books and to meet the public (I’m SORRY I forgot to post the date here!). During the encounter someone asked him about his workshops in Myanmar (http://stevemccurryworkshops.com/myanmar.php), referring to the dilemma “is it right or wrong to travel to Myanmar as the money most probably only ends up in the hands of the military junta”. Mr. McCurry answered calmly and quite shortly, saying that he respects “the other point of view” but that he doesn’t “have any moral problem with [holding a workshop in Myanmar].” Period. Mr. McCurry didn’t offer any further explanations even though the person who had brought the subject up made an attempt to continue the discussion.

Back home I checked on the internet (just a quick Google Search) and the first article I bumped into told me that nowadays there are pro and con groups concerning the tourism in Myanmar and even read that also Aung San Suu Kyi would’ve reconsidered her position on the matter (can someone confirm? I admit I read only this: http://www.theage.com.au/travel/burma-to-go-or-not-20091008-gnqi.html).

Anyway, the whole thing left me thinking. Reading the workshop description on McCurry’s website you’ll find out what YOU will get OUT of it (“The workshops are a one-of-a-kind opportunity to see behind the scenes into all facets of Steve’s photography.” http://stevemccurryworkshops.com/workshop.php) but I coudn’t find neither any reference to the situation and conditions of today’s Myanmar nor thoughts on what MYANMAR could possibly get out of it. So the whole thing started to seem to me a kind of case of “doing the right thing for wrong reasons.” And/or with results only to the participants and the teacher. Did I miss something?

Anyone want to share an opinion?

by Laura Larmo at 2009-12-29 20:16:16 UTC | Bookmark | | Report spam→

I think it is unacceptable – use the word immoral if you want – for people to travel there as tourists, given the horrors perpetrated by the regime. But it is especially awful for photographers who respect human rights to hold workshops in Burma (Burma is its real name…Myanmar was bestowed by the junta). This is the place where the government troops shot Japanese photographer Kenjii Nagai in cold blood as he was clearly doing his work photographing protests by the monks in 2008. http://www.pulitzer.org/works/2008-Breaking-News-Photography To the best of my knowledge, the government has never apologized or offered other justification for his murder.

I would bet a sizable sum also that, contrary to the representations, there won’t be any “behind the scenes” guidance there because the government overseers won’t allow it. No workshop there will be able to fly below the scrutiny of the government because nobody does..it has spies everywhere. They are bound to get in the way of any honest journalism. So trying to “cover” any real news or tell any but the most banal stories just ain’t gonna happen. Indeed purporting to tell any stories out of such workshops without disclosing the fact that they are so constrained is, IMHO, unethical. If you think Iraq or Afghanistan embeds are only for shilling, then this is much worse (I personally think embeds are ethically OK if disclosed).

Don’t spend your money supporting either photographers who exploit the situation or the government that takes advantage of it. There are many other workshop options around the world where the instruction won’t be compromised.

by [former member] | 29 Dec 2009 23:12 (ed. Dec 29 2009) | Washington, DC, United States | | Report spam→
At what point do we refuse to travel to a country because we disagree with the actions of its government? How does one determine the real name of a country?

by Barry Milyovsky | 30 Dec 2009 01:12 | lost in the, United States | | Report spam→
It’s not about whether you travel but for what purpose. And whatever the real name of the country is, governments consisting of military juntas have no legitimate rights to do anything.

by [former member] | 30 Dec 2009 01:12 | Washington, DC, United States | | Report spam→
How does one determine the acceptable purposes for which one may travel to a country? How does one determine whether a government is legitimate or not?

by Barry Milyovsky | 30 Dec 2009 01:12 | lost in the, United States | | Report spam→
Hi Laura, many thanks. I have no idea about Myanmar or Burma. So is good you mention that are some military junta. So i add one more question, why are there in that place a military junta?

by Hernan Zenteno | 30 Dec 2009 02:12 | Buenos Aires, Argentina | | Report spam→
Hernan, there is a military junta ’cos the international community allows it to stay in power.

My opinion is: I don’t see a serious moral issue here. I can not believe that that work shop will generate any money to benefit the government. The international oil and logging companies on the other hand are the real sponsors of the junta.

I’ve spent quite some time in Myanmar since 2001 and you can do a fair deal of photographing without anybody (of the government) stopping you. It happened once to me but is was not a big deal and basically ignored it.

When it comes to tourism I have a bigger problem with all these climbers here on Everest paying thousands of dollars for climb permits. Real hard currency in copious amounts that goes in the pockets of the government while the whole country is falling apart and people truly are suffering (floods, famine, extreme violence, bombs, caste-honor-killings, illiteracy, no electricity and/or fuel, etc…). Spending all that dough just to freeze your ass off 8000 m high in a country that is neck-deep in the shit, eat a steak in Kathmandu and fly out again…that I find disturbing.

So to go back to Myanmar, there are problems everywhere, a workshop where you get at least a tiny bit of exposure and background or a holiday with a lonely planet that also tells you about the junta is not such a huge deal.

by Tom Van Cakenberghe | 30 Dec 2009 06:12 (ed. Dec 30 2009) | Kathmandu, Nepal | | Report spam→
Thanks Tom. I was reading some more in the web. I doubt a workshop can make a change in that scene. Hope some local photojournalist can take it so they will have more contacts to report the issues of that place. Maybe a grant for a local photographer will be a good idea.

by Hernan Zenteno | 30 Dec 2009 14:12 | Buenos Aires, Argentina | | Report spam→
You determine whether a government is legitimate or not by a subjective assessment of how democratic it is, and how many people it has killed. You determine the legitimate purposes for which one may travel by another subjective assessment as to how much your travel there might benefit the regime / hurt the ordinary people.

I agree with Neal on a bunch of his points: Yes it is Burma and Rangoon. Some years ago people of a certain type were willing to spell and call a neighboring country “Kampuchea,” the Khmer Rouge appellation for Cambodia. A bit embarrassing now, huh? But of course I am the guy who lately has been calling the capital of China: “Peiping” and not 北京 (Beijing; Peking); 北平 (Peiping or Beiping in pinyin) was what it was called from 1928-1949, just out of a sense of nostalgia, and to annoy people.

