Indigenous Calendar February, 2010: An Albino An in Burma (Myanmar)

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Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

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The first time I showed this photograph to anyone it was to a friend and fellow photographer whose opinion about photography I trust. I showed it to her outside of the context in which it was taken. I had tried not to anticipate her reaction but I couldn't help imagining what that reaction might be after I took the print off my printer and saw it for the first time in that medium myself.

It wasn't the reaction I'd anticipated. She spoke first of the light blue color prominence and the color match between the girl's blue umbrella, the child's hair braid and the blue in the scarf. Next she remarked on how the elder girl is fully shaded from the sun but the child is only half-shaded. Then it occurred to her that the photo showed no sign of rain and that this third consideration had been the one to make her begin thinking about how and where it might have been taken.

If the blue prominence, balance and contrast are indeed that striking I must admit it is only by chance. They are details I noticed only subconsciously, if at all, when I instinctively knew I had to reach for my camera. I didn't even consider, as far as I remember, that the shadow cast across the child's face by the umbrella might create a contrast level that the 100 ASA film loaded in the camera would be unable to handle and therefore ruin the photo. It hadn't rained for at least the past five days so the lack of rain in the photo was certainly an element to which I was oblivious.

What I thought about most as I reached for my camera was the reaction I believed, at the time, I would likely get from my audience: "This is a great advertisement for international adoption." I thought of that reaction from viewers immediately noticing the contrast between the apparent-Caucasian features of the elder girl taking care of the child who appears, from her own Asian-Pacific features, to be her adopted sister.

If my belief is similar to your initial reaction to the photograph it shows the irony it contains: it was taken in Burma (Myanmar) where international adoption is not allowed and where domestic adoption is rare and not always undertaken in the best interests of the adopted child. The children in the photo are biological, ethnic An siblings. The elder girl is albino.

The An are one of Burma's many indigenous peoples — small in number and very isolated even inside that already-isolated country. Their isolation is one reason why they retain their traditions and beliefs to this day. Those traditions and beliefs are born of the proto-religion of humankind, Animism. At the most basic level Animism is the simple concept that everything — the wind, trees, rocks, mountains, rivers, the sky etc. — has a spirit. Their isolation is also one reason why they have almost no access to formal education. Combine the fact that albinos are very rare in this part of the world with the lack of education the An would require to understand the simple, scientific explanation for albinism and furthermore with the An's cultural legacy of Animism and, hopefully, you now see a very different picture — the one I also didn't see when I first reached for my camera.

The An are featured in our documentary, Indigenous Peoples of Southeast Asia.

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