Stories from Myanmar: PNDP Students Explore the Re-Emerging Country

Program News | Posted Sep 21, 2012

Myanmar sits at a crossroads, between the oppression of the last decades and the recent promise of an opening society; between its isolation and the possibility of rejoining the international community; and between the rising geographical powers of China and India.  After decades under severe authoritarian military rule, virtually closed off to the outside world, Myanmar is just starting to see an influx of international visitors and investors.

Having worked there recently, Gary Knight, award-winning photojournalist and the founding director of the IGL’s Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice, thought it would provide an excellent backdrop for the yearlong course’s culminating workshop. 

The Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice (PNDP) is a new educational initiative of the IGL that seeks to provide students the skills to shape important local, national and global issues into penetrating multimedia narratives.  Since 2005, Knight has been working with the IGL and its Exposure program, leading photojournalism workshops for students in Argentina, Arizona, Cambodia, Kashmir, Kosovo, and Vietnam and teaching courses on the Tufts campus. PNDP evolved from these collaborations. 

Core to its mission and vision, the Program seeks to promote narrative documentary work that cultivates progressive change by amplifying relevant voices, breaking down barriers to understanding, advancing human dignity, and highlighting social injustices. Through rigorous immersive fieldwork and collaborative partnerships, both in the United States and abroad, students are learning how to apply the craft of storytelling and are encouraged to be innovative across a range of platforms, from the traditional printed format to digital delivery.

PNDP engages students in a yearlong seminar, focused both on the history and practice of narrative journalism and developing students’ technical skills.  At the end of the seminar, the students participate in a ten-day, on-site workshop, this year in Myanmar.  Few, if any, US university groups have traveled there, and the city of Yangon and its surrounds were conducive to the students finding and exploring stories. 

The goal of the workshop was to introduce engaged students to the challenges contemporary Myanmar faces as it undergoes its current transition and to then bring these issues to a much broader audience in the US and beyond.  With the lifting of the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, the promise of elections and diminishing censorship, the release of political prisoners to encourage “nation building,” and the re-establishment of diplomatic ties with the US, it is a critical period to understand the country, to introduce and engage students in its fate, and to widen the audience for all that is happening.

As with all IGL trips, the students had to do an extensive amount of work prior to the trip, including reading historical and current books on the country, writing preparatory papers and interacting with guest lecturers, who included Tufts Professor David Dapice who has worked extensively in Burma.

The students needed to keep abreast of events happening within the country and put together a story proposal of an issue that they wanted to address, including how they would approach it and what mediums they would use.  Knight’s contacts in Medecins Sans Frontieres and Professor Dapice’s contacts through a local NGO provided the group with fixers and students to work with on the ground in developing their stories.

In May 2012, Knight and Samuel James, program coordinator for PNDP and IGL alumnus, brought eleven seminar students, as well as social entrepreneur and IGL Advisory Board Member Dick Simon, to Yangon, Myanmar, to craft multimedia stories. Building on the yearlong seminar, the students explored a diverse array of topics through a variety of narrative styles and approaches. In pursuing their stories, each student had the opportunity to work with a local Burmese student, who served as a translator and guide throughout the workshop.

The students also had the opportunity to engage with a number of professional journalists working in the region.

Prior to the workshop, the group spent an evening in Bangkok at the studio of renowned photographer and PNDP Advisory Board Member Philip Blenkinsop, along with a cast of veteran Southeast Asia journalists such as Marc Laban of Asia Works, photojournalist Roland Nevue (who covered the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975), acclaimed Indian journalist Pablo Bartholomew, Thailand-based photographer and writer Ben Davies, Thailand-based photographer and writer Mikel Flamm, veteran photographer who helped launch both the AFP and Reuters International Picture Services Patrick de Noirmont, and veteran AP picture editor Olivier Nilsson.

According to senior Alisha Sett

The 2SnakeStudio felt like a tactile autobiography of Philip’s life. Photographs framed in blood, bones and black words, eyeglasses hanging from strings, snakeskins unraveling from the ceiling, layers of drawers full of nails, and just endless pieces from all over the world to explore. I was overwhelmed because each experience was encased with so much passion and artistry. I had never walked through such tangible memories before. Dark, strange and beautiful objects, photographs, words, smells and sights were fused together with glowing filtering lights. Philip’s ability to capture the sensory reality of his experiences was inspiring.

In Yangon, students also had the opportunity to speak with journalists Andrew Marshall (author of The Trouser People, currently Reuters Special Correspondent for Southeast Asia) and Josh Hammer (former Africa Bureau Chief for Newsweek and author of "A Free Woman," the recent New Yorker profile of Aung San Suu Kyi), both of whom were there on assignment.