The names you use reflect your political and historical choices. Saigon and not Ho Chi Minh City, for example. But nothing is wrong with Mumbai and not Bombay, or Malaysia and not Malaya, or, Zagreb and not Agram, Gdansk and not Danzig, right?

But I disagree that it would be wrong to travel as a tourist in Burma. By that standard it would have been wrong to have been a tourist in Brezhnev’s USSR or Mao’s China. An argument can be made that by being a tourist, the iPods, miniskirts, and duty-free liquor that you bring with you will eventually be part of the solution. This is the idea that it was not B-52s that ended Communism, but rather blue jeans and the Beatles. Although the recent Islamist terrorist attacks conducted by entirely modernized people suggests the opposite…

Bottom line, yes, your travel will have some imperceptible impact, good, bad, or indifferent. Is it appropriate? Only you can decide that.

by [former member] | 30 Dec 2009 14:12 | Brooklyn, United States | | Report spam→
Barry I don’t know if you meant this but yes, of course every country – unfortunately – has their own skeletons in and out of closet so on that basis you shouldn’t travel anywhere (or live anywhere neither). And no, you may not be able to set the rules on what are the accettable purposes for travelling but at least you can say “look, this is the situation, and there are different opinions about it”. I mean that is what surprised me about McCurry; we’re not talking about Happy&CarelessSmileTravels Inc. for those tourists who don’t want to see anything “unpleasant” while on holiday but a photojournalist.

Hernan, I’m by no means any expert in the subject but are you actually saying that you hadn’t heard of for example Aung San Suu Kyi before?

by Laura Larmo | 30 Dec 2009 14:12 | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→
Nope Laura. I never hear about Kyi before. And can name a lot of other countries situation i don’t know. But i know about dictatorships because in my region we had a lot. For example in 1978 we have the Football world cup during a cruel dictatorship. And all the first world countries fans come here and nothing happen. An event of this characteristics is for me important. A workshop i doubt. And i suppose that the people that come to a photojournalist workshop are not empty themselves, they will learn better than me about the situation of Burma or whatever the name of the country. A positive suggerence about workshops i would like to mention again are that maybe will be good to offer a grant to participe in that workshop some local journalist.

by Hernan Zenteno | 30 Dec 2009 15:12 | Buenos Aires, Argentina | | Report spam→
What interests me, Laura, is how many groups and individuals find it in their best interests to restrict my travel to support their agendas regarding Burma, Cuba, etc. I don’t think closing doors helps anything that you or I want to accomplish, though it might help what a military junta wants to accomplish quite a bit. As with all things in life we, as individuals, have to determine the consequences of our actions and, as Alan says, only the individual can decide.

by Barry Milyovsky | 30 Dec 2009 15:12 | lost in the, United States | | Report spam→
Barry, now I’m not sure if I understood; who are restricting you and you’re talking about closing doors by whom?

by Laura Larmo | 30 Dec 2009 16:12 | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→
It’s usually a pretty good indication that there is something illegitimate with a ruling body in a country
when there has been a democratically elected leader, in the case of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi who has
been denied the right to lead the country by force or imprisonment by said ruling body/military dictatorship.

It is possible to get money into the hands of the local people in Burma, but you
must stay in small guesthouses,
travel like the locals do and eat at the local places. There are places where it is difficult to do so, you are
sheparded to stay in a particular area of a town, or you hire the wrong guide who turns out to have gov’t
connections and then spends several hours browbeating you for attending what seemed like an innocuous
tourist show.

ultimately it has to come down to whether you can live with your decision and what, if anything, you
can do to help local people. The big multi-nationals are there to extract resources
and these industries directly
profit the military leadership. So pressure has to be put onto the countries who have these companies working
there by their own citizens. Unfortunately, Burma is only a small country somewhere in Asia and many people
have no idea of what is going on there, if they’ve even heard about it.

by julia s. ferdinand | 30 Dec 2009 16:12 | chiang mai, Thailand | | Report spam→
Ok Barry, I think I got it; you were talking about Neal’s advice to not go – in this case – to Burma.

But actually my main point wasn’t the problem of whether or not or why go for example to Burma but – I know I’m repeating myself – I’m quite interested in the fact that a photojournalist who has been rewarded for his photos of wars and conflicts is organizing a workshop in a country with a rather problematic situation from the human rights point of view without a slightest mention of that situation. That’s what I meant by saying that one could at least say on the side of talking about markets and handicraft workshops “the situation is this (in Burma), there are different opinions about it” (and I could add “and now use your own brains to decide what to think of it”). That’s what I would’ve somehow expected from photojournalist McCurry.

by Laura Larmo | 30 Dec 2009 18:12 (ed. Dec 30 2009) | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→
Laura, I was responding to Neal’s comment as you say. Sorry I was not clear about that but Neal is a much better debater than I am so I decided to be ambiguous. I agree with your concerns about McCurry but good photographers are not necessarily good thinkers— look at Leni Riefenstahl, for example.

by Barry Milyovsky | 30 Dec 2009 22:12 | lost in the, United States | | Report spam→
The idea that you can embargo a dictatorship out of power is laughable. It has never worked, not in North Korea, not in Cuba, not in Myanmar. To the contrary, the more the country is cut off and strangled, the more the people suffer. The dictators will always be living well no matter how much or how little you spend there.

It’s very simple really, if you don’t go, the gov would never feel a thing. If you do go, that $10 you gave to a local for a meal/room/souvenir is tangible and can help them feed their family. Aside from money, you also bring information and a connection to the outside world. Although it may give you the warm fuzzy boycotting the country and denouncing their gov, it’s doesn’t do a damn thing and is counterproductive if your concern is the people.

by Tommy Huynh | 30 Dec 2009 23:12 (ed. Dec 30 2009) | San Antonio, United States | | Report spam→
It worked in South Africa, Tommy. The boycott had a real impact there. It has not worked in other places because, unlike South Africa but like Burma and North Korea, there always seems to be some nation(s) who does not enforce the boycott and in fact allies with the bad government. If the foreign tourist traffic in Burma (or any nation, for that matter) fell to zero, I can promise you the government would take it quite seriously.

