A love of the outdoors and a desire to get “on purpose” compelled David Heath to leave a career as a marketing exec in the environmental engineering industry and set out on a quest for the perfect photograph on anything that would get him there. He’s hauled 40 pounds of camera gear strapped to his back across the paddy fields of Madagascar, the rainforests of West Papua and the sand dunes of Morocco, and now his travels through some of the most remote Burmese terrain has culminated in his first book, Burma: An Enchanted Spirit.
Falling in love with the mystical world of Burma (officially Myanmar), Heath spent five years exploring the land and meeting the people that make up a country besieged by ethnic strife. Despite being one of the most resource-rich countries in Asia, Burma has become one of the poorest countries in the world since a repressive military takeover of the country in 1962 that nationalized all aspects of society. Now, as the nation moves towards general elections and political freedom, Heath’s book captures the emotions of a country rich with hope for a brighter future. Here he explains what went into the transformation from successful businessman to enlightened artist, and the emotional ramifications that come with capturing the perfect travel photo.
THE RED BULLETIN: How did you go from 9-to-5 corporate marketing executive to globetrotting photographer?
DAVID HEATH: I’ve been masquerading as a businessman most of my life. It came from trying to please my grandfather starting when I was about 10 years old. He had a lot of disappointments in his life, so I remember making a conscious decision to make this man happy and bring joy to his life. Even though I’ve always been an artist, I decided to go the business route because I thought it would make my grandfather proud. It finally hit me one day that I need to get on purpose and that I’m done masquerading.
What inspired you to leave everything behind and jump into the unknown?
When you’re on purpose it’s as if the universe inspires to help you. That’s why all these things are happening like they are. It was more effort and struggle when I was in business. When you’re on purpose, it’s as if things just unfold for you. Meeting friends who were photographers and seeing how successful they were making a living doing what they loved doing was also a big influence on me.
How did you get into photography?
My stepfather bought me a Canon AE 1 back in the ’80s. Once I got ahold of that camera and started to play around with it. I treated the viewfinder as a canvas, and went out and started framing everything I would see out in the mountains or the ocean, and I learned how to frame images as if I were drawing them. I’m also a thrill seeker. I grew up as a skier and surfer so I’ve always been drawn to adventure. It was the perfect fit; being able to travel and be a photographer all at the same time was the perfect combination. The more remote or exotic and dangerous the adventure is, the more I’m attracted to it.
Why did you decide to focus your first book on Burma and what went into creating it?
Five years ago a photographer I met at a gallery was going there and he had one spot left, so I went, and the second I landed in Burma I fell under its spell. This book is my love letter to Burma. I’ve fallen in love with the people and the culture and their plight. I almost feel an obligation to share and teach people about this magical place. The book took about eight trips and five years. Every trip I stayed for 28 days, the complete visa stay you can make in Burma.
What were some of the more inspiring moments of your travels there?
I was in a monastery and they had these nuns visiting. They all went into this room and started chanting. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, like angels singing. It brought a tear to my eye. Also, the eyes of the children of Burma are so intoxicating, captivating and powerful. You can feel their beauty and their Buddhist energy, but at the same time you can also feel a pain-body from the brutal military regime. They’ve had this incredible resilience, sense of humor and love of life to get through it all. You can see it in their faces, and that is something that stuck with me.
What’s your interpretation of how the Burmese youth approach the future of their nation?
Hope is the word. I think people are excited about being part of the rest of the world. They’ve been completely isolated for the last 50 years, but I don’t think the military can pull any of the things they’ve done before because the world is watching. The word is hopeful and excited, with a dash of cynicism.
Adventure photography is very romantic in theory, but how does it work in practice?
You’re carrying around 40 pounds of lenses and camera gear and tripods—its tough. You have to have a good guide, someone who speaks the language and knows the lay of the land. Especially if you are a photographer, it’s great if they understand art and understand getting up at 4:30 in the morning to get the good light. You’re sleeping in the jungle and getting eaten alive by mosquitos and you are on malaria medication throwing up, but it’s totally worth it to be able to experience these people and things. One of the great things about travel is it forces you to be so present. Everything is new and all your senses are on high alert.