Robert Ramser’s Golden Land with Smiling People

Welcome to Robert Ramser’s Burma. His up-coming exhibition “A Golden Land with Smiling People” opens at Espace Cyril Kobler on 3rd March.

Robert Ramser 14

One of the white elephants belonging to General Than Shwe. In South-East Asia, white elephants are symbols of power, good luck and political credibility. In reality, they are albino animals with pink-brown skin and pale eyes. The official line, though, is that they are white.

Two years ago, I met Robert at his home and wrote about his mesmerising Asian photography. Last year, at his Holy Creatures exhibition I had the privilege of buying one of his beautiful, atmospheric, hand-developed, black and white prints. Robert is a thoughtful, experienced and creative photographer. His work is always worth seeing.  However, I am a little surprised by the title of his new exhibition. I cannot escape a tiny fear that his fascination for the Far East has led him to exhibit a series of golden temples, water buffalos, happy saffron-clad Buddhists monks and grinning children. This fear, it turns out, is unfounded. The golden land with smiling people doesn’t exist except in photos that Robert doesn’t want to exhibit.

Robert Ramser 15

Kaung Kaung lives in the Le Te Mu monastery. His parents live in Rangoon but don’t have the means to look after him.

Robert’s travels first took him to Burma in 1983. He has returned twelve times. In his medium format, black and white style he really did photograph a golden land with smiling people. He then realised that such images were precisely what the political authorities wanted visitors to take away. “I took many nice photos” he tells me. “But they were too nice! They were not representative. They were not genuine. I wanted to show the crumbling vestiges of British colonialism and the poverty of everyday life.” Determined never to exhibit these photos and equally determined to capture the political realities of Burma, he returned in 2011 and 2012 with this current exhibition in mind.

Robert Ramser 16

Classroom in a christian institution, Kalaw, 2012. Education is, in principle, free in Burma but the teachers are so badly paid that they have to give private lessons as well. The many private schools are only for the privileged. Religious institutions attempt a basic education for children of the most needy families but many such children have to work in tea shops for less than a dollar a day. The education budget is 6% of the total national budget. The army expenditure is 13%: for a country with no enemies outside its borders.

The photos on display in the new exhibition show a surprising change of approach and technique. He has moved not only from medium format film to 35mm SLR digital in colour but also from the aesthetic and evocative to photo-journalism.

Robert Ramser 17

The inner courtyard of Sofaer & Co in Rangoon, 2011. This building dates back to 1906 and housed the interests of Issaac Sofaer, a prominent businessman. After the military take-over of power and expulsion of the owners, it became the office of taxation until the government moved to the new capital Nay Pyi Daw in 2005. Colonial buildings are the property of the government but are left to decay. There is an on-going programme to sell such colonial buildings to foreign companies with a view to creating more desperately needed hotels for tourists.

I’m a great admirer of Robert’s work. Whether illustrating folklore or in pursuit of a political statement, each photo carries a distinct, understated quality.

Robert Ramser 18

Eight-lane highway in Nay Pyi Daw, 2012. The new capital was hastily constructed in the early 2000s in an arid area through fear of an American invasion. The roads are illuminated all night when the rest of the country receives electricity for only eight hours per day.

You can meet this gentle-mannered and versatile photographer at the opening of the exhibition at Espace Cyril Kobler on Tuesday, March 3 from 1800. I’ll be there too!

Tram 12, stop: “Peillonnex”

Robert Ramser’s Holy Creatures

Calmly sipping a cup of Darjeeling tea, Robert Ramser told me his advice to any aspiring photographer. “Stay with your own style. It is better to take a bad photograph in your own style than a good photograph in someone else’s style.” In his series “Holy Creatures” – the subject of his up-coming exhibition – he certainly stays with his own style. But you will not find a bad photograph. They are all developed by hand from medium-format film. They are beautiful.

Ramser 10

The Philosopher, Vrindavan 2008

Last year, I met Robert at his home. I wrote about his mesmerising Asian photography. He told me that, on one of his photographic journeys to Mumbai, India, he became fascinated by the spiritual presence of animals. He had taken refuge from the heat in a small museum and discovered a series of miniature paintings illustrating the ancient Panchatantra fables from the Mogul era. He explained “In Hindu, Jain and Buddhist philosophies, every living thing is a soul incarnated in a material body. I was inspired by the exquisite manner these artists showed the presence and the dignity of the animals…”

Ramser 11

The Widow, Vrindavan 2008

Robert’s images are delicate and enduring. They have captured the animals’ indifference to humanity. I am sure that if I look for long enough, souls will appear! And there is atmosphere. I feel heat and humidity. I smell dust and open drains.