Moral stands start with one person. Whether the Burmese government feels my personal boycott is not the question. I know I am not helping the government, directly or indirectly, by taking my position. Lots of (relatively) innocent white people were hurt economically by the civil rights activism in the South. But the people who undertook the opposition were taking a moral stand, and in the end it paid off.

by [former member] | 31 Dec 2009 02:12 | Washington, DC, United States | | Report spam→
South Africa was not a dictatorship. As bad as the National Party was, there was some semblance of rational thought and sacrifice for the preservation of the state. Not so with the junta in Burma who know if they relinquish power, it means the cutting of their own throats.

Cuba was essentially on its own after the collapse of the USSR during the Special Period. The Castros are still in Power. North Korea has no tourism to speak off and is pretty well isolated outside of the helping hand of China. Sorry, I don’t see things changing even if China cut them off. However, assuming your theory holds true and China cuts them off, change could only come after the country is on the brink of starvation and brings about anarchy. These guys, like the junta in Burma, are not F.W. de Klerk, they are not going out any other way. The casualty among the people would be in the millions just from starvation. Not exactly something I’d be hoping for.

Where has social progress been achieved in the face of highly oppressive governments? China, Vietnam, etc… still a long way to go, but miles from where they were and these changes came about only after engagement from outside. Ostracizing them like we did with Cuba however has done what? Nothing but shut them off and impoverishing the people. With trade comes leverage.

At any rate, the reality of the situation is that, as you say, there will always be another country that does not follow your beliefs regarding an embargo or even our wishes for change and therefore the endgame of the embargo cannot be achieved. You admit your visit makes no impact on the junta. However it eases your conscience to avoid going. Sorry my friend, I respectfully disagree. Choosing what makes you feel better over what actually helps the people is not “moral” in my opinion.

by Tommy Huynh | 31 Dec 2009 04:12 (ed. Dec 31 2009) | San Antonio, United States | | Report spam→
I can see both points of view, one by Neal and one by Tommy, to be valid. So I googled and found this article.


South Africa`s situation was Apartheid practiced by an occupying power (a white government is essentially that) against the native African blacks, in my opinion. As such, it is different from a dictatorship by a one native group of a particular polical pursuation against the rest of the native population.

by Tomoko Yamamoto | 31 Dec 2009 07:12 | Vienna, Austria | | Report spam→
@ Barry: You’re right, and in McCurry’s case I’m starting to wonder what has been his original motivation for his photojournalistic works. Awareness that shocking pictures and bad conscience sell?

by Laura Larmo | 31 Dec 2009 13:12 | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→
I believe that the action of one individual can be the tipping point for change. One never knows. The classical example is Rosa Parks. This courageous black woman in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 refused to go to the back of the bus where black people were required by custom and law to sit. A little-known element of history — she was not the first person in Montgomery or even on bus line to have done this — another woman had done it six months earlier.

But Rosa Parks’ action led to her arrest and to the Montgomery bus boycott, one of the leaders of which was a young preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. That civil rights protest brought King to national publicity and gave him the platform to express the ideas that were such a core part of the US civil rights movement. And the rest is history.

When Rosa Parks took that action, she did not know it would be the tipping point for all that followed. Many would have said, and I am sure did, that her action wasn’t going to change anything. This is true with any of us. That’s why doing the right thing morally is always the better course. Maybe most of the time it may not change anything. But then there is that single action that becomes the tipping point for a historical change….

by [former member] | 31 Dec 2009 17:12 | Washington, DC, United States | | Report spam→
Well said Neal.

by P. Money | 02 Jan 2010 01:01 | | Report spam→
there is validity in both arguments.. but Tommy is right. South Africa was not a dictatorship. No one
would dispute the bravery of someone such as Rosa Parks, but she would have been sentenced to 7
years hard labor in Burma for speaking out against the junta, as Par Par Lay and his brother Lu Zaw were
for making a joke about the government at an independance day celebration for Aung San Suu Kyi. You
have to take into account that in some places there is no rule of law. In the US in the 60s, yes, there was
segregation.. but you must take into account that our judicial system is capable of looking at itself and
judging whether the law is unfair. Sometimes it has to be prodded, but American’s
are lucky that the system
will still try to work fairly. In some Countries that is not going to happen until the ruling power is removed
from control. In Burma’s case, i’m willing to bet China is unwilling to adhere to sanctions because they
are propping up the Junta in exchange for Burma’s wealth of resources. I could see that for myself on the
streets of Mandalay in two visits within two years. Before the streets were lit with candlelight at night, and
after there was some deal.. Chinese supplied generators.

Secondly, no one would want to take any light away from the bravery of Rosa Parks
but she was acting
not in a vacuum, but out of legitimate inheritance of history in America. There was an Abolitionist movement
from the 18th C. Individuals who stood up to say that Blacks should not be treated as a commodity or less
than human.

Lastly, in response to the original query.. many of these photographic workshops are held in impoverished countries.
You have to ask yourself, does the Photographer or group give anything back to the community? Are efforts made to
get money into the hands of the poorer people? are they given opportunities to
make a way for themselves
by the interaction with the group? Or is it high star living all the way, here we are
taking images of those less
fortunate than ourselves? aren’t we lucky not to live here?

by julia s. ferdinand | 02 Jan 2010 03:01 | chiang mai, Thailand | | Report spam→
Neal, sorry, I’m with Tommy and Julia here.

As they stated, neither South Africa nor the American South were true totalitarian regimes, and even in those places, nobody ever said that individual tourists shouldn’t go and see for themselves what was going on.

Neal’s perhaps broader point, though, is fair, that as individuals we DO have to be careful about levels of complicity with governments/institutions that we disagree with and consider illegitimate. Certainly if you were to sell arms to the Burmese government, or launder money for them, or even only somehow walk away convinced that they are just misunderstood benevolent despots after all, your level of involvement with and support of the regime does proportionally increase. Again, only you can decide what is acceptable and what is crossing the line, for yourself.

