The image I took was taken from a collection of albums titled “Four photograph albums by George West Philleo” containing approximately 150 photographs taken in Burma, Penang, and China from 1917 to 1924. Some of the albums focus on photos of industrialization and include photos of factories, trains, and laborers. Other albums include photos of the presumed owner’s lifestyle, house, and family. From the content of the albums, I am assuming that the creator of the album was a colonist who had special expertise in the creation of factories or railways. This colonist was sent to Burma to establish train routes and incorporate technology to increase trade and exportation of goods to whatever country he originated from.
The image I selected from these albums is likely from the region around Mandalay, a large city located in central Burma. The image was originally black and white with a brown tint and was found in the album with a series of other train-related photos. I decided to crop the album and empty photograph borders from the photo to give us a closer look at the image’s contents. Additionally, I added some extra color to the photo with the use of AI software I found online (ImageColorizer | Old Photo Restoration and Enhancement, n.d.). I think that the added color makes the image more realistic and allows the viewer to further immerse themselves in the photograph.
The photo depicts a derailed train engine present in a dense tropical jungle. From the context of other photos contained in the album, it is likely that the train derailed due to a landslide or rockslide. This train doesn’t seem to be a regularly operating train that would carry passengers or cargo. Rather, as seen in other photos in the album depicting the train’s cargo, the train is likely used to deliver rails/lumber to continue the construction of the track. This is further supported by the presence of rock piles, and construction tools in the foreground. Several people are present in the photos such as a man and woman wearing white-rimmed hats and a black suit/white dress indicating they are colonists. Others wear turban-like headwear and less formal clothes indicating that they are indigenous laborers. This photo was either taken to provide a progress update to the officials who ordered the construction of this railroad or as a memento for the colonists as an interesting event that occurred.
From observing the image, we can speculate there was a heavy influence of colonists on the local populations. Specifically, the Burmese were under the colonial rule of the British and would continue to be under colonial rule until 1948 when they gained independence (Godrej, 2008). Likely the two individuals in the photograph with the rimmed hats are also British colonists who have business in trade and the exportation of goods to Britain. Due to the proximity to China and India, Burma may have been an important area of trade for the British. This may explain why they were involved in creating railroads in Burma despite the challenges of the jungle. The local people were likely under the strict control of the British and were exploited for the colonist’s profit (Myint-U, 2001). This is further supported by the photograph where we see the local people doing dangerous manual labor.
From looking at this photo it is difficult to determine what contemporary Burma or the future of Burma may look like. However, we know that there was a colonial presence in Burma so it is possible that the modern population still has British influence. However, the demographics of Burma seem to have little reminisce of its past colonialism. The main religion by an overwhelming majority in Burma is Buddhism (87.9%) with only 6.2% of the population identifying as Christian (Myanmar Population 2023 (Live), n.d.). Additionally, the official language is Burmese as opposed to English. It is possible that the British were not as involved in incorporating its education, ideals, and religion into the Burmese population as other countries that Britain colonized. Rather they may have been most focused on creating trade routes as quickly as possible.
Since Burma was of interest to the British at the time when this photo was taken, Burma may still be a country that has bountiful resources and trade opportunities. As Burma develops it can make use of these resources to fit into the larger world economy. The potential spices, agricultural products, and goods that Britain was originally interested in will continue to be important exports for Burma to neighboring countries. The indigenous people who were under British rule in the photograph are free today and will continue to practice their individual culture, religion, and languages into the future.