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The College of Liberal and Fine Arts

Alumni Profile: Brenda Davidson-Shaddox

Photographer captures the essence and beauty of Myanmar's ethnic tribes and landscape

Neither 117-degree heat nor treacherous terrain prevents Brenda Davidson-Shaddox from what has become a labor of love: photographing the isolated, ethnic tribes who live in the jungles and the mountains of Myanmar.

On her annual trips to the Asian country, formerly known as Burma, Davidson-Shaddox endures a 30-hour journey by plane. But that’s the easy part. She once undertook a 31-day trek into Myanmar’s Hkakabo Razi National Park to photograph the pygmy Taron people. On another occasion, the 69-year-old photojournalist spent three days boating along the Chindwin River to reach a village called Hkamti to photograph the Naga people of the Western Yoma mountains.

"Topography in Myanmar is varied," Davidson-Shaddox says. "So I’ve Jeeped, hiked, ridden elephants and even bullock carts to reach my destination."

About 20 of Davidson-Shaddox’s photographs from her journeys to Myanmar are included in the exhibit Far Places Close: Photographic Essays of South Asia, which ran from Sept. 2 to Oct. 11 in the Main Campus Art Gallery of the Arts Building.

"She has very striking photographs," says curator Scott Sherer, associate professor of art history. "What is remarkable is the direct communication between Brenda and the people of Myanmar, and she’s engaged with them, and as viewers we’re engaged as well."

Although Davidson-Shaddox has never studied photography professionally, the West Virginia native took photographs with a box camera as a child and delighted in shooting portraits of her family. In 1997, a friend asked if she would like to tag along to Myanmar to take photographs as part of a support team while he researched freshwater river dolphins.

"It led to me going to Myanmar for 12 years now," she says. "I go from around November to February every year during the winter season, although they don’t really have a winter. It’s always very hot."

Several years ago, Davidson-Shaddox, who lives in Bandera, Texas, began submitting travel articles with related photographs to local publications. One of those stories that appeared in the San Antonio Express-News caught the eye of the curator of the Texas State Museum of Asian Cultures in Corpus Christi. Impressed with Davidson-Shaddox’s work, she contacted the photographer and invited her to present her first exhibit of the ethnic people of Myanmar, along with textiles and artifacts she collected from each tribe, in 2002.

Serendipity intervened again a few years later when Davidson-Shaddox was in Myanmar passing out some of her photographs. Charles Francis, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist, approached and asked if those were her pictures.

"I said, ‘Yes,’ and then he said, ‘How would you like to do an exhibit?’ I ended up doing an exhibit at Georgetown University," she says. Just as Davidson-Shaddox is fascinated with the Myanmar tribes—Bahmar, Mon, Kachin, Chin, Kayah, Kayin, Rakhine and Shan—they are equally intrigued by her. "In the mountains and remote villages, I was the first Westerner some of them ever saw," Davidson-Shaddox says. "Children will come up and touch my hair. They are wonderful people. I can go into a village and people will rush out to invite me to tea and food. But I’ve learned I can’t do that anymore because if you refuse one [family], they lose face."

She recalled one incident when she was playing with an inquisitive group of children under a banyan tree. Standing some distance away was a woman from the Chin tribe, known for their elaborate, tattooed faces. She kept a close eye on Davidson-Shaddox and slowly inched closer and closer. When Davidson-Shaddox motioned with her camera that she would like to take the woman’s picture, the woman turned and fled.

"I thought, ‘She’s not going to let me take her picture.’ But she came back. She went home to put on her best dress," she says, smiling.

During her treks through Myanmar, Davidson-Shaddox usually travels with a local guide and a translator. Sometimes she will have a cook. Being in such isolated areas of the country doesn’t allow the photographer the luxury of choice meals. She’s lucky if her cook can buy a chicken or pork for dinner from villagers.

"A lot of times we just have veggies that my cook gathers," Davidson-Shaddox says. "One time she sautéed wild begonia leaves. It tastes just like spinach."

Davidson-Shaddox’s love and admiration for the people of Myanmar and its natural environment has led her to do whatever she can to make life a little brighter for them.

"They are so desperately poor," Davidson-Shaddox says. "I support an orphanage there, and I was able to get two American doctors to help me with that."

Last year, Davidson-Shaddox raised enough contributions from family and friends to help repair the orphanage after it was damaged by a cyclone. She also was able to make a substantial payment, she says, on 50 acres where the Buddhist monks and older kids of the orphanage can grow rice. They already have dug a fishpond and are growing fruits and vegetables, which are expected to provide them with food throughout the year.

Davidson-Shaddox plans to return to Myanmar in November to visit the orphanage and photograph the town of Lokai.

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