There is an educational aspect to workshops that is important: maybe you don’t do anything to help anybody and actually benefit the regime, but in the process you see and learn things that you just didn’t know before. This will happen to you even if you are a guest of the generals themselves; all you have to do is take a walk around, and you’d figure out pretty quickly and easily what the realities are. You can then choose to ignore or discount or become an apologist for what you’ve seen, but this is your choice. At least you’d have experiences and data that the rest of us don’t.

by [former member] | 02 Jan 2010 06:01 | Brooklyn, United States | | Report spam→
I don’t agree completely with the last thing Alan said; in theory it’s just fine but seems a bit idealistic to me. Most people see only what they want to see and if they don’t want to see problems then everything they see during a workshop (for example in Burma) goes under the label “exotic” and stays there.

Am I expecting too much if I think the photographer/organization/whatever holding a workshop should also practise some educational activity at least by providing some information (not opinions) about the country where the workshop is being held (beside the information about marketplaces and breathtaking sceneries)?

by Laura Larmo | 02 Jan 2010 11:01 (ed. Jan 2 2010) | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→
Laura, yes, maybe you are expecting too much. Why should we expect the photographic industry to be more responsible than, say, the logging industry? And, yes, it is true that most people see what they want to see but with Alan’s concept they are, at least, given the opportunity to see what they don’t want to see.

by Barry Milyovsky | 02 Jan 2010 13:01 | lost in the, United States | | Report spam→

how do you provide “information-not-opinion” in a place where objective information is silenced, and information therefore becomes opinion ?

by [former member] | 02 Jan 2010 13:01 | | Report spam→
@ Barry: If talking about photographic industry in general perhaps I would be expecting too much, but if talking about photojournalism?

@ Matthias: I meant providing for example in Burma’s case for example the information that “Burma is a country where the opposition leader who has been democratically elected Prime Minister is currently detained under house arrest” or “there are different opinions on whether it is right or wrong to travel to Burma; others say travelling there helps only the military junta, others say it helps the local people as the travellers can tell the world outside what they have seen”. In your opinion with those sentences I’m expressing my opinion too much?

by Laura Larmo | 02 Jan 2010 14:01 | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→
laura : yes.

by [former member] | 02 Jan 2010 14:01 | | Report spam→
Matthias, what’s my opinion?

Barry, note no.2: yes you’re right, for some people it can be a turning point.

by Laura Larmo | 02 Jan 2010 14:01 | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→
laura, “you could be raping your 6 year old cousin, but some people say you aren’t”.

by [former member] | 02 Jan 2010 15:01 | | Report spam→
I believe that it is absolutely vital for local photojournalists to have international contacts like this, not to feel that they are alone in the world, without support. This is ultimately how junta’s are brought down – through personal contacts with the outside world. The most successful totalitarian regimes have been the ones that have been able to stop that kind of contact happening.

I think the point of view that you are somehow supporting the regime economically or morally by doing so is an excessively idealistic point of view. It helps keep us in the West at a comfortable distance from the problem, so that we don’t have to confront it. In other words, a bit of an ethical cop-out.

To take an extreme example, you could say that Soviet dissidents were supporting the Soviet regime because they bought their bread and milk in the Soviet shops every morning. It would be ‘cleaner’ ethically, and probably easier, to emigrate and criticise the regime from abroad. But life isn’t that simple. Sometimes it is harder, and more effective, to engage with people face to face on the ground, than to write moral treatises from abroad.

Just my opinion.

by Simon Crofts | 02 Jan 2010 15:01 | Edinburgh, Scotland | | Report spam→
Broadly I agree with Simon: this is the “blue jeans, iPods, miniskirts, and Beatles” argument…that exposure to, interaction with, and commerce (not just of cash but of ideas) with as cosmopolitan and freewheeling a society as possible.

But remember, morality and what is “acceptable” are relative concepts. Stalin’s USSR was a true totalitarian, murderous, dictatorial regime. In retrospect, though, Khrushchev’s and even Brezhnev’s USSR were horrible but hardly the Taliban. At least they were secular, and you could drink as much vodka as you could get your hands on. Something like Tito’s Yugoslavia was almost paradise, from a certain point of view.

One of the tragedies of Afghanistan and other countries grappling with Islamic fundamentalism is that communism became inextricably linked with secularism and modernity. So in the opposition to communism, which seemed at the time to be a worthy cause, we ended up supporting what evolved into Islamo-fascism. I mean, by the end of the Soviet war in 1989, the US was pouring millions to guys like Hekmatyar, while the withdrawing Soviets could claim, with some justification, that they had been trying to emancipate women, build a modern society, and so on. Of course they were an un-democratic, corrupt, ruthless, and inhumane state in the last throes of its own collapse. So there was no absolute right or wrong, no clear path. Only lessers-of-evils, best options that may prove to be terribly wrong, and often do.

And so it is even on choices that one individual makes. You visit Burma or a place like that as a tourist for a photo-workshop. You take some photographs, let’s speculate that you stumble into some great people and some great access. You win next year’s World Press with these pictures; that raises x-ammount of dollars for opposition groups and increases awareness. But the people you photographed end up harassed, in jail, forced to flee into exile or go underground. You feel so guilty about this, you become an accountant instead of continuing photography and journalism.

Obviously an extreme scenario, but you get the idea. Actions have consequences, always unforseen despite the best intentions. What was right, and what was wrong?

