You can’t rewind time to a particular period, but Steve Golden is determined to document it before progress sweeps it away. In between his work as the director of community engagement at a local arts college, the lifelong photographer is jetting to Myanmar once a month in a project to capture street life in that country.
“Myanmar is at a transitional point,” says Golden. “In five years, it will be absolutely different. For now, it’s intact culturally and visually. When you go to Yangon, you see people sitting on the street at night drinking tea and that’s an Asian image.”
The 50-year-old has been snapping Asia since 1989, when the American was stranded in Tokyo after he blew US$300 of his US$500 savings in the city in the first three days of a three-month stay. Desperate for a job, he turned to the phone book, found Simon and Schuster publishing house, and ended up living in Japan for seven years before moving to Singapore in 1996.
Golden’s passion for photography flared when his images were published in The Japan Times along with his travel articles.
He would venture to extreme places, which by the standards of the 1990s, meant Vietnam, the beauty and friendliness of which made him fall in love with South-east Asia; and Cambodia in 1995, a few years after the Khmer Rouge agreed to a ceasefire. This was a time when Siem Reap had only five hotels and people were still sweeping for mines. The upside is that the photos of temples from this time are devoid of tourists. Says Golden: “You feel like an explorer seeing this place for the first time.”
He’s keen to share those moments of lost time. “I would love to exhibit photographs from the 1990s in places like Vietnam. Or of China in the past 10 years. When they started knocking down hutongs, I was still out there taking photos,” he continues.
The common denominator for his images, he says, is traditional places. “I try to capture real life the way it was, and the way it still is in some places. It’s all disappearing.”
Underlying it all is the search for real moments. “It’s real when you’re photographing someone,” says Golden. “You don’t speak their language, you are a foot taller, but if you can create a bond of trust, it’s such a genuine thing. You get images that are extraordinary, unrehearsed. You get the real person.”
And that’s more important to him now than ever. He adds: “There’s so much in the world now that’s not authentic. It’s kind of going back to the roots, finding inspiration in the simple things.”