In Burma, children wear markings from mom

60 Minutes cameraman Don Lee captures a unique tradition -- the use of tree-bark paste to adorn and protect young faces

Cameraman Don Lee's job is to travel the world shooting video for the stories on 60 Minutes. But sometimes, he sees a face that's so striking, he puts his video camera down and picks up his still camera instead, stealing a moment for himself.

"60 Minutes is about faces," Lee tells Overtime editor Ann Silvio in the video above. "The stories live in the faces of the people you're shooting."

This season, while shooting in Burma, he noticed something he'd never seen before -- ghostly white markings on the faces of the Burmese, young and old. He learned that they were made with a substance called thanaka, a simple paste of water and ground-up tree bark that is used as both as sunscreen and decoration.

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Don Lee

"I bought some and I paid anywhere from $0.20 to $20.00," he says. "It's pretty much everywhere."

On adults, thanaka can look like battle paint. But on children, mothers in Burma tend to use a more loving hand. Lee shares his photos, some of which were taken by audio technician Eric Kerchner, with Overtime.

In some, whole faces are painted white. In others, the children have round markings on their cheeks or lines down their noses.

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Don Lee

As a father of three frequently on the road, Lee tends to photograph children wherever he goes. He tells Silvio that some kids are scared by his camera, but he kneels down to interact with them at eye level and engage their natural curiosity.

In Burma, he says, his young subjects would often "giggle and laugh" when he showed them the pictures he took.

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Don Lee

He learns about each country he visits, in part, by observing its children. "It'll tell you a lot about that society, how the children look on the street," he says.

"What do these faces tell you about Burma?" Silvio asks.

"That it's a very family-oriented place," Lee says.

Take the swaddled baby he saw dabbed with thanaka. "I guess they put this thanaka on, not to protect him from the sun, because they're not in the sun, but as a sort of beauty mark," Lee says. "Welcome to the world, you're part of our culture."


The video above was produced by Lisa Orlando and Ann Silvio, and edited by Lisa Orlando. Photos taken by Don Lee and Eric Kerchner.