Through a Photographer’s Lens: A Journey Across Asia

Let us take you on visual tours of some of the most captivating places around the world! To kick off our new series “Through a Photographer’s Lens,” Mexico City‑based Ilan Derech takes us on an epic adventure across Japan, Myanmar and India, revealing a hidden side of Asia.

Travelling is like an onion. You have to peel off the layers and decide how much you want to learn: You can either stay with the outer layer, or you can go deeper and deeper, there will always be more to get out of it. I chose to travel across Asia because of its huge cultural differences, and I documented it because for me, photography is emotion – it’s a way to connect and make us feel stuff that daily life doesn’t. Not only does it trigger your senses but also helps you see way more than you normally would.
 
 

April 9, 2020

Tokyo

Visiting Japan fulfilled a different side to life that I haven’t lived in Mexico. It’s a place that teaches you to be quiet, respectful, and mindful towards others, and how to learn from your inner self.

A man under an umbrella in Tokyo during the night

There are cities that are made for daytime and there are cities that are made for nighttime. Tokyo’s lighting places the city firmly in the former category. The illumination everywhere is just mind blowing.

People huddled under clear umbrellas on a rainy day in Tokyo

I spent most of my days in Shinjuku and Shibuya, the classic Tokyo neighbourhoods full of neon lights, bars, restaurants and working people.

Inside a busy Tokyo restaurant

Sometimes I would just hop on a train and get off at a random station and walk around. It’s important not have expectations when travelling, so you don’t normalize your experiences before you’ve even seen the place. By getting lost, you will discover details you would never normally notice.

A Tokyo woman using her phone while she waits for the train

Throughout the trip, I used my Leica SL Type 601 camera attached with Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm 1.4 lens. I love how this camera renders colours and the 35mm focal length forced me to get closer to my subjects.

Portrait of a train conductor in Tokyo, Japan

 

Myanmar

Myanmar appealed to me because I was looking for a place that was authentic and relatively untouched by tourism.

Two Buddhist monks read a piece of paper in Myanmar

During my four weeks in the country, I became friends with a Buddhist monk, and he invited me to visit his monastery. I had the preconception that monks are very serious and formal people, but found the opposite.

A man sitting on his modified bicycle on a Yangoon road in Myanmar

Scooters and motorbikes are banned from Yangoon’s roads. Residents have found a workaround by modifying their bicycles to transport two or three passengers. The heat in the capital is overwhelming, still, you see people riding bikes.

A man stands on the dock beside his boat in Myanmar

River boats are still a common mode of public transport in Myanmar and major cities are connected by river. Until recently, there weren’t many roads – the few that existed were bad. I took this boat to reach Inwa, an ancient fortress city close to Mandalay.

A red and yellow sign on top of a building in a Myanmar market

This sign atop a downtown market in Mandalay caught my attention – I believe all cities and countries each have distinct colour palettes. Myanmar, I noticed, has a lot of very bright reds and yellows, which contrast with the blue skies.

Black and white photo of a woman shielding her face in Myanmar

Travel, documentary and street photography are about learning to read the flow of people and the rhythm of a city, so you are able to predict how something is going to happen. The layout of this jade market gave a strong contrast between light and shadow.

A young boy leaning out of a train window in Myanmar

Travelling by rail, you can experience day‑to‑day Burmese life playing out. People know that it’s going to be a very long ride and you get to see how they behave.

A view of the coast of a Myanmar river

 

India

Sleeper trains in India often have upper bunk beds. I would always try and grab these spots just to observe what was going on below – they offer a unique angle to see how passengers are interacting.

Passengers on an Indian sleeper train

Like Mexico, India is simultaneously chaotic and stressful yet also spiritual and introspective. I’m a morning person, which is why I woke up at 3 a.m. to see the Taj Mahal before the hoard of tourists showed up.

Sunrise over the Taj Mahal in India

When I arrived in Varanasi, the holiest of the seven sacred cities, it hadn’t rained in over a month. Tradition states that it always rains during Mahashivaratri, the Hindu festival to celebrate Shiva. Then suddenly out of nowhere, a huge storm appeared during the night.

A rainstorm makes its way through Varanasi

The following day, I knew I wanted to go and take pictures, so I got out of bed before sunrise to walk to the bank of the river Ganges. The atmosphere was very foggy, mysterious and moody, and just reflected the spirituality of the place. It had so much mysticism.

Heavy fog on the bank of the river Ganges

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