So I don’t think it’s “idealistic” of me to think that a mere tourist walks away with greater experience and knowledge. Even “exoticizing” can be a good thing if it means at least actual exposure and interaction with the people there.

by [former member] | 02 Jan 2010 16:01 | Brooklyn, United States | | Report spam→
Somewhat on the periphery of this discussion on the morality or otherwise of visiting/holding photographic workshops in Burma/Myanmar I have this question to ask: I live in a neighbouring country to Burma. Similar to the Burmese regime the governing (formerly communist but now dressed in free-for-all capitalist clothing) politburo – is composed mainly of military or ex-military personnel. The military also control much of the economic activity around timber exports. Behind its smiling face it is just as repressive, totalitarian and corrupt as the regime in Burma with the main difference being that it has been very sucessful in wooing the international aid community – EU, UN, ADB, World Bank, you name it they’re all here – which continues to pour money into government coffers while tourists flood in in ever increasing numbers without a care or question, never mind a moral dilemma. True there’s no charismatic a figurehead such as Aung San Suu Kyi around here, and if there was she or he would surely be dead by now. So is’t it rather hypocritical to criticise the one and not the other especially given their geographical and idealogical proximities or suitability as venues for photojournalistic workshops?

by Nigel Amies | 05 Jan 2010 12:01 (ed. Jan 6 2010) | Vientiane, Laos | | Report spam→
Hi Nigel,

actually my original let’s say question was a bit different. I was wondering how come to me it seems that photojournalist McCurry hadn’t dedicated even one minute to think about the possible effects of the workshop organized by him (which IN THIS case is held in Burma) more “profoundly”. He just had decided holding it in Burma wouldn’t be a “moral problem” to him (and – my intepretation – seemed he couldn’t care less if it would be a problem to someone else).

It seems I had naively presumed that he, being a photojournalist, would work by some principles like for example that he’d “believe organizing this workshop would benefit and help” also someone else not only his bank account.

It’s true on this thread the Burma is mentioned often but I think everyone has expressed their opinions also on “general side”, Burma/Myanmar just by accident seems to have become the main topic as McCurry happens to organize his workshop there.

by Laura Larmo | 05 Jan 2010 12:01 | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→
You’re right Laura. We all get a bit carried away moralising on these matters and Burma is, of course, a bit of an emotive topic. As for Mr. McCurry, like a lot of the older one-time ‘big name’ photogs, these days he’s probably just thinking about his retirement.

by Nigel Amies | 06 Jan 2010 11:01 (ed. Jan 6 2010) | Vientiane, Laos | | Report spam→
IMHO, applying your moral principle on a place you have never visited can be problematic.

I have opened a mailbox I had not had opened for the last few months, and was just reminded of problems in the United States, in my case, violence on streets in the city of Baltimore. It is not safe to walk around in many American cities. I also read this piece by Nicholas Kristoff, titled “More Schools, Not Troops.” Education is important, and I think those participating in a workshop in Burma or elsewhere will bring back eye-opening experiences in addition to photos they wll take.

by Tomoko Yamamoto | 06 Jan 2010 14:01 | Vienna, Austria | | Report spam→
Hi Laura,

I used to live in Ethiopia which has a terrible regime comparable in many ways to Burma.

Would I have a problem with photography tours to that country? Absolutely not … except the ones where people turn up to shoot poverty and malnutrition. Infact there were plenty of wankers for photojournalists who would do this, probably the type of photographer McCurry used to be when you admired him so much, but never a tourist, who were actually interested in exploring a beautiful country.

You talk about the possible effects of the workshop. What might they be?

I’m sure the people of Myanmar will be pleased for the interaction. I’m sure there will be many acts of kindness made along the way, played out in private.

by duckrabbit | 06 Jan 2010 20:01 | UK, United Kingdom | | Report spam→
Hi duckrabbit.

First of all, I’ve never said I admire/admired McCurry so please don’t put words in my mouth. And anyway it’s not important if I do or not.

Second, by talking about “the possible effects” I was talking about the question whether it would do good or bad to the people of Burma. Again, I’m not expressing my opinion on the subject, but as also you surely know at a certain point even Aung San Suu Kyi asked tourists not to travel to Burma . So, keeping that in mind the presumed possible effect IN THIS CASE could be that with the fee you pay for your workshop you help the military junta. Possibly. But, as I wrote in my first post I’ve also learned that, as also you say, there are also Burmese who would be happy to see tourists there because the tourists can tell what they have seen and the Burmese wouldn’t be forgotten. That’s another possible effect.

Third, the thing that perplexed me was the fact that McCurry evidently is aware that there’s a discussion going on about whether to go to Burma or not, but that he seems to have decided he needn’t consider it. As I’ve already said, I somehow expected that due to his work as a photojournalist he would be more sensitive to questions like Burma and would even think if (and perhaps try to make sure that) his contribution (effect) will be useful. I’m not trying to raise the question whether these workshops should be organized or not but HOW they are organized. That is for example, if you go, yes, take photos of the beautiful country (be that Burma or Ethiopia) but without forgetting the people who live there.

Did I explain myself?

by Laura Larmo | 06 Jan 2010 21:01 | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→
Hi Laura,

Thanks for that. Point taken that you didn’t comment on admiration or otherwise of McCurry photojournalism.

I might be a bit daft but I am still a bit confused. At the beginning you wrote that McCurry said that he:

respects “the other point of view”

Then later you write,

‘it seems that photojournalist McCurry hadn’t dedicated even one minute to think about the possible effects of the workshop organized by him’

Are you saying that McCurry is a liar? Because surely he can’t ‘respect’ the alternative point of view without at least have given it thought.

I’ll go back to Ethiopia which is in many ways a comparable country where state terrorism of the people is the norm and the elected Mayor of Addis has been given a death penalty. Would I put that in my brochure for a photography tour there? Of course not. Does that mean I haven’t given any potential implications of the trip any thought? Not for a second.

Still the fact that we’re having this debate validates your point … maybe I should at least write something to avoid my Ethiopia trip ending up as the focus of an interesting discussion on lightstalkers!

by duckrabbit | 06 Jan 2010 21:01 (ed. Jan 6 2010) | UK, United Kingdom | | Report spam→
Just to add Laura that I wasn’t at the talk, which of course you were, which might well have changed the way I feel about this.

by duckrabbit | 06 Jan 2010 22:01 | UK, United Kingdom | | Report spam→
If you quote me like that (and also because of how I wrote those things) it sounds contradictory, yes. I think you caught me exaggerating and being inaccurate, yes, but I also think you got my point, that is the difference between ways McCurry could’ve proceeded. Possibility I: McCurry hears that the tourists are advised not to travel to Burma. Knowing that, McCurry justifies himself somehow and decides anyway to organize a workshop and concentrates on how to sell it. End of the story. BUT, (Possibility II) McCurry could have continued the story asking himself: “Are they right? Could (and if yes in which way) my workshop really harm someone? Could I – and the students – do something that it wouldn’t happen? What that something could be?” Plus the questions Julia brought up in her post earlier. These are naturally only my presumptions but I just didn’t feel the Possibility II had happened. I mean for example he could’ve continued the discussion at the talk explaining why he was organizing the workshop (and he could’ve lied, of course, making up a noble cause), but – to me – it was clear he didn’t want to continue to talk about it.

