Diana Sabreen originally came to Thailand to rock climb. A professional photographer living in Colorado, USA, she was invited by some friends to join in a kind of working holiday to take some photos, enjoy a good workout and relax amidst the country’s famous mountain vistas. The trip was ultimately cancelled, but Diana decided she still wanted to take the journey to Thailand by herself. This was about seven years ago.
“I had some money saved and I wanted to stay for a while, but I didn’t just want to be a wandering tourist for months,” she says. “It doesn’t feel right to me to just take from the community I’m visiting without giving back.”
Diana soon ended up in Sangkhlaburi, a Thai-Burmese border town filled with refugees, migrants and the NGOs that try to help them, where she volunteered at Baan Unrak Children’s home. She didn’t know much about Burma at the time, but a few months in Sangkhlaburi quickly painted the picture.
“One of my first days there, I met a group of Mon [an ethnic group from Burma] who were fascinated by my Fine Arts degree,” she recalls. “They told me that they had taken an art class once, where they were taught to trace the lines of a drawing. The education system in Burma teaches people not to think outside the box. My degree is essentially in creativity and critical thinking, and I quickly realized that these were the skills I should share with this community.”
Diana’s first photography workshop was with a group of students. She focused on the idea of storytelling and using photography as a voice. The method proved successful enough that she began expanding her instruction to different groups, including journalists and a grassroots underground news organization.
“These were the people going into Burma to document the human rights abuses and bringing them to the attention of the world,” she says. “They had one broken camera in the office and no photography skills.”
One of Diana’s more experienced first students was Hong Sar Subnean, a young reporter for a Mon news agency in Sangkhlaburi. Born in Karen State to Mon parents during the civil war, Hong Sar and his family were forced out of their village after escalating violence and a deliberate fire destroyed nearly everything they had. Hong Sar’s father, a photographer, lost most of his work in the fire. Determined to carry on, he rebuilt a dark room in their new home and taught young Hong Sar how to shoot and develop photographs, planting the seed for his son’s future career.
It wasn’t until Hong Sar escaped Burma, dangerously crossing over the border to get a better education in the refugee camps and eventually resettling in Sangkhlaburi, that he was able to meet Diana.
“When I met Diana, it was the first time I started using a camera again after many years,” says Hong Sar. “She introduced me to the digital camera, and taught me the technical aspects of how to shoot journalism photos.”
Today, Hong Sar is thriving as a staff photographer and assistant video editor with the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma. “He’s become a really great photographer and I’ve really enjoyed seeing his work evolve over the years,” adds Diana, noting that Hong Sar helped her teach a recent youth workshop here in Chiang Mai. “Hong Sar told the students how he started out in my workshop and is now a pro photographer. I think it made the workshop’s skills more tangible for them, and he really helped pass on inspiration.”
Meanwhile, Diana has expanded her workshops into a full-fledged NGO called Shoot Cameras Not Guns, which is now an international organization with a base in Colorado and frequent workshops throughout Northern Thailand and Burma.
“Shoot Cameras Not Guns teaches photography as a tool for social change and empowerment,” Diana explains. “Photography is a really effective communication tool. Photos tell information and emotion, and they give people a vehicle to start talking about important issues. Our workshops give people the tools they need to have a voice within their community and the world, which can be used as an alternative to violence and oppression.”
Diana is currently living in Burma. She recently put on her first gallery exhibit inside the country, and has spent most of her time teaching a group of handpicked Burmese activists and journalists. “Some have some photography experience, all have natural talent, and all are in professional positions to create significant change though their photographs. We’re really excited about them!” she says.
Ultimately, Diana hopes that her workshops will help expand the mindsets and skill sets of those living in newly opened Burma.
“The more people learn about each other’s lives, the less reason they have to hate each other due to ignorance,” she says. “With a rapidly changing government and political system, and all the violence surfacing against Muslims, all eyes are on Burma right now. It’s an essential time for the people to ensure they have an active voice in the change.”