Capturing Burma’s Ethnic Diversity

The UK National Archives have released an album on Flickr of 121 images taken in Burma in 1903. They were originally held in the Colonial Office photographic archive. Much like the imperial ethnographers who worked in the country, these photographers were attempting to capture the differences between ethnic groups – especially those in the ‘remote’ hills in the colony’s borderlands. Here’s a little selection of them…

Baungshi Chins (1903)

‘Group of Baungshi Chins’ (1903)
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‘No Caption’ (1903)
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‘No Caption’ (1903)
Burma (1903)
‘No Caption’ (1903)
Yindu Chins (1903)
‘A Group of Yindu Chins’ (1903)

Given that the purpose of these photographs was to make the differences between these ethnic groups visible, it is striking that the pictures themselves all look so similar. The people are posed as if they were in a team photograph of a football club. Of course, this is the intention. The formulaic staging of these photos is supposed to make the people in them into representative ‘types’. The individuals in the photographs are not important. The repetitive arrangement and framing of these shots is intended to emphasise the commonalities in the particular group, in their dress and in their bodies. In this sense the photographs are typical of imperial ethnographic studies. In attempting to discover the different ethnic groups in the hills of Burma, they in fact fixed them into rigid frameworks. There is no space here for the historical complexity and fluidity of ethnic identity that are now acknowledged features of Southeast Asia’s upland communities (see the research of Mandy Sadan).

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