About your trip to Ethiopia, I didn’t understand if you’re going there by yourself or are you really organizing a tour also for others? If the second option, can I ask you – without being polemic – are you going to talk about the “bad things” to the participants at least when you get there?

by Laura Larmo | 06 Jan 2010 22:01 | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→
Thanks for that Laura … you raise really interesting points.

I think its safe to say that whoever is organising a workshop like this should consider any potential problems so I’d be really surprised if Steve hadn’t considered your points but I could be completely wrong!

The Ethiopia trip is theoretical. I was the Country Director of the BBC World Service Trust there and I have talked with a few people about running some tours. But absolutely I would talk to anyone about the ‘bad’ things. I would expect though that they would inform themselves a little bit about the history of the country before packing their bags.

How can you start to connect with people unless you make the effort to inform yourself about the realities of their existence?

by duckrabbit | 06 Jan 2010 23:01 | UK, United Kingdom | | Report spam→
duckrabbit, you’re so right about the last thing you said. However – and this is again one of my presumptions – it may be that for example McCurry’s workshop isn’t exactly for people with photojournalistic instincts. Let’s hope I will be proven wrong and/or that will happen at least what Barry and Alan were referring to above, that is that when you see the reality you start to ask questions.

by Laura Larmo | 06 Jan 2010 23:01 (ed. Jan 6 2010) | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→
Laura: how about Steve using the workshop as a cover to allow him to get access to parts of Myanmar he wouldn’t have access to otherwise? And maybe that would be the reason he didn’t want to talk more about it?

by [former member] | 06 Jan 2010 23:01 | Phnom Penh, Centre of the Univ, Cambodia | | Report spam→
Can we assume, at this point, that no one here knows what McCurry thinks about the situation and that McCurry, himself is of no help in explaining what his point of view is, if he has one at all?

by Barry Milyovsky | 06 Jan 2010 23:01 | lost in the, United States | | Report spam→
John; I hadn’t thought of that, let’s hope that’s the reason!

Barry; at least if someone on this thread wants to organize a workshop in a country with severe human rights problems we have here plenty of advice about what to take into consideration while organizing it?

by Laura Larmo | 06 Jan 2010 23:01 | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→
Laura, I think you will get no argument from anyone on this thread on that point. But the next question will be: “Should you use a digital Leica M camera in the workshop?” Oops, have I started something here?

by Barry Milyovsky | 06 Jan 2010 23:01 | lost in the, United States | | Report spam→
Anyone who wants to answer Barry’s last question feel free to PM BARRY.

by Laura Larmo | 07 Jan 2010 00:01 | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→
Thank you Laura. I suppose I deserve that for attempting to hijack your thread.

by Barry Milyovsky | 07 Jan 2010 00:01 | lost in the, United States | | Report spam→
But the threads don’t belong to anyone! And besides, we have the freedom of speech (and let’s be happy about that) so you can bring in any subject you want. Except digital Leica M.

by Laura Larmo | 07 Jan 2010 00:01 | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→
And scarves…

by [former member] | 07 Jan 2010 00:01 | Phnom Penh, Centre of the Univ, Cambodia | | Report spam→
McCurry’s workshop to Burma costs each member $8500 (and is sold out)…excluding airfare etc, so it’s clearly not for photojournalists, but rather for people who have that kind of money and want to bring back pretty pictures as well as to brag that they traveled with a famous photographer. if these people spend a quarter of what they spent on the trip in Burma itself…on souvenirs and trinkets, and tips…benefiting the Burmese people themselves (not the junta or their cronies) i think it’s worthwhile. McCurry will never state his position on this because he will do what is right for him…and $8500 a head is what is right for him, it seems. it’s that simple and that cynical/commercial/business-like (choose the word your prefer).

by [former member] | 07 Jan 2010 00:01 (ed. Jan 7 2010) | New York, United States | | Report spam→
So Tewfic, for the price of the workshop you could get a Leica M9, a used lens and maybe a scarf?

by Barry Milyovsky | 07 Jan 2010 01:01 | lost in the, United States | | Report spam→
Anyone has a spare Leica scarf to cover Barry’s eyes so he can’t read and reply to these posts anymore?

by Laura Larmo | 07 Jan 2010 01:01 | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→
personally, it’s a no brainer. i’d get the leica and the used lens…and a Khmer scarf. and still have enough left for a latte.

by [former member] | 07 Jan 2010 01:01 | New York, United States | | Report spam→
interesting points raised by all…i’d like to address the specific issues of workshops as opposed to general philosophizing about dictatorships and tourism…

for the last two years i helped out at the New Orleans Mardi Gras photo workshop. First, obviously, no workshop in the USA is comparable to Burma. But in terms of street crime, racial and class tension, and the lingering aftereffects of the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, you could say that New Orleans, in some ways at least, was a challenging post-crisis or post-conflict type of place to work.

Our workshop participants were mostly photojournalistic/documentary type photographers, with varying levels of experience. Mostly we just thought it would be fun to let loose several dozen photographers to photograph the week-long festival in all its different and unusual aspects, and the way we helped was by providing local knowledge and connections, critiquing and editing work, etc. Lots of great pictures were made, but we did have one incident where a photographer had a knife pulled on him in a homeless encampment. Luckily he wasn’t harmed, but in all honesty, such incidents are par for the course in some parts of New Orleans.

