Catalogue introduction - “Tibet a Living Culture”, Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui, New Zealand 1997
This sequence of photographs document a journey that really began in the early 1970’s when I first travelled beyond New Zealand and Australia, through SE Asia to India and into the Himalayas. Much of those early years were spent in a Himalayan ashram studying meditation, but frequently I would join some of the other young monks in long walks back into the mountains, part wander, part pilgrimage, following ancient trails along the Ganges. It was a magical and memorable time of learning and exploration.
Those adventures were not well documented as it was my intention to travel largely unhindered by notebooks or camera gear, though thankfully I did carry a small Minolta Hi-Mac and several rolls of Kodachrome, so some images remain to remind me of a magical and youthful episode.
But it was the world to the north, beyond my temporary home in the Garwhal Himalayas that captured my imagination. Tibetan refugees were often to be found in the local markets, selling woolen jumpers and traditional artifacts and from them I first came to know of their struggle in their homeland, and the vast open landscapes in which their ancient culture and the unique form of Buddhism they practiced had thrived for centuries. It seemed both alluring and remote. At the time Tibet was completely closed to foreign travel but getting as close as was then possible, walking beyond the pilgrimage village of Kedernath on a path that would eventually cross the border into West Tibet, I remember feeling that someday I would be looking back from the other side.
It was 12 years before that became possible when I was able to travel through China and into Tibet. But it so happened that my first contact with that land was from the north via train to the Gobi Desert town of Jiayuguan, followed by a series of long dusty bus rides to Dunhuang, across the Quadam salt marshes to Golmud from where the journey continued on the much anticipated bus ride through the Kunlun Mountains, across the Tibetan plateau and the 5000m Tanggula Mt Pass on the road to Lhasa.
Arriving in Golmud I discovered however that Lhasa had just been closed to foreigners. It was October 1987and anti-Chinese demonstrations led by unarmed Tibetans were spreading through Lhasa, so the officers at the Golmud Public Security Bureau (PSB) were determined to stop anyone foreign from traveling further. Joining a small but persistent band of independent travelers sitting it out at the towns bus station, we collectively conspired that we would find a way to do just that.
Exactly how it was resolved now eludes me, but I do remember the tense negotiations and a week-long waiting game before someone in the PSB relented and allowed the stubborn few who had refused to move, to travel on to Lhasa. The Aliens Travel Permit cards got the required stamp and bus tickets were issued. And so my journey to Tibet began.
Leaving in the early dawn, the road up through the Kunlun Mountains, over the first high pass and onto the Tibetan Plateau left me in a state of total wonder. The breath-taking grandeur of that landscape, the brilliant light on raw rocky earth with the massive uplift formations and distant snow peaks reaching high into the sky created impressions that will stay with me forever.
Then something else began to hold my focus. I was in search of wild earth, where the power of the land would sweep all before it and create an entirely new response to my work. Paradoxically what I found was unexpected and equally remarkable.
In those barren high places where the grandeur and the energy were so immense, it was the human response that seemed most moving. For local people and pilgrims, there was a need to offer up a prayer, to stand and stare into infinite space and be alone with ones thoughts. No matter how remote, there was always a pile of stones, a few sticks with prayer flags fluttering, symbols of a faith in harmony with its environment. These acts of devotion didn’t impose; they were an intricate part of the spirit of the land where wild earth and human faith were in complete harmony.
Tragically the political reality couldn’t have been more stark and contrasting. The invasion and occupation of Tibet by the Chinese Red Army (in 1949) followed by years of terror and destruction, had left this rich cultural inheritance in total ruin. Within the small Tibetan population there were well over a million deaths; many more had fled for their lives into India, while those who had remained faced relentless and continuing persecution.
Their ancient world of learning and insight had been banished from its homeland and much of the unique heritage had been reduced to rubble, brutally crushed by a foreign culture whose only interest seemed to be greed, accessing resources, and political control.
Arriving in Lhasa and seeing for the first time the magnificent Potala was an awe-inspiring moment but it was completely overshadowed by the recent protests which had resulted in deaths, injuries, imprisonment and on-going reprisals, much of it witnessed and communicated to the outside world by foreign travellers. Consequently travel permits were cancelled and all foreigners asked to leave. While flights to either Chengdu or Kathmandu were being strongly encouraged, local buses were still operating to the Nepalese border with unofficial stop-offs at places along the way; an obvious choice for me and some of my traveling companions.
On that journey I photographed mostly landscapes and some of the extraordinary remnants of monastic architecture, but with the sudden onset of winter had to make a quick exit through a blizzard in the back of a truck from Shigatse towards the border. Walking down into Nepal, deeply troubled by what I had seen in Lhasa, my thoughts were only of returning. I felt that it was a journey beginning not ending; the first steps in an odyssey. Back in London my steady involvement with Tibetan issues grew, initially as something external to my art career but in time to an almost full time occupation, working as a volunteer with the UK based Tibet Foundation in bringing stories and images to a wider audience in the West.
Another journey into Tibet occurred in 1990, this time beginning in the far west of Tibet which included the long awaited pilgrimage to Mt. Kailas (Kang Rinpoche). What I wanted to do from the start was to push my photography into a direct response with the landscape, to see it as the core purpose. It was like trying to get into the soul of the place through a visual medium and all the time drawing closer to the spirit of the land and its occupants.
Over a period of 5 months, I traveled from the far west, on to Amdo (Qinghai) in the northeast and then an area in Kham (Sichuan) in the east, including a brief and un-permitted visit to Lhasa (getting little further than the airport before the PSB requested a hasty departure). During this time there was a curious development in the photography as I progressed from landscape, to architecture, to the people – to the ‘keepers’ of the heritage.
An awareness of all that Tibet offered both culturally and spiritually, within its natural landscape and in the exiled communities, flowed from there. With the help of the Tibet Foundation, I traveled ever deeper into the Tibetan world, visiting and photographing the great monasteries now rebuilt and thriving in northern and southern India, on through the refugee communities who struggle to keep their memories alive for the following generations, and into far-off Mongolia where Tibetan Buddhism is slowly re establishing itself after 70 years of Communist oppression.
A visit to Lhadak in the winter of 1995 documented a view of the Tibetan culture in its natural habitat, unaffected by the trauma of occupation or exile, along with some of the refugee camps that are located there.
These and other images along with craft works and artifacts formed part of an exhibition curated by the Tibet Foundation titled ‘Tibet – A Living Culture’ which toured extensively through the UK, Europe and New Zealand
The apogee of all this work was the design and building of the Tibetan Peace Garden in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum, central London. Opened by HH the Dalai Lama on May 13th 1999 before a vast crowd, the garden is now a much visited London landmark.