Meeting acclaimed photographer Max Dupain (1911-1992) left an indelible impression on Anna Swain, who, fresh out of high school, recalls being in awe of a man who many still consider to be the Master of Photography.
“I was working as a junior in a photographic laboratory on Sydney’s North Shore and Max was one of our clients,” Anna recalls. “He was a strong, attractive man with a real presence. He took his craft very seriously so whenever I had to produce his work I was very nervous! But I loved that opportunity, to tell you the truth. In fact, the whole idea of photography, from the smell of the camera itself to framing the picture to the click of the shutter.”
Like Anna, I remember processing black and white film by hand, often in makeshift darkrooms on my travels, saturated by the red safelight and characteristic smell of sulphur dioxide gas. It really was a magical process, where an image would slowly materialise out of the darkness as you swished the chemicals across the light sensitive paper, then pegged the finished, dripping, print up on a line.
“The excitement of darkrooms and images coming alive before your eyes intrigued me,” Anna says. “I ended up running the black and white department for a few weeks, which came with great pressure, especially when I was producing work for Max and the ABC. This was a time when one had to develop the raw film in the red light, holding up the tiny negatives to the light, or on the light box, hoping in vain that you got the shot. These days it’s so much easier and affordable but I do think some of the magic is lost!”
Two decades later, the now mother of three has published her first book, Burma: Tiffins, Nuns and Turmeric (Shutter Books), a beautiful hardback that features captivating photos, short stories, and a few delicious recipes.
“At the age of 19, on a golden triangle trek in Northern Thailand, we came to a bridge reaching over a river,” she writes in the preface. “Our guide said, ‘Over there is Burma but we aren’t allowed to go there’. Ever since then I have been fascinated… Perhaps it was not being allowed in… or maybe it was simply the mystery of an unknown land.” A family holiday in 2014 to what is now known as Myanmar finally satiated that desire to experience a country many of us only know for its cultural diversity, civil unrest, and political figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Burma made my heart sing!” she says from the gorgeous home she built with husband Andrew in Byron Bay. “The people really are probably the most remarkable aspect as well as the old-school nature of the country and their culture. The Burmese emit an incredible gentleness and kindness. Their religion encourages communal generosity. Despite the country’s long history of hardship, the people have maintained their pride and their culture. Most Burmese are very poor and live simple lives, yet seem quite content. It’s a good reminder of how life ought to be; very humbling and good for the soul.”
Anna beautifully captures the everyday moments that define Burmese culture: fishermen navigating the lake in search of food, children playing on stilted houses, Buddhist boys with freshly shaved heads.
“I tend to take random, close-up shots of produce, faces or textures rather than iconic landscape or tourist attractions,” she explains. “I like to try and capture life as it is in the village. I never set up a shot and usually only take candid photos. I don’t know how to use Photoshop and hate an image to be tampered with.”
After working with local publishing company Captain Honey to develop a pitch document, which she presented to Murdoch, Hardie Grant and Penguin Lantern publishers, Anna decided to do it on her own terms and self-publish the book.
“I received incredibly quick, extremely positive rejections - ‘stunning photography’, ‘evocative images’, ‘beautiful work’ – which gave me the confidence to carry on,” she recalls. “A very successful cookbook author said to me, ‘If I knew then what I know now, I definitely would have self-published’. Also, I don’t really like being told what to do and I’ve loved the freedom of it; total creative liberty! It’s been very rewarding so far.”
Commitment, Content & Creative Vision
Publishing consultant Roz Hopkins says more writers and photographers were opting to self-publish rather than pursue traditional avenues.
“This is partly because commercial publishers have become more selective than they used to be, especially over the past ten years with book shops closing down,” says the former Lonely Planet publisher who co-founded Captain Honey with partner Natalie Winter.
“This in turn has created, you could say, a negative environment as there are less opportunities for new authors. On the positive side, there are lots of opportunities that have emerged in self-publishing that didn’t exist ten years ago, and part of that has been driven by technology as you can now publish and promote online. Either way it’s still hard. Publishing requires a lot of effort, commitment, money, and self-belief.”
While bringing a book like Burma to fruition was a major achievement in itself, Roz says that this is just the beginning for self-published authors like Anna. To avoid the legacy of a spare room full of unread books, fledgling authors needed to understand the broader, commercial aspects of taking a book from the printers to the readers.
“The creative side is really only one aspect of what is ultimately a business venture,” she explains. “Sales, marketing, promotion, distribution, and all of the back-end processes need to be done to support the creative side. In the case of Anna, she really committed to the venture by setting up a business name, getting an imprint, and having a logo designed. These are the kinds of things you definitely need if you are going to go into self-publishing in a commercially successful way.”
Roz says she was “blown away” when she first saw the 256-page pictorial, which she attributes to Anna’s commitment, content, and creative vision.
“I think it’s one of the best self-published books I’ve ever seen,” she says. “Anna was prepared to invest the money to have a beautiful production – that lovely foil and embossing on the cover – and those kinds of touches that, sad to say, are actually quite difficult to do even in traditional publishing these days.”
Burma: Tiffins, Nuns and Tumeric
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