Myanmar Seeks to Find Light in Darkness

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Imagine this: A brilliant pink and orange streaked sunset slipping away as nightfall casts over the town. Now, envision this setting one step further–the night sky throws a dark shadow that cannot be broken by light. The town has no access to electricity.

It may be difficult for most of us to visualize living in an environment where we can’t turn on the lights with the simple flick of a switch, but this aforementioned scene is a reality for 1.3 billion people around the globe according to The Washington Post. Furthermore, according to The Washington Post, parts of the world that lack accessibility to electricity include Sub-Saharan Africa (57 percent), Asia (17 percent), the Middle East (8 percent), and Latin America (8 percent).

The country of Myanmar is just one of many that grapples with the effects of limited resources. In a country where there is an estimated 68,000 villages, there are only about 3,000 villages that have the means to connect to some form of power, according to the Lensculture.

Remote. Disconnected. Struggling. These words characterize Myanmar.

Kyaw San, a high school student in Myanmar, is just one example of an individual who suffers from the effects of living off of the grid. According to the Worldbank, San’s schoolwork presents a challenge because he is unable to connect to electric power at night-time. Electric conditions worsen during the rainy season when his solar-powered lights cannot be powered and he has to resort to utilizing candle lights to study. Younger generations’ studies are also impacted by the lack of electricity.

Win Win Nwe, a grade school student in Myanmar, explains in an interview with Worldbank that, “If the battery is charged I have light, otherwise I must work by candlelight.” These harsh realities for Nwe and San are commonplace in the country.

The country struggles to make ends meet on a day-to-day basis; small businesses lack key resources to operate smoothly, the opportunity to utilize household appliances is rare, and job opportunities are limited by the constraints of the sun.

These statistics raise the question: what means do individuals like those in Myanmar utilize to create light once dusk is cast over the sky? The answer is solar power panels. According to LiveScience, solar panels operate by, “Allowing photons, or particles of light, to knock electrons free from atoms, generating a flow of electricity.” These panels contain a melding of minuscule units referred to as photovoltaic cells.  Photovoltaic cells, refer to the conversion of sunlight into electricity.

It is through this conversion of energy that solar power panels are illuminating remote parts of the world. One country that utilizes this tactic to brighten the night is Myanmar.

According to PV Magazine, in 2014, the U.S. announced their plans to fund a $480 million project to manufacture two 150 MW solar PV plants in Myanmar’s northeastern region. The project that was completed in 2016 accounts for 12 percent of the country’s electricity.

It is these luminous solar panels in Myanmar that inspired Spanish photographer Rubén Salgado Escudero. In his exquisite photo series, “Solar Portraits,” he captures the simplicity of accessing electricity in rural locations around the world, specifically in Myanmar.

As a child growing up, Escudero had a passion to combine creativity with technological advances. He began forging his creative career path as a 3D animator, but realized after 10 years that he was no longer passionate about the work he was curating.

It was during a holiday trip to Iran that he bought a secondhand camera–a purchase that would spark his zeal for the field of professional photography.

Shortly after this crucial discovery, Escudero decided to complete the current video project he was working on and begin establishing a career in photography.

“Once I started pursuing photography, I was much more inspired than I was before, because it gives me the opportunity to tell someone else’s story,” Escudero told BTRtoday.

“I shoot whatever I see that moves me, that touches me, and that I find important to tell the story. I am mostly interested in the human condition, identity, heritage and how those things have an effect on people’s lives.”

Escudero’s enthusiasm for photography and the opportunity to share individuals’ stories served as the foundation for the “Solar Portraits” series. While working and developing infrastructure projects for a humanitarian organization in Myanmar, he noticed the lack of electricity in a local village after the sun went down; most individuals lit candles to sustain light. This came as a shock to Escudero. He explained to BTRtoday that until this experience, he had never lived in a place where light was not accessible after the sun sets.

A few weeks later, while traveling through Myanmar, Escudero passed through a village that utilized solar panels. The way individuals lived in this village at night starkly contrasted the other villages that the photographer had previously visited. The scene inspired him to converse with the residents and learn more about their use of solar panels.

In an interview with BBC, Escudero explained, “Each subject was asked how having electricity has affected their life. The portraits were set up within their environment, according to what they expressed.”

The answers that Escudero received from residents of Myanmar reflected a general pattern. Some of the answers that weaved together included the ability for students to complete their studies at night and the opportunity for individuals to work in a second shift of jobs during the evening.

“All in all, what you find is that many people can be very productive at night, so you are not confined to the sun hours. Many work in the farm during the day and are craftsmen at night. Overall, various additional jobs allow for them to have more income, which was a pattern across the board,” commented Escudero.

While Escudero’s photo series of Myanmar awarded him the honor of first place in the Sony Portraiture contest, his exposure has contributed to something on a bigger scale–changing the conversation. Myanmar’s economic conditions shine a light on countries globally that face similar situations.

After winning the contest and generating buzz for Myanmar, Escudero decided to create a crowdfunding project called “Let There Be Light.”

“I wanted to take the success of the project and the attention it had received one step further and affect the people I was photographing. I paired with the longest international funding organization in Myanmar, Pact, to bring more solar light to families in villages of Myanmar,” says Escudero.

During the end of BTR’s interview with Escudero, the photographer was asked to comment on his own personal thoughts regarding solar power panels.

“I find solar power totally fascinating–it is just in the beginning stages of its technology, but it is here to stay because we have a lot of sunlight and we need to figure out how to be sustainable,” he shares. “I am very excited to see how solar power panels advances in various fashions. Hypothetically speaking, 50 years from now, children will able to see how it was used across the world at the beginning of its technology.”

In the future, Escudero plans to continue shooting solar power paneling. He has also been working on a project with a Latin musician that focuses on demonstrating how identity throughout different cultures has a common connection at the end of the day.