Danish photographer Christian Holst came upon photography in 1997, when a photographer friend of his uncle’s suggested that Holst come work for him. Photography soon became one of Holst's favorite pursuits along with working as a bike messenger and teaching children how to sail. He began his formal training first by working as an assistant at a photographers collective in Denmark, and then taking courses at Fatamorgana, the Danish School of Art Photography in 2000. He followed this the next year with classes at the Danish School of Journalism.
Holst was based in Bangkok until recently, when he relocated to Shanghai to work on stories in the region. He devotes most of his time to social issues and human rights stories. He is currently working on a long-term project about daily life under Burma’s military regime.
Holst has received numerous international awards, and his work has appeared in a range of American, European, and Scandinavian magazines and newspapers.
Working in Burma as a photojournalist is difficult on many levels. I often feel like my images may be coming up short. I find it incredibly hard to visually convey the emotions and magnitude of the issues I know the Burmese are facing under Burma’s military regime, which has been in power for almost 50 years. It is a rule of harsh physical and psychological oppression. During the 1988 student uprising, more than 3,000 demonstrators were shot dead and thousands more arrested in the streets of Rangoon. In 2007, Burma’s generals brutally crushed peaceful demonstrations initiated by monks and students and jailed thousands of demonstrators.
Burma’s suffering was compounded in 2008 when Cyclone Nargis killed almost 140,000 people. Initially, the country’s paranoid generals responded with complete disregard for the population and made an already horrible situation worse by rejecting foreign aid for weeks.
The Burmese people suffer every day under a regime that is as inept as it is repressive. The military government’s economic policies have resulted in double digit inflation that devastates wages and salaries. Burma, once dubbed the “Rice Bowl of Asia,” can now barely feed itself and has gone from one of the region’s richest countries to one of the world’s poorest. The country is also on the verge of a potentially devastating health crisis due to the government’s inattention to HIV and AIDS, malaria, and TB. Burma’s health and education sectors are crippled by neglect and corruption. While the regime has built a number of universities, it does not allocate enough funds to operate them.
The generals seem to think that an oppressed, sick, and uneducated citizenry poses less threat to their power. Some maintain that the generals’ behavior is due to their commitment to keep Burma united. But the junta seems incapable of going beyond harsh military rule when attempting to govern Burma’s diverse, multiethnic society. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2010, yet they are likely to perpetuate military rule under a facade of legislative formality. The regime’s 2008 constitution allows the military to hold 25 percent of the seats in the new parliament and to control an appointed body with veto power over parliamentary decisions.
Despite these sad facts, the Burmese people show a quiet resilience to continue with their lives. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won the 1990 elections and who has been under house arrest for 14 of the last 21 years, has tried to help her fellow Burmese acquire courage and prevent fear from dictating their lives. She calls it “grace under pressure”—an ability to conduct oneself with decency and composure in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure.
On a basic human level, I am occasionally overwhelmed, sometimes frustrated, but mostly encouraged by what I see when photographing people in Burma. I feel utterly privileged to witness people who are so graceful under such harsh pressures.
—Christian Holst, June 2010