I didn’t visit Yangon when I was in Myanmar last month, but it feels like I’ve just been there after reading Still Lifes From a Vanishing City: Essays and Photographs from Yangon by Elizabeth Rush. Just published by Things Asian Press, this is both a beautiful book (large format, coffee table size) packed with photographs of the city’s old architecture, and an insightful account of its residents and their lives.
Rush spent over a year wandering around Yangon, documenting the city’s grand old Colonial buildings, many of which were in danger after government reforms earlier in the decade encouraged a new wave of “investors” to descend upon the city. Naturally, developers aren’t too keen on preserving old buildings, so the inevitable demolition commenced. It’s not a stretch to compare such greedy developers to vultures, just waiting to pounce upon a decaying corpse.
In her introduction to this book, Rush notes that she “wasn’t interested in the architecture so much as the lives that took place inside it.” Thus, rather than only focusing on photos of the exterior of these crumbling old structures, Rush takes you inside the buildings and inside the lives of the inhabitants, via stunning photographs and revealing essays. In one essay, Rush writes: “It is best to state my aims: I am reaching towards the ineffability of home through the cataloging of individual living rooms and their contents. I believe that it is possible to reach the sublime by drawing close to and worshipping the real. And little is more real than a person’s home.”
On that point, the reader is offered glimpses into the lives of the residents of these buildings in Rush’s striking photographs. While most photographs are devoid of any people (that’s perhaps my only criticism: I would have liked to have seen more of the people pictured inside their rooms), you can see framed photos of parents and their children, revered monks, the omnipresent shrine to the Buddha, calendars on the wall, a variety of knickknacks. These rooms are bursting with life and history.
While the photographs will be the main attraction for many, Rush’s evocative essays are also a valuable addition to the appreciation of this book. Additional essays included in this book were written by noted author Emma Larkin (Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop) and Thant Thaw Kaung. Larkin writes in her essay, “When Elizabeth records the enduring sediment of personal histories she also, inevitably, follows a trail of destruction.” Rush also notes: “As Yangon’s buildings grow taller, brighter, and more spacious, the city was also becoming smaller somehow, out of reach.”
And that’s the sad reality of Yangon’s current makeover. With so much “progress” and development taking place, the city is losing a hunk chunk of its history and heritage … and its soul.