In the summer of 2010, when I was flying out of Yangon International Airport, the officials manning the X-ray machine discovered that I had about five thousand US dollars, all in sequential numbers. One official just snatched a hundred dollar bill from the wallet without asking or blinking. I took it right back and reluctantly gave him a fifty dollar bill. He tossed the fifty right back and grabbed another one hundred-dollar bill, right in front of his giggling colleagues and all the murmuring passengers in line behind me. In the end, he got a brand-new hundred-dollar bill, and I got out in one piece. I wrote down the whole scenario and was reimbursed by the magazine I was working for.
Being on the road means not at home. I feel sometimes like a kite with a broken string. After so many years of being away, pretty soon screen-to-screen chats cannot make up for skin-to-skin contact. My first marriage was already on a rocky slope—we even tried marriage counseling in Taipei. But it was fruitless! Personally, I think shrinks are not as useful as fortune-tellers. I continued to travel to different corners of the world for personal projects and assignments.
This coveted profession is prone to all sorts of unexpected hazards: some natural, a lost footing and a slide down a muddy dangerous cliff; some political, the occasional jail detention; some personal, an exhausted collapse in a lonely bathroom in New Zealand. The list goes on, and all these mishaps may be considered the usual and unlucky byproducts of the profession. But the real damage I would learn was at home, where a marriage died.
Crisscrossing time zones puts me in a continual and foreign state of being physically and mentally lagging—half awake or half asleep and full of many strange nights and nightmares. Always alone and sometimes lonely. I stopped by the rowdy Nana Plaza in Bangkok on a sticky night in 2009. The scantly dressed girls on or off the stage all wore numbers, shining and glittering under full-colored swinging disco lights. Upstairs, the dress code was more relaxed, with full-frontal nudity, but the women still managed to find a string to hang their numbers from. It must have been a St. Patrick’s Day, because I still remember all the girls were dressed either in super tight green G-strings or wearing emerald green ornaments. An odd sales pitch in Thailand. Everybody has a price, and every price is negotiable depending on the Thai Baht’s exchange rate. If the price is right, one can buy occasional hours of body warmth. And I wondered what my price was.
A few weeks after my return to Taipei from my exhibition at Taiwan’s Pavilion in the 53rd Venice Biennial in 2009—a long absence—I ended up on the living room floor. And after six months of rhetoric, it was time for departure and divorce. Our divorce witness was the same friend who had witnessed our wedding. What a friend! Our house was designed by a famous Singapore architect whose buildings were supposed to make the flow of life easier. But my ex-wife was not a good housekeeper and, apparently neither was I.
I just packed up my photo gear, a few books, and some clothes and hit the road, again being a stranger in a foreign land with a bloody feeling of solitary freedom. Most of my colleagues at Magnum Photos seem to have experienced divorce at least once. Is this one of the ramifications of being a photographer? Me, personally, I just hope that I have now recovered from the epidemic of Magnum divorces.
Recently, I returned to Magnum’s New York office after being away for nine months. I checked my mailbox folder and there were only the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) 1099 tax return form and a memorial service card for fellow Magnum Photographer René Burri. There is really no convenient time for death and taxes. Maybe divorce, as well.