Earlier this week, I introduced you to Jens Uwe Parkitny and his amazing photography, which captures the stunning facial tattoos of the Chin women of Myanmar. Today, let’s hear from Jens himself, whose adventurous spirit shines through as he shares how his stunning photography project came to be.
You have been highly involved in the travel and hotel industry for over twenty years. Why is traveling on a personal level important to you? And, how has it impacted you over the years?
I owe my spirit of exploring to my parents. In his younger years, my father worked as a sailor, and his stories nurtured my curiosity as a kid. My parents both loved to travel and though they did not have the means to do long-haul trips, they took my sister and I to Scandinavia during summer vacations, where we rented a wooden bugalow by the sea. As we grew up, they continued to encourage us to travel within Europe. With this support, I studied through the organization AIESEC and was able to travel overseas for the first time as an intern for a small tour operator in Venezuela. It was an incredible experience, as I accompanied small groups to remote places, such as the high plain of Gran Sabana with its table mountains, and to the jungle at the banks of the upper Orinoco and Rio Negro. Personally, traveling allowed me to broaden my horizons, and to have incredible and enriching experiences with people of other cultures. It also sensitized me for the beauty of nature. Over the years, I realized that I needed to go back to the places that I already had visited – where I had time to go “under the surface” and deepen my experiences and insights. I traveled quite a lot within my personal “Bermuda Triangle” of destinations: Borneo, Bali and Burma. Eventually, I literally lost myself in the hinterland of Burma. In fact, it is the country I now know best and where I met the love of my life. Looking back, it is interesting to see that all the tracks I traveled earlier eventually led me to the road to Mandalay – and beyond. Traveling also helped me to see my own country, Germany, from different perspectives. As a teenager, I didn’t think very highly of my own country, and was certainly not proud of it. Today, I can say that Germany is very a diverse and fascinating country to travel and to live in, particularly in relation to the many other countries I have traveled to.
What brought you to Myanmar for the first time? What was it like traveling in remote Burma almost 10 years ago?
I traveled a fair bit in Southeast Asia before Burma appeared as a dot on my destination radar. This was back in 1999. Back then, I spent three weeks on a round-trip visiting Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Ngapali Beach. It was magical. At the time, I did rarely encounter other foreign visitors, and therefore I felt like a true explorer. There was also a spiritual component to it: the landscape I traveled through somehow mirrored my inner landscape, and I couldn’t see enough of it. I decided that this is it – I finally reached my destination.
Describe your very first encounter with the tattooed women of the Chin tribes.
It was during a trip in Southern Chin State back in 2001. It was my third visit to Myanmar and I wanted to explore its remote regions. Trekking Mt. Victoria, the highest mountain in Southern Chin State, was recommended to me. So, I decided to go with just the help of a local agency that applied for the special permits needed. At the time, I had bought a new camera and was looking for a photo project to focus on and express myself visually. On the eve of trekking Mt. Victoria, a Chin woman approached me to sell me a handmade clay-pipe. When starring at her face, I instantly knew that I found what I was looking for. There and then, I decided to make it a personal quest to portrait traditional facial tattoos of Chin women. Since I love portrait photography, it was the perfect subject for me to pursue. I did not want to do snap-shooting while passing through. I decided to make it a long-term project for at least the next ten years. It was another perfect excuse I found for myself to return to Burma over the years to come. I haven’t stopped the project yet and it is in its 14th year.
When describing the tradition of tattooing you have said, “To these women, beauty meant power – the power of seduction.” Your photographs capture this powerful beauty so well. Why did you decide that documenting these women was such an important mission?
Looking at a full facial tattoo is a very powerful experience when seeing it for the first time, as one automatically looks at it with a socio-conditioned view that determines what beauty is and what it should look like. In the society we grew up in, a facial tattoo simply doesn’t fit the common perception of beauty, and is therefore often perceived as defacing or “ugly”… or at least “weird.” Not so in tribal societies. Facial tattooing was practiced among many different ethnics in Asia, the Pacific, Europe, Americas and the Arctic only 100 to 150 years ago. In our society however, a facial tattoo is still one of the last taboos to break. Though you’ll find that people are tattooing pretty much every other part of the body, a facial tattoo is still a rare sight. In tribal societies, however, facial tattooing symbolized group affiliation and identity, expressed beliefs in spirits and an animated nature, as well as signaled accomplishments of certain stages or achievements in the life of the bearer. It was often part of the rite de passage from girl to womanhood or boy to warrior. Last but not least, among the ethnic groups that have practiced facial tattooing, it is also an expression of a beauty perception that is different from ours. Through my portrait work, I wanted to capture the individual beauty of each Chin women’s face through an act of close-up and reduction, meaning, I used a neutral background to not distract the viewer from looking straight at the face, so their eyes rest there.
Proceeds from your book go to a training school of girls in Mayangon Township in Yangon (a government orphanage for girls between 4 – 16 years old) as well as the monastery Aung Zay Yar Min in Hlaing Township, Yangon that feeds daily more than 750 children twice a day. How did you first get involved with these charities? For you, why Burmese children?
In Burma, everyone frequently donates to monasteries and other local support institutions such as orphanages. Both, the monastery in Hlaing Township as well as the girl orphanage, which is only a five minute walk from where my in-laws in Yangon live, were recommended by my mother-in-law. I visited the girl orphanage, and one of the things that stood out was the fact that it is a government institution. Because of this, none of the foreign NGOs active in the country at the time where taking an interest in supporting it. All the girls slept on wooden planks. One of the first things my wife and I organized was a donor so we could buy mattresses. We of course topped up the funds with donations from our end, as well as the money from the book sales. This was back in 2009 when Myanmar was still sanctioned and light years away from political reform processes. It was also the time when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest and only a handful of foreign NGOs had permission to operate restrictively in the country. Children need protection and support. They are the future of every country and society, and therefore we should support them as best we can.
I hear you have a new book in the works. Tell us a little bit about that exciting new project!
I still have interesting image material from my encounters with Chin Women between 2001 and 2014 that I’d like to publish. These images where not included in “Bloodfaces”, my first book on Chin Women with facial tattoos, issued in 2007, at a time when the areas that I explored in Western Myanmar were hard to access. I can therefore say that I am the first photographer with the most complete portfolio of Chin Women with tattoos. I was able to capture facial tattoo patterns that have never been documented before, not even by National Geographic. I plan to also include photos of some beautiful Chin textiles that I collected over the years in my new book. The textile colors and patterns nicely complement the tattoo patterns and add to our understanding of which textiles are worn by which facial tattoo-practicing Chin group. The plan is to publish the book in 2016.
Thank you again Jens for your amazing story and contributions. I can’t help but take away a sense of excitement when reading his insights, even after the second or third time. I love the way he shares how life’s winding path led him on ever-changing adventures, eventually directing him to a fulfilling quest…and more importantly a beautiful relationship that he could not have imagined at earlier stages in life.
Jens truly does travel Beyond the Bucket List. He not only skims the top of destinations, he digs “under the surface.” Travel like this has the capacity to change us in unpredictable ways. It can challenge…energize…teach….or heal us. And quite unexpectedly, it can lead us to faraway places where we feel most at home. For Jens Uwe Parktiny, this place was Myanmar.
Where will it be for you? And, what will be your quest once you get there?
Let me know what destination is on your “Journey Beyond the Bucket List” and what you plan to do there in the comment section for your chance to win a free photo book from Jens Uwe Parkitny! I will be reading through Part 1 and 2 of this article for one lucky winner with the best goal!
“Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.” – Anita Desai