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Shadow Tibet
Images of Contemporary Reality [1]

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Tuesday, Feb 17, 1998
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Shadow Tibet (© Manuel Bauer)

(© Manuel Bauer)

One result of the partial opening up of Tibet to tourism has been the proliferation of photographic representations of the country and people in books, magazines, posters, calendars, postcards, T-shirts and, of course, coffee-table books. The images are usually vibrant with colour and nearly always focus on the out-of-the-world aspects of the country: the magnificent landscape, the awesome Potala Palace (under a rainbow, in moonlight and so on), the wildlife, architecture, and, of course, the smiling people: monks in red woollen robes, rosy-cheeked children, wrinkled grannies, nomads in heavy sheep-skin, picturesque folk-dancers, tough Khampas with long braided hair, and cowled pilgrims who seem to have stepped straight out of the pages of the Canterbury Tales.

However aesthetically pleasing, all these recent images of Tibet are inadequate, sometimes even inaccurate, representations of the contemporary reality of Tibet. Of course, one cannot in all fairness start tossing around charges of deliberate deception. The camera, in this case, has lied not so much by artifice or fakery but by selection — the process of selection probably being influenced as much by the photographer’s romantic fantasies of Tibet as by the unfamiliar and overwhelming experience of his or her visit to this previously forbidden land.

When Susan Sontag made the point that “photography inevitably entails a certain patronising of reality” she could well have been talking about the works of such romantic photographers of Tibet as Galen Rowell, who is arguably the best in this genre. In the introduction to his book My Tibet, Rowell defends his particular outlook with this admonition: “To dwell on the agony the Chinese have imposed upon his (the Dalai Lama’s) land is to lose most of the essence of his being and his message to the world.”

In spite of such spiritual constraints, Rowell and others do, once in a while, make some tentative concessions to reality: in a picture or two of PLA personnel strolling around Lhasa, or the ruins of a monastery destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. But even these few images lack the capacity to disturb, much less move one to outrage. In fact, the ruins of temples and monasteries in some photographs seem as romantic and far-away-in-time as the ruins of the Acropolis or the Parthenon. “The way photography inexorably beautifies” Susan Sontag observed in her collection of essays, On Photography, “has not been entirely overlooked and has troubled those moralists who were hooked on photography.”

One of these “moralists”, the German littérateur and philosopher, Walter Benjamen, in an address delivered in Paris in 1934, at the Institute for the Study of Fascism, observed that the camera:

Is now incapable of photographing a tenement or a rubbish-heap without transfiguring it. Not to mention a river dam or an electrical cable factory: in front of these, photography can only say, ‘How beautiful.’… It has succeeded in turning abject poverty itself, by handling it in a modish, technically perfect way, into an object of enjoyment.

The Amnye Machen Institute (AMI) has organised this exhibition of the work of Manuel Bauer to provide a reality counterpoint to the prevailing visual representations of Tibet. Manuel Bauer is one of the few photographers of conscience who has willed himself to look under the picturesque surface and colour of tourist Tibet and record the disturbing reality of the country today. Of course, Bauer’s vision is as personal as that of any other photographer’s, but he has at least attempted to forego romantic stereotypes and, as far as that is possible, to see things from the victim’s point of view.

In stark black and white, Bauer’s powerful images reveal a land ravaged by unchecked exploitation, pollution, and unregulated industrialisation; and a people victim to disease, poverty, alcoholism, unemployment, racism, sexual degradation, cultural devaluation, predatory capitalism and Stalinist control. More disturbing are the indications — underlying the whole exhibition — of the sinicization of the people, and the vague, yet ominous suggestion of the approaching end of the Tibetan race.

Many will be troubled by these harsh uncompromising representations and some may question whether instead of contributing to an understanding of Tibet, these might cause undue despair. Yet Bauer’s work comes across as a far more effective wake-up call for the plight of Tibet than the standard idealised images of grinning monks and smiling grannies.

On first viewing Manuel Bauer’s photographs, the work of another Swiss photographer, Werner Bischof, came to mind, especially Bischof’s striking and troubling black and white images of famine in India, which I had seen in Life magazine many years ago. But the undercurrent of suppressed moral outrage running through Bauer’s pictures was perhaps more suggestive of the work of the late W. Eugene Smith, especially Smith’s photographs taken in 1971–72 of the inhabitants of the Japanese fishing villages around Minamata Bay, many of whom were crippled and slowly dying of methyl-mercury poisoning. Even through such terrible images of disease, deformity and death — especially his Pieta-like masterpiece, Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath — Smith succeeded in making a powerful case for justice and human dignity.

The primary goal of this exhibition has been to inform and enlighten Tibetans in exile of the true situation inside Tibet. The exhibition has travelled to the main settlements and centres of Tibetans in India and Nepal. A parallel exhibition is taking place in Switzerland.

Amnye Machen Institute, 17 February 1998

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Note

1. This piece was the introduction to a catalogue for an exhibition of the photographs of Manuel Bauer,“Shadow Tibet”, organised by Amnye Machen Institute from 17 February to 8 September 1995. The exhibition, which opened in New Delhi, toured all Tibetans centres and settlements in India and Nepal.

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