What would you do if your society considered you beautiful only with tattoos covering your face? If a life-altering design on your entire forehead, eyelids, cheeks, and nose was the only way for you to be married off, would you do it? For the women of the Chin Tribe in Western Myanmar, that is the question they faced decades ago. The ancient art of face tattooing was indeed painful and horrific, but for many, it meant a good life. Those who were able to endure days of pain were easily married off, and were widely considered the most beautiful in their villages.
In February 2017, I set out on a boat journey up a river in Western Myanmar to meet and photograph these women.
Today, facial tattooing is no longer practiced, but the tattoos—and the impact of the meanings that remain—are still unique reminders of our world’s constantly changing views of beauty.
I traveled solo to work on this project, with only my local Chin guide and his brother to pilot our small boat. Because of this, I was able to enter Chin State—which is still off-limits to most visitors aside from several border areas in the north and east—and was able to photograph several of these ethnic minority women for the very first time. Those living in the more southwestern Rakhine State are used to visitors since tourism is starting to flourish in nearby towns such as Settwe and Mrauk-U. For the ethnic women in Chin State just north of them on the Lemro River, however, visitors are unheard of. A history of genocide, strict permit requirements, and a general lack of ways to legally access the area makes visiting this state a rare experience.
The strong women pictured here have endured much pain, but have also benefited greatly from their inked faces. They’re independent women, mothers, wives, grandmothers, weavers, and farmers just like everyone else, but carry about them a proud aire. Living along the riverside in simple bamboo huts, they are happy of the beauty they represent, and of their tribes, and of a time when enduring immense pain for a week meant a lifetime of happiness.