And we had given a whole lecture about safety and the proper precautions and so on. And we had encouraged this photographer to push himself hard, to take reasonable risks, and so on.

The reason I relate this little story is because if you are going to do a workshop in a contentious or crisis area, you have, kind of, two contradictory purposes. On the one hand, the photographers who come to your workshop do so because they want the real thing. Bang bang. Hard core. However you choose to define those ideas, they’re different for each of us, but shared in that we all want our version of it. In the Burma workshop this might mean really getting into the heart of the opposition movement on one side and the military on the other, etc. Obviously none of this can be done without risk.

On the other hand, it is an educational workshop, after all, the students are students because they are not yet ready to really be super hard core. They want to be, you want them to be, but they are not yet. So it would be awful if something bad happened to one of them because you and they themselves were pushing them too hard. You want everybody to be safe. You want a learning experience, not yet totally the real thing. So at that point, in a place like Burma, it might actually be better to run a more “touristic” workshop, guiding students to natural beauty, cultural features, and so on. And that would be the “white-washed” or “sanitized” workshop that Laura seems to be concerned about. My argument is that even that kind of workshop still could be valuable, but the bigger point is that any other kind of workshop in Burma might get “too real.”

by [former member] | 07 Jan 2010 02:01 | Brooklyn, United States | | Report spam→
Laura and others, I finally and belatedly clicked on the links Laura provided at the starting post. (The only problem with the links is the closing parenthesis, so I won`t bother to reproduce the links correctly here.)

The opposition leader has reversed herself on the question of tourism to Burma/Myanmar according to this article on the Telegraph.

Also there is this Free Burma Coalition which reversed its position of isolating Burma to encouraging tourism.

My impressions of the Steven McCurry`s Myanmar Photo Workshop are that it is a travel/photo workshop and also that translated to the Euro it costs in the 5000 Euro range. It just indicates how weak the USD is nowadays.

by Tomoko Yamamoto | 07 Jan 2010 08:01 (ed. Jan 7 2010) | Vienna, Austria | | Report spam→
Truth is, for this kind of thing, money buys you very little. The more you spend the more distanced you will be from people. I saw that so often in Ethiopia.

In life perspective is really important and yes to me there is something distasteful about spending £5000 plus flights on a photography tour to a country with so many problems. But that’s a personal opinion and if the money can be used for good things than so be it.

by duckrabbit | 07 Jan 2010 12:01 | UK, United Kingdom | | Report spam→
Interesting post Laura, thank u. I Totally agree with Tewfic.
By the way I went to see the exhibition, in a beautiful place, also well mounted, kind of a humanity labirinth, but i felt disappointed seeing that for the part of childhood it’s been chosen mostly images of children with guns … a bit reductive and easy-emotive choice; i wander how much is due to the photographer’s choice or to the curator of the exhibition

by Dana De Luca | 07 Jan 2010 14:01 | Milan, Italy | | Report spam→
Tewfic: Thank you for the information. WOW. I expected the workshop to be expensive but not that expensive… (for me ‘expensive’ starts a lot earlier…)

by Laura Larmo | 07 Jan 2010 21:01 | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→
One can simply travel to Myanmar. It’s not North Korea and even has its own tourism promotion board:


by [former member] | 07 Jan 2010 21:01 | New York, United States | | Report spam→
Going to Myanmar and traveling in a way that gives as little as possible to the junta is not immoral. Going to Myanmar, staying in expensive hotels (co-owned by the Generals), traveling on air-conditioned buses, eating in the nice restaurants virtually guarantees that you will meet very few real people and will donate the maximum amount of money to the government. This is, in my mind, the equivalent of going to apartheid-era South Africa, staying in great hotels and only talking to the whites in power. In Myanmar, the colors are the same but the gap between the in-power and the powerless is even greater.

by Lewis Lorton | 08 Jan 2010 01:01 (ed. Jan 8 2010) | MAryland, United States | | Report spam→
I am interested in morality. How is it established? How are we to know what is right and what is wrong?

by Barry Milyovsky | 08 Jan 2010 01:01 | lost in the, United States | | Report spam→
How is it established? How are we to know what is right and what is wrong? …….. the person on the best soap box gets the rights of making the crap up for others to be pissed off with. Go the “do-gooders” and don’t forget to give that hamburger ( the two for one deal) to the poor people
Do what you do, but don’t bring us a sob story? Do something about it real time if you feel so compelled.
……. Burma loved the place http://www.etrouko.com.au/imants.htm

by Imants | 09 Jan 2010 23:01 (ed. Jan 10 2010) | The Boneyard 017º,, Australia | | Report spam→
Remarkably snarky responses and unexpected.

by Lewis Lorton | 10 Jan 2010 01:01 | Maryland, United States | | Report spam→
Imants, are you being snarky again?

by Barry Milyovsky | 10 Jan 2010 02:01 | lost in the, United States | | Report spam→
I tried the translate button but that didn’t make it intelligible.

by Lewis Lorton | 10 Jan 2010 15:01 | Maryland, United States | | Report spam→
Poor old Lewis ate both hamburgers and now feels snarly over his guilt

by Imants | 10 Jan 2010 22:01 (ed. Jan 11 2010) | The Boneyard 017º,, Australia | | Report spam→
I have wanted to write, both long and short comments, for a long time…over the weekend, i wrote something quite long, and then deleted it just as i went to hit submit….

so, instead, i’ll try a different tact….

i’m not certain, Laura (et all), if you (or anyone) are interested in listening to this…but if you are, have a listen…

it is from a recent dhamma talk from at our Sanga from our Sanga’s founder and head teacher…….

he actually speaks about Aung San Suu Kyi (who he knows personally)…..he is an amazing, vital, loving 70+ guy…and anyway….

have a listen, if interested…

he is our teacher, philip starkman…and no, he is not a photographer :))…but he enjoys talking with us about photography too….;)))…

anyway, enjoy…


by [former member] | 11 Jan 2010 22:01 (ed. Jan 11 2010) | Toronto, Canada | | Report spam→
I just wanted to tell you how I started coming to Europe and have now moved to Vienna, Austria. With me, it started with a tour I took, a choir-singing tour, which meant traveling to several cities in Germany and Austria (and one small town in Slovakia) and practicing singing and singing publicly. It was a two-week tour and we did not have any opportunity to meet the locals except our travel guides, one from Vienna and the other from the eastern Germany. It was my first exposure to Europe, and it took place in 1992. The tour gave me a taste of Europe for the first time, and the following summer I came back on my own, staying mostly at pensions or B&B, rather than a hotel. I don`t think I would have started coming to Europe on my own without that first trip.

