In his new long-form series, Stephen Kelly documents the decline of Burmese cinema
In what used to be the “beating heart” of film culture, Yangon’s central cinemas are slowly being destroyed. Stephen captures one of the last-remaining cinemas in Myanmar's largest city.
- Ayla Angelos
- 4 February 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
What makes a good visual project? For Stephen Kelly, a photographer born in Whitehaven, England, and currently based in Switzerland, he believes a good series takes time. With a BA degree in documentary photography from the University of Wales under his belt, Stephen is currently undertaking his MFA in photography at Belfast School of Art. Although his interest in the medium sparked during his early years, it was his degree education that truly enabled him to learn how to develop his own visual language. “I started to understand that I wanted to tell stories and immerse myself in them for long periods of time,” he tells It’s Nice That.
Now working specifically on narrative driven and long-form personal projects, Stephen prefers to work “slowly” and “methodically”; often, he will find himself returning to the same places “over and over again” in order to develop the story. During his youth, he’d spent much time living in Hong Kong, with Asia, in turn, becoming a focus point for many of his projects to come. “Early on in my career I was always drawn back to that region – working in Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China on both personal projects and assignments.” His focus shifted soon after, with Myanmar wielding into the spotlight. “Since 2013, I have gradually been developing a series of stories that explore particular districts in Yangon, which have been integral to the contemporary history of the city,” he says, while also completing various assignments for clients throughout the country.
Turning his focus onto the “tumultuous history” of Burmese cinema, Stephen found himself documenting life in and around The Wayiza – one of Yangon’s last remaining stand-alone cinemas. It was during the first half of the 20th century that Myanmar had one of the most productive film industries in Southeast Asia, and with it came over three hundred cinemas that were operating throughout the country. “Yangon’s ‘cinema row’ on Bogyoke Aung San Street was the beating heart of the cinephile culture and home to a collection of stand-alone cinemas dating back to the 1920s,” says Stephen. “The historic cinemas were being closed or destroyed in the name of progress and this culture was on the verge of disappearing; I wanted to document this. In turn, I used this particular urban space and this moment in time to explore wider changes taking place in the city.”
It’s difficult to believe that “progression” results in the destruction of culture and entertainment, but perhaps this is something that could be compared to the supposed decline in vinyl or publications – they decease only to spring up again when its users crave the authentic act of holding something physical. The same goes for the physical act of viewing a film in the cinema. But as the decline of the high-street appears to increase as a global epidemic, the urban landscape here in the city centre of Yangon seems to be taking over; shopping malls, business towers and hotels are becoming the new norm. This is the focus point to Stephen’s series, As The Lights Fade, where ageing machinery sits alongside fading wallpaper, meanwhile a bustling neighbourhood and a thriving community continues to develop outside.
“I spent many months photographing life in and around the Waziya and I particularly cherished the time I spent with the cinema’s projectionists,” explains Stephen. “I would photograph their daily routines and we would eat together and watch films on their DVD player up in the projection room, while the movies rolled down below in the theatre.”
As The Lights Fade is part one of four, with the second project comprising a collection of artefacts archived from these unrestored and decaying cinemas. Titled The Legacy of Ohn Maung, “the two are very much connected,” says Stephen. Visiting Myanmar Motion Picture museum in an effort to understand the history of Burmese cinema more deeply, he then created a “little homemade studio there” and began photographing a selection of these artefacts that were damaged by a lack of preservation. “But still I hoped they would be a small window into the world of this once great film industry.”
The third part, titled The Soul Within The Structures, turns towards former colonial spaces and buildings within Yangon’s financial district – developed in order to illustrate this quickly changing landscape. Meanwhile, From Where A Country Was Exploited looks at a former gentlemen’s club in Yangon – built in the 1880s, it used to serve and entertain the British army offers and civilian administrators post-occupation of Upper Burma in 1885. Each part is, quite frankly, riddled with history, with each interconnected series depicting of the photographer’s ethos at its most finest – that is, Stephen’s urge to unearth an area’s history and spend a great length time documenting his findings.