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|| News Item: Posted 2011-01-05

Chelsea Sektnan's Favorite Image of 2010
“My heart went out to him and I felt like my project and my friendship was important.”

By CHELSEA SEKTNAN, University of Missouri

Editor's Note: For this issue of the Sports Shooter Newsletter I asked students that are members of or had attended one of the Academy workshops to submit their favorite photo of 2010 and write a short piece about it. This image could be from a favorite assignment, show something they had learned or is something of a personal nature. The one requirement was, the image had to have special significance to them.

Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

Photo by Chelsea Sektnan
My final semester at the University of Missouri’s photojournalism program taught me a lot of things about photography, but more things about people. At Mizzou’s program, you take a final capstone class your last semester. The class culminates with a photo story that you have (hopefully) been working on for months. I had been working on mine for years. I was intrigued by the refugee community in Columbia, and had been working for the Refugee and Immigration Services for a while because of my double degree in Peace Studies. I decided to take that interest further, and use my knowledge and friendships to tell their stories. I decided to focus on a younger woman in the community who I had recently met, and who had an extremely interesting story.

Zeyar (names changed) had lived a very tough life in Burma. The government killed her father and her mother was forced to raise the entire family by herself, without ever knowing where her husband had gone. The woman I was focusing on had enough of the government’s oppression and decided to write an underground newspaper and distribute this throughout her campus. This, of course, made her a target and she was forced to flea to India. That is when she met her husband, in New Delhi. They were married and lived in India for a time until she was able to apply for refugee status and move to America. This is where our stories converge.

She was sent to Columbia, Missouri. Quite the opposite of the jungles of Burma and India. She was thrown into a small Burmese community in the dead of winter. She got a night job and her husband worked days. Because she was so active in the community in Burma, she didn’t stop when she came to Columbia. On Fridays she invited all of the women in the community to her house to talk to the social workers and mission women so they could interpret through her (she had learned English quite well in India) and ask questions about their new lives in America. I was extremely interested in her activism and her strength. Her relationship with her husband was interesting as well. The few times I met him were when he was passing through on the way to different jobs.

It seemed like they only had a passing relationship, but it was still an integral part of my story of her life. He did not know English very well, but he still attempted to talk and communicate with me. One afternoon while Zeyar was taking a shower, he pointed to a book on the table and brought it over to me. It was a photo album. We sat together as he moved through the pages, pointing to different shots and explaining them to me. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I understood what was going on in the pictures. Their wedding, their home in India (they shared a one room home with another family), their first time seeing snow, their time in the park across the road from their now house, many different life moments captured with a camera. He smiled as he moved from page to page, explaining his life to me with short English sentences and many more words I didn’t understand. My heart went out to him and I felt like my project and my friendship was important.

I spent many afternoons with them, some of them I didn’t even make any images, I helped them hook up their computer or go through their taxes. I also spent a morning at church with them, and this is where I found myself taking a most unusual photograph, although I didn’t know it at the time. It was a typical church service, but instead of going to Sunday school before the service, they went to a special Burmese English Sunday school class where they learned English through the bible. They asked questions such as, “what does this word ‘just’ mean?” and the teacher explained that ‘just’ wasn’t simply an adverb, but it was what Jesus was. He was a just man, a fair man. They nodded their heads in understanding, but I was confused. I snapped a few photographs, but mostly listened to what they were being taught. Making mental notes to explain some things to her later in the day.

A couple of weeks later and my story was finally on its way to being decent. I had a couple of class critiques, and I was really excited about how it was turning out. Then, one day I called Zeyar to see what she was doing, because she hadn’t called me in days. I didn’t receive an answer. This went on for days and eventually weeks. My project was finally going somewhere, and it was difficult to be shut out. I didn’t receive an answer from her for a month. I had gone to her apartment and written her notes, called, emailed her, everything. There was zero communication, and the project was due in a month. I had to go to my teacher and explain the situation. We decided to make a story out of the images I had. During this time I received a cryptic text from her explaining that she was too busy and many things were going on, and something about marriage. To this day, it is still a disjointed essay on the life of the Burmese in Columbia.

Straight after graduation I was packing up my things and moving to Australia, so even if I was able to make communication with her I wouldn’t be able to finish up my story, which I desperately wanted to do. Then, about three hours before the graduation ceremony I found her. We were celebrating my graduation at a ‘classy’ Chinese buffet, and she was eating dinner three tables over. I didn’t know what to do, but I desperately wanted to find out what had happened. I walked over to her table, and she introduced me to her new husband, Andrew. I was taken back from the introduction, I had met Andrew before but I couldn’t remember where. He shook my hand and bowed his head to me, and Zeyar gave me a big hug and told me she missed me and we need to spend time together again.

Of course I agreed, but I was still confused. New husband? And where had I seen him before… I went back to my table with this information, and chewed it over for a couple of days. I went through my photographs and finally realized where I had met him before. At church. In the house fixing the computer. Walking down the hallways in their apartment. Everywhere. I pulled up my images from the morning in church, and there he was. Sitting right between Zeyar and her husband. If I hadn’t been so focused on the story I wanted to portray, perhaps I would have had my eyes open enough to see what was really going on.

Later that week I received an email from Zeyar explaining why she wasn’t in contact with me. During the blackout time, she was going through a divorce and a remarriage. I still don’t have the facts but I know that she is happy, and when we email each other, she signs her emails ‘with love’. When I come back to Columbia in May I will definitely be catching up with her, and there will be tears.

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