When the straight, long rays of the sun moved into her room, she started writing the first words on the yellowing tissue-thin paper – “I loved you at first sight”. Carefully tucking her portrait into an envelope – she had picked one where she’s wearing a neat updo – she pressed her lips together slightly and put her palms together, showcasing her wedding ring.
The ending to the love story, however, is missing. And so are the narratives of all the pictures. The only thing we know about the lady is her name – Irene.
“When I discovered the vintage black and white images of this stylish woman from an unknown era, I was fascinated with her fashion, her look and her confidence,” writes Khin Thu Thu in the introduction to the book Irene: A Burmese Icon.
“She always wears her hair in a neat updo. She wears little makeup. She wears oversize sun hats and scarves. Her clothes are well fitted and chic, and she exudes elegance and poise,” she adds.
Like many others, Khin Thu Thu discovered Irene via Instagram, a photo-sharing app owned by Facebook, where “she” posts pictures of her daily life – paddling in a lake in Mandalay, visiting Lim Chin Tsong Palace in Yangon, taking a boat trip on Inle Lake.
Lukas Birk, creator of Irene: A Burmese Icon and founder of Myanmar Photo Archive, collected around 300-400 pictures of Irene in a small living room filled with photographs and paraphernalia stretching in time from the 1950s to 1970s.
“It’s so rare to see someone who is photogenic and fashionable, a very specific persona and character from a very specific time in Myanmar’s history,” Birk told Myanmar Business Today. “If Irene would be with us today, she would have become a social media superstar,” he added.
To many, Irene’s appearance on Instagram triggers a sense of nostalgia, a melancholic and debilitating process of yearning for what has been lost – rotary dial, old Lim Chin Tsong Palace and the fashion style of the Swinging Sixties.
We know little of how the gripping collection ended up in the hands of trash-dealers before Birk’s takeover, but such happenings were par for the course amid Myanmar’s historic humbling.
“I tried to dig up more of her but usually what happens in my experience is, if you find such a complete photo archive of the whole family, it means that the people have passed away and nobody cares about the thing,” said Birk.
What remains is the story contained in the photographs, though Birk sees beyond mere nostalgia. As a visual storyteller, he said his mission is to “open up a dialogue about history.” Rejecting the “historian” label, he believes that a more “intuitive or emotional” personal story resonates more with audiences and is more effective in preserving historical moments.
Despite the de-contextualization of some of his collections, including Irene, the effect of the visual details and narrative restraint demonstrates a possibility of boundless narratives that each viewer can project onto the images, giving them their context, collective memory or even their own anxieties and desires along the flow of history.
“The history we have been taught in school is fiction, because it’s written by someone in the power system,” Birk emphasized.
Using personal stories and mistrust of grand narratives as a departure point, Birk established Myanmar Photo Archive in 2013 with the goal of archiving the work of Myanmar photographers during and after the colonial era. So far, he has collected more than 100,000 photos by “meeting antique traders, going to flea markets and searching through the collections of photographers,” according to Myanmar Photo Archive’s website.
With help from the European Union, Myanmar Photo Archive is building a digital photo archive using open-source software. To be unveiled in October, it will feature all the pictures the organization has collected over the years, according to Birk. It will also hire scholars to research the archived pictures.
Birk’s unique way of storytelling not only brings to life Irene the historical character but also reveals his emotional attachment to each photograph. From Burmese Photographers, ONE YEAR IN YANGON 1978, U Than Maung, Reproduced to the newly launched Irene: A Burmese Icon and Yangon Fashion 1979, Birk and Myanmar Photo Archive have done much to enrich our knowledge of the intriguing history of Myanmar.