An eye-opening trip

Young Buddhist monks and nuns, withered crones, elaborate gold embossed pagodas, and reflective waters line the walls of Arts Space Obispo. The photographs are all images by Sky Bergman, shot in Burma.

The Arts Council exhibit is through the Central California Museum of Art, a somewhat peripatetic locally based organization that covers shows in surrounding counties.

Today's younger generations, in the United States at least, are mostly unfamiliar with Burma, also known as Myanmar, according to Bergman, chair of Cal Poly's Art and Design department.

Following the November release of Burma's democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi after 15 years of house arrest, Bergman contacted various news stations nationwide to pitch her story and photos. One young newsman asked her, “Well, what is Burma?'

To educate at least one member of the current young adult generation, Bergman took her stepson on a trip to the Southeast Asian country in August 2009.

“It was a real eye-opening place for someone who was 21 and inexperienced,” she said.

In a sense, it was an eye opener for frequent world traveler Bergman as well, even though it was her second trip to the country. “I was so in awe of the place” during her 2002 journey. “I think the first time you go anywhere you're sort of overwhelmed,” she said, not only by the beauty, but the sharp contrast to Western life.

Bergman's aim was to document a country undergoing political or economic change. She also has visited Cuba twice. “I see Cuba and Burma as places that are sort of stuck in time for these reasons,” she said.

A British colony until 1948, Burma has undergone political upheavals, with Buddhist monks being tortured and killed, and for nearly half a century has been under military rule.

Britain's diplomatic service urges travelers to carefully consider that visiting Burma could support the military junta. In the past, 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Suu Kyi discouraged tourism to Burma, because of the economic benefits it brings to the regime.

“I didn't really take that into consideration,” said Bergman, who had other motives to make people more aware of Burma and to document a society where there were “no cell phones, no gadgets” -- at least in the rural areas, which was where she focused. She was taken with the people's kindness and gentle ways, their sweetness and simple lives. Bergman's impression was that those on the outskirts of the big cities don't really know who's in power; they just live day to day.

“They just care about getting food on the table,” she said. “There are people who are definitely oppressed, as there are in all countries,” she continued. “They're just doing their thing, and plowing their fields, and doing what they do on a daily basis.”

In a country where criticizing the current regime means imprisonment, her guide told her, “All governments are corrupt. Ours is just more visibly corrupt.”

To reduce any risk, Bergman identified herself as a teacher and not as a photographer or journalist.