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Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Cho Cho: A Burmese English Love Affair

By far the most interesting of the University of Wales, Newport, degree shows was Chris Titmuss' work. Chris's work was the most scruffily presented, the least polished, the most random. It was tucked away in a corner of the room, out of sight of the imaculate printing and framing of other students. But it took chances, it had a rough edge to it, it laid things on the line and it opened Chris's life up to photographic viewing in a very personal way - and it fits one of Stephen Mayes missing categories, that of non-commercial sex.

His work tells the story of his relationship with Cho-Cho, a Burmese refugee living in Thailand. Chris's work combines pictures of himself with Cho-Cho; on the streets, in the shower, in bed, at school - with landscape of the surrounding area, pictures that I think capture the often unspoken bleakness and violence (extrajudicial executions, army massacres, separatist repression, lovely!) of the country and its fascist elements. It's Sabine but without the beauty and romanticism. And because it comes from Thailand Chris is treading on ground where our orientalist preconceptions and half-baked knowledge is free to run wild.

I see Cho Cho as the first part of an ongoing story; Cho Cho and Chris will get married, she will move to Wales, and new challenges and difficulties will emerge, the kind of challenges that very few photographers have successfully documented. Hopefully, Chris's work will continue to combine the personal with the political and with that in mind, here are some questions I put to him about the work.

How did you meet Cho Cho?

"I travelled to the Thai/Burma border in June 2007 to document the KNLA, an armed ethnic group fighting against the Burmese military junta in Karen state in eastern Burma. I based myself in the town of Mae Sot on the Thai side of the border while I waited for my contact and fixer to return to Thailand. One of my friends introduced me to a teacher (Sayama) in a primary school and Sayama suggested that I came along the next day to see the school and take some pictures of the children.

The next day I went along and I was introduced to the other teachers and one of them was Cho Cho. After spending the morning at the school Sayama offered to take me around and introduce me to some of the local community, her students and Cho Cho came along and I started to talk to her, but she was very shy at first.

I came back to the school everyday to try and take some pictures and also to try and talk to Cho Cho with persistence if not success. Later Cho Cho told me that she asked her mother (also a teacher at the school) why this photographer kept on coming back everyday, to which her mother replied “because he likes you!”

I was invited round to Cho Cho’s house to meet the rest of her family and then through chatting and text messages she told me that she didn’t have a boyfriend, and I didn’t have a girlfriend so I asked her out.

In Burmese culture dating is frowned upon, and the Burmese community can misinterpret Burmese women with foreign men in the same way as in the west. So it was quite an old fashioned romance, dates were chaperoned by members of Cho Cho’s family and lots of time spent with her family in her home."

What was the inspiration for the project?

"Well I really enjoy Jacob Aue Sobol’s project Sabine but there are also aspects of Nobuyoshi Araki’s work that I really like. But I think the project has really developed and moved beyond external influences and taken on a life of its own. All these different aspects of the relationship and my thoughts and emotions were documented over the course of the project and my job was really just to edit the images to reveal whatever aspects I want to show. This work is very organic and so doesn’t have a specific edit, the edit is constantly changing and adapting depending on what aspects I want to talk about in different environments. And its still an ongoing project which will continue to evolve and grow."

How did the project get started?

"I wanted to work on a project that was more personal, more important to me, and my relationship with Cho Cho just kept of calling out to me to be photographed. I started to photograph in the summer of 2008 but I was very uncertain about what I wanted to actually say with the images and it took me a while to find my feet. I discussed with Cho Cho about making a project based upon our relationship and she was very supportive. The project as it is today is a result of images taken as part of my final year studying Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. The project developed over the year as my confidence and vision for the project grew, once I really threw myself into it and started to take more risks it started to see the kind of results I was looking for."

Why is Thailand shown as so bleak?

"I don’t think that Thailand is shown as bleak within the project but the images that talk more about the environment did give me the space to talk about some of the darker issues within the project. Some of the images of Thailand I think have a healthy dose of what Edward Said would call Orientalism and I think that is an important part of the project, the romantic illusion of the Orient, as it is a love story with an asian women as told by a western photographer. But getting back to the darker images, there are some darker issues, such as how the relationship is viewed by outsiders that I try to deal with, in the photograph of the rubbish and broken signs offering ‘thai massage’, I am well aware that some people see the project and the relationship through their preconceptions of Thailand and ideas of commercialised sex. I could never get away with this and so I wanted to confront it head on. Other darker images such as the ghostly image of dog in the road at night are less confrontational but still talk about issues that are important to me. To me the image talks about how I had my life somewhat planned out, like driving down a road at night, and the suddenly something jumps out in front of you and makes you change your course, it’s a bit like me planning to graduate and then get a job and marry Cho Cho and bring her to the UK but then something like the credit crunch comes and suddenly its not so easy to find a job in the UK and plans have to change.

So as the project is still primarily a love story and me and Cho Cho are very happy I wanted to use the images of the environment to talk about the darker parts of the project."

What have been the reactions to the work?

"Well I have been very surprised by some of the reactions to the work, I knew that some of the more intimate images were controversial but I was not quite ready for the level of hostility from many of my fellow students. Some said it was exploitative but one student even went so far as to suggest that I was only pretending to be engaged to Cho Cho so that I could take pictures, that I had somehow tricked her in to it and that I had no intention of marrying her at all. But I am very proud of the work and Cho Cho is 100% supportive about the project and its her opinion that counts the most to me.

Apart from a few students the feedback has been very positive. Now I just need to publicise the work more and try to get it seen by a wider audience to get more feedback."

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