Love and danger
Taungyyi, Myanmar -- When I proposed to my girlfriend, fireworks lit up the sky. Literally. Luckily none of them hit us.
We were in the middle of a field in eastern Myanmar, during the Taunggyi fire balloon festival, a veritable local institution. It is part of the country-wide Tazaungtai Festival of Light that marks the end of the rainy season in Myanmar. The Taunggyi is particularly beautiful. And particularly dangerous. Which is why, I suppose, inspiration struck for the most important question of my life. But more on that later.
During the festival, which lasts 10 days, hundreds of balloons with homemade fireworks woven into their frames soar into the night sky. If everything goes right, the fireworks explode when the balloon is high enough, sending showers of sparks on thousands of delighted spectators below.
The problem is that the balloons and the fireworks are homemade creations -- people labor over them for months ahead of time -- and sometimes they don’t go off when they should. Often they explode too close to the ground, sometimes to deadly results. In 2014, for example, three people were killed when a balloon crashed on them and a child died when a balloon was blown into the family’s tent.
But the danger hasn’t dampened the spirit and enthusiasm for the festival, the pride and joy of Shan State. As one man who travelled for the festival this year from Mandalay told my AFP colleague, “I’m very happy and also afraid.”
The locals are fiercely proud of it. The groups that participate labor for months over their balloons and fireworks. The spectacle attracts tens of thousands of people every day of the festival. And many young people who leave Shan State for work return home for it.
I was born and grew up in Yangon and first attended the extravaganza in 2011 with my girlfriend, who is from the area and took me to see it. As soon as I walked onto the field, I knew it would be great. It was a week before the festival was due to start, but everyone in town was talking about it, you could feel the excitement in the air. Everyone would enthusiastically describe to me how great it was and when I saw the opening I realized that they weren’t exaggerating. The opening features a big fireworks display and the release of hundreds of small paper lanterns into the sky. It was so beautiful and amazing. I literally got goose bumps when I saw it. I decided that I would cover it as a photographer every year.
And the very next year I had one of my closest calls at what’s widely considered one of Asia’s most beautiful and dangerous festivals.
The judges were checking the display of one group while another was preparing to launch its balloon. Although the wind was not strong enough, the second group decided to launch its balloon anyway and lit the wick without the judges’ go-ahead. Because of the weak wind, their fireworks started exploding very close to the ground, hitting the people below.
That sparked pandemonium in and of itself. But then one of their fireworks hit those of the first group, setting the whole place on fire.
Just imagine it -- nearly 60 kilograms of fireworks were exploding, half in the air close to the ground, half on the ground. There were sparks everywhere. People were running in all directions away from the blaze. Except me, who ran toward it -- I wanted to get a close-up shot of firemen trying to put out the blaze.
At the time, all I was thinking about was getting my nice close-up shot of the firemen, I wasn’t thinking that I myself could be hit and be injured or even killed. A friend of mine took a picture of me, standing out there alone, taking pictures close to the explosion. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about the danger, but whenever I see that picture, I am shocked.
Over the years I have gotten good about protecting myself while taking pictures.
I am very aware all the time I am on the field. When shooting pictures, I am very careful to watch out for fireworks that might be coming directly at me. The locals swear that jeans material is the only thing that can protect you from the fireworks and sparks, so over the layers that people wear to protect them from the cold, they usually wear a jeans jacket. And you never just run if fireworks happen to explode. You look at the direction that the balloon is traveling. You find cover as fast as you can and get behind it and cover yourself. Don’t just run wildly wherever your legs will take you.
I’ve also learned some lessons. Like don’t get too close to the group about to launch their balloon, because they’re all so tense. They are concentrating on the launch and are very stressed, partly because of the danger involved. Don’t go inside the balloon frame to take pictures -- something that I did my very first year, without asking permission from the group involved. Luckily they knew my girlfriend and knew that it was my first time at the festival, so they cut me some slack.
I suppose some people may wonder why locals would go to such a festival, when it can be so dangerous. Part of the reason, I think, is just how beautiful it is.
When everything works, it’s just magic.
I can attest to that personally because I have been swept up in it. After a few years, I was planning on proposing to my girlfriend, but didn’t have a specific plan in mind. In 2012 we were in the field. One of the balloons went up and the fireworks were really beautiful, people were dancing happily all around us, the group that launched the balloon were proudly shouting and hugging each other because the launch was such a success.
All of the excitement got to me and I felt like I wanted to spend the rest of my life with my girlfriend seeing beautiful things like that, finding success and happiness together. And so all of the sudden I got down on one knee and proposed. I didn’t even have a ring on me, I used the cable from my mobile phone to make one and used that. Luckily she said yes and we got married two years later.
I guess that’s the secret of this festival, the magic. For the locals, it’s their pride and joy. They work months on preparing the fireworks, thinking of what combinations will look most beautifully in the night sky. When everything goes right -- and the the balloon is up in the air and the fireworks explode beautifully, it is really something to behold. That’s why the locals are so crazy about it.
And it is something that you can only see here. It is part of the country’s culture and something that we have to preserve.
This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.