On January 7 an exhibition, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, displaying historical photographs of the teak industry will open at the Myanmar Deitta gallery in Yangon. I am really excited about it. The photographs that will be shown have been generously made available by the London Metropolitan Archives. The originals were taken in the years before the Japanese occupation by staff at Steel Brothers and Company Ltd., a British firm heavily involved in the teak trade.
The photographs provide a sense of the scale of the teak operations in Myanmar during British rule. At the same time, they document the lives of those humans and animals employed in the industry. The pictures of working elephants are, for me at least, the highlights. They show the creatures’ physical strength and dexterity. They also capture something of the relationship between elephants and their oosie (elephant drivers).
Deforestation and the survival of Asian elephants were intertwined problems that emerged in Myanmar as a consequence of imperialism, and they are challenges that remain today. At the end of the exhibition, these photographs will go to the Green Hill Valley elephant sanctuary, which cares for elephants that have retired from years of work for the Myanmar Timber Enterprise.
For more information on the situation facing Myanmar’s working elephants, I recommend reading the research and following the events of the Myanmar Timber Elephant Project. And, if you happen to be in Yangon during January, I hope that you’ll be able to visit the exhibition.