Silent Images teaches Myanmar’s leaders how to tell their own stories

Matthews – Mint Hill Weekly

Thanks to a recent mission carried out by David Johnson, founder of Matthews-based nonprofit Silent Images, Myanmar citizen leaders can now use their newly acquired leadership skills and training to create more opportunities for future generations. Photo courtesy of Silent Images.

MATTHEWS – Tucked away at the corner of an alley on John Street in Matthews, the whole world unfolds – the beauty, the suffering, the sadness and joy. Captured by cameras, Silent Images founder David Johnson brings the nature of human kind into focus.

Since 2006, Johnson has risked his life to tell the stories of oppressed people by traveling across the world as a humanitarian photographer and storyteller.

“Even though it’s scary, we (his team) know we are making a difference … the risk is worth it, knowing you are doing this to help others,” said Johnson, a 39-year-old resident of downtown Matthews.

Johnson traveled to Myanmar for the first time in 2011 to meet the Kachin people, who had become internally displaced because of the renewed violent attacks on their villages by Burmese soldiers. Most were living in refugee camps in the Kachin State, near the border of China. He captured the stories of displaced people, who were suffering but still had hope for a better tomorrow. The Art Institute in Charlotte hosted Johnson’s gallery on the Kachin community from May to July 2012.

Burma, an Asian country now known as Myanmar, has experienced political unrest since the 1960s, when the government was overturned by its own military regime. Each province formed its own protest groups and armies to defend its homes and push for democracy.

Fast forward to 2015, and the political climate has changed drastically. While the country and many of its people still face challenges – from farmers protesting for their land rights in Monywa to the oppression of the Rohingya Muslims at the hands of extremist Buddhists – Johnson said he’s seen a lot of growth.

“There’s more life in Myanmar, businesses are growing, new construction (is) underway and the first democratic elections are this year,” he said.

Johnson’s current role in Myanmar gives evidence of this change. His fifth trip takes him back not only to capture untold stories for other nonprofits, but also to share his gift of storytelling with Myanmar’s citizen leaders, empowering them to tell their own stories.

The DeBeor Family Foundation of Wichita, Kansas, hosts the DeBeor Fellowship for Myanmar leaders for the second year. Young entrepreneurs, business leaders and nonprofit founders apply for the yearlong fellowship, where corporate, educational and non-government organizations’ experts from Myanmar, southeast Asia and western countries travel to Yangon and provide free training and mentorship.

Johnson, who also returned to teach photography and storytelling for his second year with the fellowship, said 38 Myanmar fellows attended their first of three seminars last month. The DeBeor Foundation provides each fellow with a camera, and Johnson said he teaches them technical skills, such as composition, and purposeful photography – meaning how to use a camera to tell the stories that align with their missions.

He’ll return in May to assess their work, pick out their gallery of photos and help create videos from the stills.

Johnson said the most significant part of this fellowship is giving the power back to the people.

“These people have been taught to suppress the individual, and now they are being encouraged to tell their stories,” he said. “This wasn’t possible five years ago – it’s a pivotal season for them.”

Yin Myo So, a 2014 DeBeor Fellowship graduate, agrees.

“Whenever we go back to our area and contribute what we’ve shared and learned not only from the DeBeor Fellowship, but … that the future is in the hands of young Myanmar/Burmese people,” she said in a video on the DeBeor Fellowship’s website, http://deboer.clickcom.com.

Johnson said he feels honored to donate his time to the fellowship and the people of Myanmar. He hopes to continue teaching photography and storytelling there, teaching himself out of a job and passing that role on to this generation of Myanmar leaders.

“If Westerners are still leading, we haven’t done our job,” he said. “We have to put the power and opportunity back into the hands of the people.”

Silent Images is a Matthews-based nonprofit that tells the stories of oppressed and impoverished people in the U.S. and abroad. Find more information about Silent Images at http://www.silentimages.org, or call 704-999-5010.

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