Red-zone photo couple head to Myanmar

Last updated 10:11 30/11/2013
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HUSBAND AND WIFE TEAM: Ross Becker and Moira Fraser.

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Ross Becker has taken more than 35,000 photos of Christchurch's changing CBD. Now he and his wife Moira split their time between Myanmar and the quake city, writes Beck Eleven .

No matter which hemisphere Ross Becker and Moira Fraser find themselves living in, they are somehow drawn to cities in need of repair.

After the quakes, Becker became Christchurch's official red-zone photographer. He and his wife were commissioned by the National Library to record the city's damage and subsequent changes, but as funding ceased, the couple sought work elsewhere. Now they divide their time between Christchurch and Myanmar's emerging capital, Naypyidaw, where Moira is helping the developing democracy in its parliamentary library and research services. The couple return to Christchurch for a month or so twice yearly to capture the rebuild.

Explaining Naypyidaw, Ross Becker says: "It's the weirdest city I've lived in."

There are two major cities in Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Naypyidaw is the capital, situated roughly between the two. Building began in 2002.

"It was built in the middle of nowhere, a bit like the Australians did with Canberra. It's physically very big and criss-crossed with major roads. About 80 per cent of it is still scrubland with nothing on it. Basically no tourists come here. It's mostly government departments, so the people who live here are government workers and all the foreign people are either trade or aid.

"Seventy years ago it [Myanmar] was one of the most wealthy developed countries in Asia. Now it's one of the poorest. It's gone from best to worst.

"They want to get it back in a hurry, and to do that they need vast amounts of money and help from the West. That is now pouring in, but only because the West said 'if you want to reverse all the sanctions, then you need democracy, not a brutal military regime'."

So, as the country slowly transforms politically, the Beckers watch another city rebuild. "There are some parallels with Christchurch," Becker says. "This city [Naypyidaw] needs to be built, Christchurch needs to be rebuilt.

"Hotels here are like resorts with golf carts and so on. You can walk across 10 lanes of highway with virtually no trouble. But the real charm is the people. They are 95 per cent Buddhist and so they are incredibly peaceful, loving and happy. You can't go anywhere without getting a hello and a wave."

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Becker's tenure as the official red zone snapper was not without controversy. The 72-year-old was accused of not deserving the role. Critics claimed he was awarded the contract because his wife was a parliamentary librarian, that he was an amateur photographer and that the job should have gone to a native Cantabrian.

"That caused us a lot of trauma personally but we decided what we were doing was important, so we just had to put it behind us.

"The big difference is that I have always licensed my photos with a creative commons licence, whereas virtually all commercial photographers copyright their pictures and lock them away on their hard drive."

He says Cera data proves he did not have exclusive access to the red zone. Becker is proud of the popularity of his pictures. His Picasa Web page has had 35 million views worldwide and his Facebook page is liked by 16,500 people.

He continues to send photographs to Canterbury University's Ceismic digital earthquake project, focusing on people, the residential red zone and the central city rebuild, which includes recording a twice yearly fly-over.

The administrative side to his work is "huge". Each photograph must be detailed with captions. He records latitude and longitude co-ordinates along with "a whole lot of rich metadata so they can be used in lots of ways which we don't even know about yet".

Becker's last trip home was in October, and another is planned for April. He looks forward to seeing the changes on each visit. "There are so many colourful, vital changes around High St and Victoria St. Just wonderful places to go."

But despite his close watch on Christchurch, he is just like the rest of us, sometimes needing to refer to old photos to remind him what once stood on each empty lot.

- The Press

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