Overall, the collective body of work done by the students serves as a broad document of life in Myanmar during this unique period of transformation. Below are brief descriptions of the stories:

  • Freshman Carlota Fernandez-Tubau Rullo documented the life of female labor activist Su Su Nway, who was recently released from the infamous Insein prison. She now works with the International Labor Organization on labor rights in Myanmar. Carlota spent time with her as she attended factory worker strikes, met with activists in her office, was admitted into a hospital with a fever, and as she was married to the man (also an imprisoned National League for Democracy activist) she was engaged to before she went to prison.
  • Senior Molly Ferrill boarded the Yangon Circular Railway each morning and documented its passage around the city, dropping off workers to the fields, factories and markets where they make their living, and then returning them home in the evenings.  There is discussion about closing down the railway, which would affect many of Yangon’s poorest.
  • Freshman Katherine Marchand ventured to the outskirts of the city to spend time with a single family living there. The result was an intimate portrait of domestic life amongst the working poor.
  • Freshman Elizabeth Mealey explored youth culture, going out into the Yangon night to document rock concerts, club scenes and a generation of young people who are entering into a period of unprecedented personal freedom, yet who have been referred to as “morally unsound” by Aung San Suu Kyi.
  • Sophomore Nicola Pardy decided to focus on creating portraits reflecting the many aspects of Burmese life. She selected a broad range of subjects and then photographed them as intimately as possible—either in moments of private contemplation or in moments of unguarded engagement with the camera.
  • Sophomore Charmaine Poh documented life on the Yangon docks, from the workers unloading goods, to the street markets, to the elderly women who gather at dawn for group exercise.
  • Senior Matt Rosen spent his days and nights at the San Pya Fish Market. He worked between midnight and 7:00am, capturing the passage of the city's most inexpensive and widely consumed protein from the fishing boats to the local market -- and the rigor of the work involved.
  • Junior Ben Ross spent his time documenting a group of young, aspiring Burmese hip-hop artists, from their daily lives to their performances.
  • Senior Alisha Sett produced a thoughtful meditation on the Shwedegon Pagoda in central Yangon, one of the most significant spiritual and political landmarks in the primarily Buddhist nation. Day after day, she immersed herself in the layers of communities built into and surrounding the 2600-year old Pagoda, exploring questions of faith and identity.
  • Junior Sophia Wright focused her work on exploring the challenges of living as an ethnic minority group within Myanmar, focusing on the Indian population.  She spoke with Indian factory owners, visited Indian shops, attended Indian weddings, and was invited into the domestic lives of the people she met.
  • Sophomore Johnny Wu chose to focus on the busy 26th Street in downtown Yangon, exploring the local commerce, businesses and the perpetual street theatre that exists there, at the intersection of Little India and Chinatown.

Thinking about the workshop several months later, senior Molly Ferrill wrote,

The IGL’s PNDP workshop in Myanmar was a transformative experience for me. My project focused on the Yangon Circular Railway and the low-income agricultural and factory workers riding it each day. The format of the workshop allowed me full days to explore and document the railway and its surrounding areas on the outskirts of the city, while our nightly group meetings and critiques with Sam James and Gary Knight helped to guide my work over the course of the week. I felt that this process provided a good balance between independent work and frequent feedback. Meanwhile, the experience of deeply exploring a country at such a pivotal turning point in its history and engaging with the people living there kept me longing to return to Myanmar for months after the workshop ended. It is this curiosity and drive to explore international issues on a real human level that I feel the IGL cultivates so well.

“As an aspiring photojournalist and a graduating senior, this kind of experience in has been crucial to my education. It has allowed me to experiment with producing solid photojournalistic pieces with the strong guidance of experts in the field as well as the constant support of my fellow students. I believe that the Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice provides a unique and extraordinarily valuable opportunity; it is rare that an aspiring international photojournalist gets to experience this level of training in the field from a renowned photographer like Gary as part of an undergraduate education.                   

“I have decided to remain in the region after the workshop, and am beginning my post graduate venture into the world of journalism back in Myanmar. It is a country I knew little about before participating in the PNDP workshop, but one that I have found fascinating and incredibly relevant to the international community given its recent history of change. I look forward to further exploring the country and moving forward in my photojournalistic work here, and I attribute the confidence that I have to pursue this path to the the valuable support I received at Tufts through the IGL.

The students’ work can be seen on the PNDP web site at