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Photography and Tibet – A Historical Overview
Jamyang Norbu

Jigme Taring. Source: TRAS
Rinchen Dolma Taring and daughter. Source: Wisdom Publications.

Tibet’s introduction to Western scientific ideas and technology came through its encounter with the British Empire at the end of 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Modern innovations came to Tibet somewhat later than Japan, China or Thailand, which were more accessible by sea, and which were better prospects for trade. Yet Tibet was not that far behind China – probably a couple, at the most a few, decades – in having electricity, a telegraph and telephone system, and such products as the phonograph and photographic cameras imported into the country. Hence Communist’s China’s claims of having introduced modern technology and ideas to Tibet are without foundation. I have addressed this in a longer essay Newspeak And New Tibet: The Myth of China’s Modernization of Tibet and the Tibetan Language, from which this particular piece on photography is excerpted.

Of all the technological innovations of the West, photography seems to have come to Tibet the earliest and was tremendously popular from the start. Mrs. Rinchen Dolma (Mary) Taring tells us in her autobiography [Daughter of Tibet] that her father, the minister Tsarong Wangchuk Gyalpo (who was murdered in 1911 and into whose family Dasang Dadul was later inducted), purchased some cameras, among other novelties, when he went to Calcutta in 1907. He was there to deliver the first instalment of the indemnity that Tibet had to pay after its defeat by the Younghusband expedition in 1904. A photograph, taken by him in 1910, of his wife and baby daughter is reproduced in the book.

There is the slight possibility that photography could have been introduced to Tibet earlier, perhaps even in the previous century. Prince Henri d’Orléans took many pictures of Tibetan nomads, Repa dancers, and Lhasa officials in 1890. It is just possible that an official might have been intrigued by this new invention and tried to acquire it for himself. Tibetans even then, and earlier, traveled to India for trade and pilgrimage.

By the nineteen-tens photography seems to have established itself in Tibetan life. We learn from the British consular officer, Eric Teichman, that a Tibetan officer he met at Tibetan military headquarters in Eastern Tibet in 1917-18 was a “Kodak enthusiast”. Teichman further informs us that he and his colleagues “… had to submit to being photographed in various groups. The pictures were developed the same evening and turned out very well. The fact of the matter is that these Tibetan officers from Lhasa and Shigatse, whom the Chinese profess to regard as savages, are nowadays more civilised and better acquainted with foreign things than their equals in rank among the Chinese military of Western Szechuan.” Teichman goes on to note that the “Tibetan dapons (generals or colonels; there were eight of them in Eastern Tibet) “have in most cases visited India, carry Kodaks and field-glasses, sleep on camp beds and often wear foreign clothes, whereas the Szechuanese leaders know nothing of the world beyond the confines of their own province.”

The American missionary Albert Shelton, who ministered to the Tibetan and Chinese wounded during the war in 1918, noted that two of the Tibetan generals recorded their victory on film. He also wrote “Tibet is now an independent nation, and is developing with remarkable if not astonishing rapidity … the Tibetans want foreign goods and foreign civilization.”

Members of the Kashag, the Tibetan cabinet, in 1936. Left to right: Kalon Lanngjunga, Kalon Bonshod, Kalon Tethong, and Kalon Tenpa Jamyang. Tsarong in the back. (Tethong Collection)  

My grandfather, Tethong Gyurmay Gyatso, was one of the Tibetan generals then serving in Eastern Tibet. My mother told me that as a girl he taught her how to make contact prints. A temporary darkroom would be rigged by draping the sides of the dining table with blankets. Within this enclosure she would get the chemicals and baths ready and then carefully place a negative and a sheet of printing paper between two plates of clear glass. She would then bring that out from under the table and, exposing it to daylight, count off the required number of seconds. She would then duck back under the table to develop, fix and wash the print.

Tibetan aristocrats as Tsarong Dasang Dadul and his son George were dedicated photographers and even maintained their own dark-rooms, with enlargers, as did Demo Rimpoche, a nephew of the 13th Dalai Lama. The historian, Tsering Shakya tells us that many of the old photographs by these people were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution and the old Demo Rimpoche paraded by Red Guards with a camera hung around his neck, presumably intended to humiliate him. The Reting regent was also reputed to be a keen photographer. The young oracle priest, Choje Kusho, of Dhungkar monastery in the Chumbi valley, was another amateur photographer. MacDonald mentions that he had a folding Kodak with which “he eventually became quite proficient.” It might be mentioned that this person was the primary medium of the now controversial oracular deity, Shugden. Another such clerical shutterbug was Phabonkha Chanzola (manager or steward of the Phabonkha lamasery) who, the late Trichang Rinpoche told me, even claimed to have taken photographs of the fighting in Lhasa in March 1959.

