Three fishermen on Inle Lake in Myanmar. These photos, taken in 2011 on my second trip to the country formerly known as Burma, have proved to be some of my most popular. So how did I end up a position to photograph Myanmar’s iconic one legged fishermen in the middle of Inle lake under such ideal conditions? It all stemmed from a meeting with a local friend in the capital, who I had connected with on Facebook half a year earlier.
The fishermen on Inle Lake have mastered the art of standing on one leg while wrapping the other around an oar to allow for fine paddle control. They can precisely steer through thick vegetation that often appears on the lake, and their special technique allows them to keep one hand free for using nets and other implements. It is a delicate balancing act, acquired through practice since childhood. To watch these fishermen glide over the water using S-shaped patterns made with their feet and oars is a calming and peaceful experience.
I wanted to capture this action of the Burmese fishermen in an artistic manner while travelling to this region of Myanmar.
I met up with my new friend, Aung Pyae Soe, at 10:00am on the busy streets of Yangon and he took me to an upmarket restaurant overlooking the city for some beers. Aung is a professional freelance photographer working in Myanmar, and we were both fans of each other’s work after each seeing the others photos appear on various competition and photo of the day websites over the years. After we had been talking for a few hours, Aung shared with me some information about a ‘floating hotel’ on Inle Lake which he sometimes visits to capture photos of the local fishermen. High angles of the fishermen can be achieved here by standing on wooden bridges that connect the elevated hotel rooms together over the water. He told me that he would help out by phoning the hotel and organising with the manager to meet me when I arrived, and he could help to get me three local fishermen to come in from a nearby village to be photographed early in the morning. I would give some money to the fishermen for their time.
I said goodbye to Aung, and made my plans to take an overnight bus to the small town of Kalaw. From here I did a three day trek to Inle Lake (a popular activity among independent intrepid travellers to Myanmar), and I coincided my arrival to Inle Lake with the hotel booking Aung had made. The hotel was located about 45 minutes by motorboat in the middle of the lake (it is a huge lake), and I spent the afternoon walking over the bridges and trying to imagine some angles and shot ideas for my shoot the following morning. It was arranged that some fishermen would be there at 5:30 until 6:30 in the morning.
I set my alarm and awoke to a quiet scene of three fishermen floating in the dark of twilight, with some hints of a sunrise that was looking to be promisingly spectacular.
With my Nikon D700 and Nikon 24-85mm lens, I took some initial photos and made myself known to the men (who didn’t speak English) by signalling a wave and as they got closer a local ‘mingalaba’ greeting. A staff member soon came out and he was keen to help me by translating the formation ideas I had in my mind to the fishermen.
At one point a fourth fishermen floated by and was happy to be in a couple of photographs.
To get the high angle photo of the fishermen converging in the centre, I found a chair to stand on for an even higher angle than the bridge would allow. My last idea was to get down to their level and photograph the fishermen in a formation that featured their faces all looking out into the distance. I asked them to paddle close to a platform which I had noted the previous afternoon for this shot, and explained the formation I had in mind.
To get the low angle and closeness that I wanted, I stepped out onto a thin, wooden moored boat (pictured right), which then started rocking back and forth, and my balance was suddenly put to the test. My helper from the hotel was quick to grab my arm and help keep the boat steady. At this time, the sun had fully risen over the horizon and there was some nice warm light on their faces, and the clouds had now developed into an interesting new pattern. I captured this photo as the last shot, before saying some friendly good byes as the men headed back towards their village. This photo is my personal favourite from the series. Below is the original photo alongside the edited version.
Post Processing with Photoshop
In the editing of this photo, I started by straightening the crooked horizon (a result of crouching on the little wooden boat). I then worked on getting the three bodies brighter and with stronger darkness in the shadows. I used levels and curves (adjustment layers) and painted the effect in carefully to help the fishermen to stand out and make the light stronger on them. I boosted some saturation in the colours of the pants, as I liked the three shades of orange/yellow and wanted to make this a feature. I noticed the water was captured rather grey, so I tinted it to be a bluer shade by creating a color balance adjustment layer and boosting the blue and cyan sliders. As usual though, I don’t want to apply this to the entire photo. So, I press Ctrl + I to invert the created layer mask next to the adjustment layer from white to black so the effect is no longer visible, and with a white brush, paint the effect back in where I want it (just over the water). Switching to a black brush and painting on the layer mask will remove the effect when working with layer masks. This requires zooming in, and sometimes changing the edge of the brush to a hard edge so as not to go over onto the boats, for example. This technique of painting in the effect is also done with the shadows as I need to (for example on the folds of their clothes) and with the highlights (for example on their faces and parts of their clothes). While I am always brightening things in my photos, I am very careful to never over-expose anything – I don’t want to lose detail and blow anything out by over-brightening. I also darkened the sky in the same way with an adjustment layer, so that the colour of the sky stood out from the clouds and gave a more dramatic impression. Again, I carefully painted this effect in to only affect the sky and not the hats or bodies. Finally, as always, some sharpening of the important lines, such as the facial features, and in this case the clothes, hands and feet. Again I paint in only the parts I want to be sharper, so I am not doing an overall sharpening of the photo, but only on the parts that are important focal points.
Publications and Competitions
I have received two notable awards with my Burmese fishermen photos, and they also have been printed in various publications.
In 2011 I won the Abercrombie & Kent Photo Competition, which resulted in some amazing safari trips in Kenya and Tanzania which I took in early 2012. Later in 2012 I won the Smithsonian Annual Photo Contest (travel category) with the aerial photo of the three fishermen on the lake. The vertical photo with the sun rising was used as the Singapore Airlines in-flight magazine (Silverkris) cover in November 2012, and also voted as the favourite choice of cover for the year of 2012.
As the fishermen paddled off into the distance, I went up onto the veranda of the hotel to watch them leave. I asked my new hotel staff friend to take a photo of me, after our one hour sunrise session with the fishermen had been a success. If I return to Myanmar for a third time, and I’m sure I will, I will meet up again with Aung back in Yangon, and I’ll owe him more than a few rounds of beer after the incredible opportunity that he gave me at Inle Lake.