Htet T San: To Dream of Liberty
One needs courage to accept that the beliefs you have held your entire life have been illusory. It takes even more to make a resolve to transform, and to share the disturbing thoughts experienced during transition, with the world. Htet’s story is one of finding strength in rediscovery. She shares her journey of the time through Persona, a series of black and white panoramic images. The photographs are a result of experimentations that began in her dorm room at university. It grew into a stirring tribute to her transformation.
Her images are made even more arresting with the inclusion of poetic phrases from The Loop, a book she read at university, which inspired her to create the series. The pictures are her interpretations of the solemn and cathartic words, influenced by her own state of mind at the time. “We all have ideal images in our mind about how life should be,” she says, “but at some point, we discover that reality is not the way we imagined it.” For Htet, the book helped begin a journey to understand the importance of acceptance and compassion.
Looking Through a Pinhole
The 16:9 ratio of cinema has always fascinated Htet, along with the warped effect that her tin pinhole camera gave to her images. It reminds her of “the wrecked distorted realities of a cinematic state of mind.” She found using the camera to be quite challenging, especially since it becomes difficult to perceive the exposure in certain situations. After numerous attempts, she was able to create the images she had visualised. Some set-ups took only 45 seconds of exposure, while others took three hours. She would then spend endless hours in the darkroom, dodging and burning to achieve prints she found satisfactory.
Several arrangements unnerved her roommates, and not surprisingly so. The compositions are eerie and captivating, allowing the viewer to be puzzled at first, only to find themselves immersed in the mystery of the images. Persona has a certain quality to it, which has you revisiting the series repeatedly. And every time, you discover a different story, each unlike the one you deciphered before.
Freedom of Interpretation
Amongst her personal projects, Persona is not unique in its inclusion of poetry. However, unlike the series, the poetic phrases and words in all her other works have been penned by herself.
Htet strongly believes that her work must speak for itself, and that audiences must be given the freedom of interpretation. “I am more interested in communicating with the audience via the emotion that my artworks create rather than me talking about why I created a particular image.” She fears that in the process of explaining, her work might lose its purpose.
Htet has come a long way from home. She was born in a small town in the Southern part of Burma, called Dawei, and she grew up in Yangon, the heart of the 1988 Student Uprising against the military junta in Burma. Since the uprising, the education system crumbled even further, with universities being shut down for a few years on two different occasions.
Htet enrolled for higher studies in 2007. At the time, the only plausible option was medical school, which required applicants to get the highest scores. And to her disdain, she was one of them. She felt stranded, being forced to pursue a career in which she held no interest.
That same year, she began attending a media school in the mornings, as a means of escape. Over there she happened to attend a two–hour lecture on photography. Ever since then, she has been captivated by the art of making pictures. In 2008, Htet earned a scholarship to study photography and art studio at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, USA. She made her way to the United States, to pursue what she was truly passionate about.
En Route to Rediscovery
In early 2011, Htet moved to New York City. She was completely aware of the obstacles she would face. She didn’t have much money in hand, and the fact that New York attracts swarms of talented artists did little to deter her. In her words, “this is a commitment to find the answers to questions concerned with life that I need to know through my own experiences.” And her perseverance is paying off. She is now working as a conceptual photographer, and does professional retouching for other artists. Her art is influenced by incidents in her life, and borrowed inspiration from the lives of others. Htet admits that the duration of her stay and the experiences she has got from the famed city have given her the much needed confidence.
However, she insists that no matter where she is based, she would continue to create her art with the same fervour. Her determination is reflective of her struggle to succeed when it seems that the odds are against her. She did so in Burma, and then again in New York. And this is visible in Persona.
Discovering Emotional Connect
Htet insists that sentiment is the most important factor when making a picture. She says, “I am not looking to make a photograph. I am looking for an emotion to capture.” To her, any piece of art must be either emotionally stimulating or intellectually challenging. Otherwise, it becomes difficult to take interest.
Her personal projects are a testament to her infinite strength, as she struggles on her path to self actualisation. When asked about their significance Htet said, “It’s my personal, sentimental journey. Finding the keys, unlocking the chains, liberating the soul. This is a lifelong process.”
The photographs she has created in Persona are haunting, and juxtaposed with the text, the series leaves a lasting impression. Her work is an example of an artist who rather bravely bares her soul in metamorphosis.
Gadgets and Gear
- Htet uses Canon EOS 40D and 5D cameras. For street photography, she uses a Fuji S7000.
- For some of her film projects, she uses a Nikon F4.
Tips by Htet
- Stand up for who you are as a photographer. Don’t go by what everyone else seems to like. Continue to pursue your passion. The right people will find you and connect with you.
- Don’t look for what might make a good picture. Look for a subject that has emotional significance for you.
You can find more of Htet’s work on www.htettsan.com
Tags: 16:9, 5D, Alabama, black and white, Burma, Canon EOS 40D, conceptual art, Fuji S7000, Htet T San, July 2015, New York, Nikon F4, Panoramic, Persona, pinhole camera, Poetry, Profile