Jigme Taring. Source: TRAS

Jigme Taring was a proficient photographer and cinematographer, and it is to him we owe much of the film coverage of the young 14th Dalai Lama’s religious examinations at the “Three Seats”, the three great monasteries around Lhasa, and the final public examination at the Jokhang Temple. By the forties, photography was no longer a novelty in Tibet and many aristocrats, merchants, lamas and other well-off families seemed to have owned a camera of some kind, though perhaps not everyone was as dedicated to this pursuit as the Tarings and Tsarongs.

In these days of auto-focus, auto-exposure and just point-and-shoot photography it should be noted that using a camera in the old days took some measure of expertise. You did have your Baby Brownies in the fifties, but most of the equipment used in Tibet appears to have been fairly sophisticated, and a degree of skill and (in the Tibetan situation) resourcefulness were often called for. Tibetans could use professional exposure meters, and even someone as young as the fourteen-year old Dalai Lama carried one with him, as Harrer mentions. Leicas seem to have been the preferred camera in the forties. Aufschnaiter tells us that the Dzasa Lama (the Tibetan government monk official) at Shigatse had “a Leica with an expensive lens”. The camera that Heinrich Harrer and his friend Wangdu-la clubbed together to buy was a Leica. Somehow, this particular camera ended up in Dharamshala, in the possession of the late Rikha Lobsang Tenzin.

The earliest professional photographer in Lhasa appears to have been a Ladakhi Muslim named Ishmael-la. He reportedly used one of those old wooden-body cameras where the photographer draped a black cloth over his head and the camera. We can accurately date one of his photographs of a baby boy to 1924. Ishmael-la appears to have made home visits, and it is not clear that he actually maintained a studio. He must have had a darkroom though to process his pictures. Later a Newari photographer, Bhalpo Nadi, opened a studio in central Lhasa, near the Kani Goshu (Kaling Kushu) stupa, where people could pose before a painted scenic background and have their picture taken. Other Newari photographers appear to have followed in Nadi’s footstep for we are told by Charles Bell that “In November 1933 the Dalai Lama summoned one of the Nepalese photographers in Lhasa to take his photograph.” Another professional photographer of Lhasa life was Yaba Tsetan Dorjee of Sikkim who had a studio in Kalimpong and later in Gangtok.

While on the subject of professional Tibetan photographers, the name of Tsongon Chunchuk Jinpa should receive special mention. Many of the photographs and film footages of the Dalai Lama’s escape, which have appeared in countless books and documentary films, and early photographs of the Four Rivers Six Ranges resistance force in such books as Tibet in Turmoil by Khedroop Thondup, though never credited, were in fact the work of this first Tibetan war photographer.

A small glossary of Tibetan terms has formed around photography, with par for photograph and its inevitable honorific, kupar. Then we have parchay (camera), pingshok (film or negative) kangsum (tripod), parpa (photographer) partru (develop), parlok, (print or reproduce), parshok (photographic paper), parmen (photographic chemicals), par tsonda (colour photograph) par karpo-nagpo (black & white photograph) tsadangtaya (thermometer), parkhang (studio), pardrom (photograph frame) partheb, photo-album, lokpar (x-ray photography).

There is another par word, parshu, which literally means to make a copy of a photograph, and is sometimes used these days in the sense of making a “photocopy”, but was used in old Tibet to mean an “exact” copy, or to describe something or someone as exactly alike. For example: this baby is a parshu of its father. That such a new term could be used in a comfortably idiomatic way, outside its technical sense, is perhaps indicative of the relative ease that Tibetans seem to have felt about the innovations coming into Tibet. Furthermore, we sometimes have old words, even personal names, being used to describe new and completely unrelated products or ideas. For instance a Tibetan schoolboy’s letter to his parents makes reference to magic lantern shows in Lhasa (the magic lantern being an early kind of slide projector). The boy though spells it in Tibetan as majik labdron, this being the name of a popular female Tibetan saint of the eleventh century.

What might be noted is how the Tibetan word for photograph par (which literally means “print”, “reproduction” or “image”) is so surprisingly matter-of-fact. The word does not carry any sense of magic and mystery as might be expected from the language of a primitive people overawed at modern technology. Even the early Chinese term for photographic camera, shenjing literally means “magic mirror”. All the terms Tibetans coined for the new technological innovations of the West are straightforward borrowings as in mota, rili, taar or simple descriptions of the nature of a phenomenon as in lok (electricity) or functions of a machine as in khabhar and kyepar, for telephone and gramaphone. Singularly absent is the “awe of white man’s magic by superstitious natives” kind of reaction, with which some foreign travelers to Tibet (even now) like to flavour their reminiscences.