Therefore I hope that those ten who are making the workshop will have eye-opening experiences even if they don`t meet any locals.

Steve McCurry`s workshop is limited to only ten people and it also involves his staff members, and so the ten people are paying for the staff members` travel (including the airfare to Myanmar) and hotel fees, and the tuition/lab servcies. I don`t know how the arithmetic will work out, but I am sure it works out to be expensive for each of ten.

Our choir trips (a total of three we undertook) were financed by largely taking on extra tour particpants outside the choir who would pay more and an art auction.

by Tomoko Yamamoto | 12 Jan 2010 00:01 | Vienna, Austria | | Report spam→
Tomoko, “You are preaching to the choir,” as they say.

by Barry Milyovsky | 12 Jan 2010 00:01 | lost in the, United States | | Report spam→
Barry, so you think that a silent majority who reads these posts would agree with me?

by Tomoko Yamamoto | 12 Jan 2010 09:01 | Vienna, Austria | | Report spam→
this ‘relatively’ silent reader does NOT agree…..let people, however, reconcile their own choices of awareness…frankly, i find this workshop unnerving….but what’s new in the world…

by [former member] | 12 Jan 2010 13:01 | Toronto, Canada | | Report spam→
Tomoko, it is difficult to determine what a silent majority agrees or disagrees with due to its silence.

by Barry Milyovsky | 12 Jan 2010 13:01 | lost in the, United States | | Report spam→
Bob, thank you for the link, I haven’t listened to it all yet.

As for your latter comment, what is it that makes you find the workshop unnerving?

by Laura Larmo | 12 Jan 2010 13:01 | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→

fist of all, sorry the dhamma talk is so long (51 minutes) and Philip doesn’t get to Burma until 30 minutes in, though the last 10 minutes where he speaks of Aung San Suu Kyi and reads from both her writing and addresses her ideas vis-a-vis ‘freedom’ and moral awareness, it’s worth the listen…

it’s difficult to summarize in a short statement, but i think, rather, i believe that moral behavior comes from awareness to begin with, from that awareness the effort (often failing) it is critical how each of us things and acts as it is, in fact, inextricably bound to the conditions of others. on the surface, these kinds of workshops do not bother me in the sense that they are for the wealthy, conducted as a means to earn money for McCurry et al, and to provide a life-time experience for the participants. Generally i say: good for them, if that’s how they must evaluate their lives: to each their own. However, it seems a major (and profound) lack of awareness on the part of the organizers that profound disconnect between the idea/cost/result of the workshop and the conditions of the lives of the people in burma. will this bring awareness to the participant? will the ‘tourists’ in this workshop bring ancillary benefit to local families/individuals? will the newly found awareness on the part of the participants help/foster change in the country or help for the people of burma? will the worshop bring help?….i doubt it…does taking a workhshop withsomeone become a spiritually, morally and existentially transformative experience?….for most, no….for some, sure….

i tend to above all focus on my own behavior and awareness, i try to focus on what matters in my own life and to try not to judge others since i still have so much more to improve in my own attitude, behavior, awareness. Like many of the big names in the photoworld, it is about an income, a way of supporting both their life and, for some, lifestyle. that’s the world we live in, particularly here in the west and in particular amid a certain mindset. I dont begrudge that part of it, what i do begrudge is the apparent indifference to that disconnect between running a workshop like this (and for the reasons, personal gain) in a nation that has suffered so profoundly….

what would an alternative be?…

do the workshop in another place for these folks, for isn’t the experience they’re really looking forward to is to say i did a workshop with steve…and then do a follow up workshop, pro-bonna, for photographers in burma, ….

the photoworld, to me, seems increasingly disconnected, but from it’s own hired self…or maybe i’m just getting older and wearied with the cycle of it all…


by [former member] | 12 Jan 2010 13:01 | Toronto, Canada | | Report spam→
Bob, don’t worry, I didn’t expect the talk to be short! In fact I was a little surprised as at first I thought it’d last only 4 minutes… I’ll be glad to listen to it all.

As for the rest of it, I can see we are asking basically the same questions…


by Laura Larmo | 12 Jan 2010 14:01 | Milano, Italy | | Report spam→

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Laura Larmo, Photographer Laura Larmo
Milan , Italy
Barry Milyovsky, totally unprofessional Barry Milyovsky
totally unprofessional
(emperor of ice cream )
New York , United States
Hernan Zenteno, Photographer Hernan Zenteno
Buenos Aires , Argentina ( EZE )
Tom Van Cakenberghe, Tom Van Cakenberghe
Kathmandu , Nepal
julia s. ferdinand, photographer julia s. ferdinand
Chiang Mai , Thailand ( CNX )
Tommy Huynh, Travel & Corporate Photog Tommy Huynh
Travel & Corporate Photog
Houston , United States
Tomoko Yamamoto, Multimedia Artist Tomoko Yamamoto
Multimedia Artist
Vienna , Austria
P. Money, Creative & Futurist P. Money
Creative & Futurist
(See That Which Cannot Be Seen)
[undisclosed location].
Simon Crofts, Photographer Simon Crofts
Edinburgh , Scotland
Nigel Amies, Photographer/writer Nigel Amies
[undisclosed location].
duckrabbit, Journalism duckrabbit
(sparks may fly)
Uk , United Kingdom
Dana De Luca, Photographer Dana De Luca
Milan , Italy
Lewis Lorton, ret HC exec, photog Lewis Lorton
ret HC exec, photog
Yangon , Myanmar
Imants, gecko hunter Imants
gecko hunter
" The Boneyard" , Australia


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