Lauren DeCicca

A freelance miner fills his buckets with water to take to his family's filtration site, where they filter water through gravel in hopes of extracting copper. The filtration process takes 20 days and a family can make $100 USD. Photo by Lauren DeCicca for NRGI

Lauren DeCicca interviewed by Emmy Peterson 

What initially drew you to photograph in Myanmar?

I grew up in a small city in New York State – the type of place where children go to school, graduate, get jobs, marry and raise children of their own to continue the cycle within our community.From very early on, however, I had always wanted to travel. I studied politics and history in conjunction with photography throughout my schooling and I had been empathetic to the struggles of those in far off places.I was drawn to documentary photography after witnessing the power it has to bring people together and for those with no prior education on a subject to empathize with others. Myanmar had recently opened up to the world after 60 years of military dictatorship, and documenting the country at the beginning of its transition towards democracy seemed like an opportunity. It was place that hadn’t been overrun with photographers, somewhere to explore, and a country rife with stories waiting to be told.I booked a round trip ticket, expecting to spend three months abroad, but never got on the plane home. I’ve been here now for three years now documenting ethnic conflicts, healthcare crisis’, and the first democratic election in the country’s history.

Phyu Phyu Win, Thawe Thawe Win's sister, stands in front of her family's home in the Sagaing Region of Myanmar. Phyu Phyu Win was one of the victims of the White Phosphorus attacks in June of 2012 when the Burmese police force and members of the Wanbao company attacked a group of protesters. Phyu Phyu Win still has visible scars on her face and body from the attack. Photo by Lauren DeCicca for NRGI

What has working there taught you about yourself as a photojournalist and as a human being?

Living and working in Myanmar has been the most difficult and rewarding time in my life thus far both emotionally and photographically.

I came to Myanmar alone at the age of 23 and this was the first time that I truly distanced myself from my mentors and friends. When I first arrived there were handfuls of internet cafes with a spotty connection, no SIM cards for foreigners, and wifi at luxury hotels was limited to an hour a session – I was cut off from contact with the support system I once relied on. Thrown myself out of my comfort zone, I quickly learned the basics of what it took to cover international news – hire translators, secure transportation, work around bureaucratic restrictions, and tackle stories far more sensitive than the ones I had been covering in New York City.

The most important lesson I’ve learned, specifically during my first year, was the importance of putting my camera down. When I first arrived in the country, I rushed in, fearing I would miss a moment if I didn’t shoot non-stop and hoping to publish my stories right away – the images, however, were coming out lifeless and distant.
I had always thought journalism was about the people you meet and their stories, but I believe now that it’s equally about ones self  and the openness you bring to the communities you photograph. I now bring photos of my family, friends, the city I grew up in and my small apartment in Yangon, realizing that my seemingly boring upbringing, that I had wanted to get away from and tried to conceal, is what made me who I am and those experiences, both good and bad, will continue to shape the way I interact with and understand people.

Thawe Thawe Win and her family pray each night at the small pagoda behind their house. Photo by Lauren DeCicca for NRGI

Why did you think it was important for the story of the Letpadaung copper mine in Myanmar to be told?

“In the Shadow of Letpadaung” is one component of a 5 part series exposing the humanitarian and social impact of extractive mining processes in Myanmar by myself and six other photographers based regionally produced with a grant from the National Resource Governance Institute. Myanmar has been praised internationally for its countrywide development, creating jobs in the industrial sector, opening up trade with neighboring countries and most recently ushering in its first democratically elected president. However, many Myanmar people have yet to see the benefit of the transition. The farmers and freelance miners near Monywa, the capital of Myanmar’s western Sagaing Division have been the victims of violent land grabs and attacks since 2011 when the Myanmar government first allowed the Chinese run Wanbao corporation to open the controversial Letpadaung Copper Mine.

I think it important to document the stories of those effected by the Wanbao company in an effort to show the rest of the world that the Myanmar transition isn’t going as smoothly as it seems and to give a voice to the activists, farmers and miners who work tirelessly in hopes of maintaining what little land they have left.

Young children of the freelance miners gaze out at the expansive Letpadaung Copper mine. Many of these children work with their parents to carry heavy stones from the top of the mountain down to the manual filtration systems their parents have set up. Photo by Lauren DeCicca for NRGI

How long did the project take to complete? Are you considering revisiting the Letpadaung Copper Mine and continuing the story after the complete Wanbao takeover?

The projects first stage was done in one week and I will be making a second trip to Sagaing shortly to spend more time with the families I met and document their lives post election.

How do your photographs give agency to the people of Myanmar?

The goal of my images has always been to educate and inform viewers around the world of the injustices faced by the subjects of my photographs. Through this, I hope that my subjects are given the voice they deserve.

A freelance miner dutifully spreads gravel in his families filtration site as the evening rolls in. Each miner is up with the sun and works until dusk trying to sift as much copper as possible from the earth in hopes of providing for their modest families. Photo by Lauren DeCicca for NRGI

You’re using Instagram as a way of communicating your stories more immediately- What excites you about the future of photojournalism?

What I’m most excited about regarding the future of photojournalism is the fluidity that exists in terms of approach. The industry is very open to collaborative work, books, multimedia, and social media projects and crowd funding. Photojournalism doesn’t have to exist as single news images anymore and storytelling and personal exploration is encouraged. Instagram specifically excites me. I began using Instagram in Myanmar as a way to self-publish stories from daily life and underreported, yet pertinent, issues. I have worked on several Instagram community projects, including @EverydayAsia, and have participated as a guest photographer on Instagram accounts for various organizations, covering breaking news and features throughout the region.

The thread that ties my Instagram work together is the open discussion that can take place once an image or series is uploaded. The audience can engage by inquiring and voicing opinions in a more intimate space than traditional media allows. Expanding on a caption through Instagram user comments or sharing images through reposting applications, allows stories and images to reach a wider audience and for the voices of Myanmar’s communities to be heard around the world.

Women dig pits for the coppery gravel to be placed before the filtration process begins. Women freelancers do just as much work as their husbands and sons, usually with children on their waists or holding their hands. Photo by Lauren DeCicca for NRGI

What new projects are you working on now and what are you hoping to work on in the future? 

In recent months I’ve begun documenting women’s issues in Myanmar in conjunction with local publications and international NGO’s, planning for a larger project which should hopefully come to life later this year.

Lauren DeCicca is an American photojournalist based in Myanmar.

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