Ramser 12

The Lights of Paradise, Varanasi 2013

Ramser 13

The Capuchin in the Alcove, Vrindavan 2008

A hallmark of Robert’s Asian photography is that it is difficult to imagine the presence of a photographer in the scene. However, at 6.00pm on 5th June, Robert will definitely be present at the opening of “Holy Creatures” at the prestigious photo gallery Fotografika at 10, rue Borgeaud in Gland (between Geneva and Lausanne.) The exhibition lasts until 26th July. Go!

The Asian photography of Robert Ramser

Ramser 1I am offered a friendly welcome. Quietly and modestly, I am shown about a hundred photographs taken from neatly stacked boxes. Mesmerising images of Himalayan villages, abandoned temples, animals, people, poverty and more pass before my eyes. There is a distinct style: the pictures are crisp, delicate and enduring. It is difficult to imagine the photographer’s presence in these scenes. I feel that if I were to retrace his steps, nothing would have changed. And this is the real deal: all the black and white photographs are developed by hand from medium-format film. I am overawed by the accomplishment and overdose on photographic beautiful stuff. I have difficulty finding questions that are not banal.

Ramser 2

Rice fields, Yunnan, 2002

I have the privilege of meeting photographer Robert Ramser at his house in rural France. He is a calm, elegant man. The domestic atmosphere is unhurried and orderly. All around is beautiful stuff that speaks to his passion for the orient. Over Darjeeling tea, his life story unfolds. He grew up in Arles and watched the arrival there of the international photographic festival. He fell into the photographic scene, rubbing shoulders with Adams, Harbutt, Lartigue and McCullin. In 1974, the photographic neophyte moved to a small flat in Paris. A friend said he should visit the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim. He did. He returned to Paris with an idea of his future. The bathroom became a darkroom. He married Corinne, his Vietnamese neighbour.

Ramser feels at ease and indeed happy among the cultures and the people throughout Asia. He travels for up to three months at a time so immersing himself in his destination. However, photography is not necessarily the main aim; it simply serves to let him see beautiful stuff that he would not have seen, to meet extraordinary people that he would not have met and to stay longer than he would have in interesting places. He is not out to make a statement.

One of his widely exhibited series focuses on the secluded minorities of the “Forgotten hills” of the Ghizou and Yunnan provinces of south-west China.

Ramser 3

A Yi family, Yunnan, 2002

In keeping with his fascination for Himalayan kingdoms, another series studies the Bhutanese concept of gross national happiness.

Ramser 4

Tang, 2010

Ramser 5

Thimphu, 2009

In Mumbai, he took refuge from the Indian heat in a small museum. He discovered a series of miniature paintings illustrating the ancient Panchatantra fables from the Mogul era. In explaining the background to his on-going Creatures of the Gods series, he says “In Hindu, Jain and Buddhist philosophies, every living thing is a soul incarnated in a material body. I was inspired by the exquisite manner these artists showed the presence and the dignity of the animals…”

Ramser 6

Vrindavan, 2007

Ramser 7

Calcutta, 2007

Ramser 8

Pondichery, 2007

Ramser 9

Mahabalipuram, 2013

Ramser has an exceptional photographic eye. He rarely takes more than 13 pictures in a day; he does not need to. He is not uncomfortable with digital photography but, for him, the infinite number of photos that this technology permits and the ability to review them immediately are a distraction. Time that would be best spent observing the subject is lost by checking the little screen on the back of the camera. In his own experience, if you take many photos of a subject, the first is often the best anyway. He says the most fulfilling moments of his photographic career are those precious seconds when, on releasing the shutter, he knows he has captured a really great image.

I ask what advice he would offer to any young, aspiring photographer. Without hesitation, he replies “Stay with your own style. It is better to take a bad photograph in your own style than a good photograph in someone else’s style.” And with this pearl of wisdom delivered, he sits back and sips his tea, calmly.