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The Tibetan Photo Project, Culture Preserved Through the Lens

PC- Have you received any images from Tibet that you can discuss, or would that put people at risk?  How does information travel out from the homeland to the exile community?
 TPP- We have not received any images from inside Tibet, except for the donation of the 1932 photos which were taken by a Western mountaineering expedition team.  We have some reports and impressions by Westerners on our Website, but we crop or change all names and locations. This can be life and death  stuff and people need to be very careful with information they bring out of Tibet.
 Tibetans have a network that allows them to work with or at least  communicate with Tibetans inside Tibet. Many Tibetans living outside of Tibet have created various non-political aid organizations to work for Tibetans in Tibet. What is a real shame, for a Tibetan to travel back and forth to his homeland, not only can he not participate in political activity which would be tracked, they have to accept that they are Chinese citizens and not Tibetans for the travel passport. 

PC- The central nature of religion, namely Buddhism, in Tibetan culture focuses activity around religious figures.  Most people are familiar with the Dalai Lama and his work on behalf of his nation.  Do you receive a large   volume of work that is more mundane, work that focuses on the daily life of the exile community?


TPP- We are always surprised when new images come in. Life in exile is life in India and that [alone] is unique enough. We also have inside views of the monasteries that is a reflection of these institutions as learning institutions and it’s easy, when you look past the monks robes to simply see young men as typical college students living in dorms.


As for the Buddhist aspect, you are right, most of the world only knows Tibet as the Dalai Lama. This is a wonderful representation of what it means to be Tibetan and to be a Tibetan Buddhist. I think it’s the Buddhism that is the most misunderstood. Yes, its a formal and very complex religion, but it is a practice that is also a way of life, perhaps best defined by the warmth and humor of Tibetans and the simple ideas of compassion and "if you can help... then help and if you cannot help, then please do no harm."


PC- What images, in the course of your collecting, have most surprised you?  What images came to you and made you wonder, “Why are they showing me this?” or “I wouldn’t have thought of that, but I’m glad they did?”


TPP- Great question... Maybe because their skills are often elementary, but they have taken that holy light off every monk picture. We have seen photos of monks playing basketball, or film of a techno Tibetan band including disco ball.


Collectively, the Tibetan community is worth all the international respect it has been given... in fact it really has a lot to offer that most people have not even seen. Beyond that it is a much broader community than fits most cliché images.


I think the other thing that has surprised us, is even without any formal training or even without ever having used a camera if you can imagine that in 2006, they often exhibit great skill with the camera just by nature.  I mean, imagine the request, take your daily life and show it to us. We all see our lives as pretty mundane and yet they seem to continually produce photos with great heart. Why? Because it is just the Tibetan nature to see the world this way.


PC- We’ve used the words “them” and “they,” but one of the most interesting aspects of your work is that it features individuals (who, to your credit, are named and treated as individuals in the displays) and focuses on the single unit within the culture, the person.  Is this an extension that has pleased you?  Were you surprised at the way people personalized the task of recording a culture?


TPP- Let me run through the main players.


Jamyang Norbu is a 30-something year-old monk who escaped into India in his late teens. Until we made contact with him, he has never used a camera and he has provided amazingly candid views into the daily lives of monks.


Tenzin Wangden Andrugtsang is a lay Tibetan with a family. He is a second generation Tibetan living in exile. He is a lifelong activist, he worked as a secretary in the Office of The Dalai Lama when we met him and he has been a school teacher. He made the first film "Voices in Exile" and you will see all the elements I just described to making this film... self taught. We supplied the camera and the computer for editing and he produced a piece of magic. It’s a reflection of how clear Tibetans are about themselves and their culture. A side-note here, we have a short film from a young Tibetan that is about how he views his education as a great gift. I think very few people know how well educated Tibetans are whether in public schools or in the monasteries and nunneries.


Lobsang Topgyal is a former monk. This guy is not a technician by any means, but he is a brilliant photographer. His portraits will melt your heart. Because he does not have the technical skill, he has his share of mistakes, but the core of his work is as good as photography gets.

PC- We often hear the phrase “at the point of the spear” when people refer to a war.  With regard to the struggle to help the people of Tibet to recover their freedom, projects like yours are on “the point of the spear.” How much pressure do you feel as you work to make such an encompassing record?  How emotionally attached are you to your work, or do you have to maintain a certain distance from it?

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Per Contra Visual Arts - Fall 2006