Cover Photograph by Adam Dean—Panos for TIME
The self-proclaimed “Burmese bin Laden,” Buddhist monk Wirathu travels the country spreading a message that “crackles with hate,” TIME’s China Bureau Chief & East Asia Correspondent Hannah Beech writes in her report on rising radical and violent strains of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. She traveled through Burma and Thailand from May to June this year along with photographer Adam Dean, who spoke to TIME’s Eugene Reznik about his portrait of Wirathu on the cover of TIME International this week.
LightBox: Tell us about your subject, Wirathu. How much time did you spend with him and what was he like?
Adam Dean: Initially I spent a few hours with Wirathu at the monastery he is based at in Mandalay while Hannah Beech interviewed him.
After the interview, I had about 15 minutes to shoot some environmental portraits and also some tighter options for possible cover consideration.
Following that, I got to spend a few days with him and his entourage as he attended various events and gave sermons to his followers around Mandalay and the surrounding countryside.
Wirathu was very genial and charismatic and often had a cheeky grin on his face which makes it all the more jarring when you hear what comes out of his mouth.
How did you envision the portrait session going?
You never really know with these kind of situations how amenable the subject will be to being photographed. At best, I hoped I would get a bit of time after the interview to shoot a few environmental portraits. He was actually very accommodating and was happy to be photographed in a few locations I had scouted out during the interview around the monastery.
What was the dynamic like between you and your subject during the shoot?
It is always hard when you have a language barrier and are relying on a translator to help you direct a subject when taking portraits. You can’t really create the bond or connection that you might be able to if you have a common language. Having said that, he didn’t seem to mind being photographed.
Was there concern on his part on how you would portray him?
I don’t think so. He seemed happy to pose for portraits where I suggested.
Tell us about the frame that made it on the cover of TIME International. How did you make it and what about it stood out to you?
I much prefer to shoot more natural, spontaneous moments and the idea of directing a subject goes against my instincts as a photojournalist. So for this situation, I really just wanted to find a few locations and backgrounds that might work and then photograph him after the interview.
There was a doorway with a dark background that I thought might work well for a tight head and shoulder shot. So, as an afterthought to the environmental portraits, I asked him to pose there and took some pictures with the black background and available light coming through the doorway onto his face.
See more of Adam Dean’s photos on LightBox.