Duke University Alumni Magazine

The Tibetans: A Struggle to Survive


By Steve Lehman '87. Umbrage Editions, 1998. 96 pages. $45.


teve Lehman's The Tibetans is beautiful and complex, a book that, with controlled passion and great thoughtfulness, describes Tibet's struggle for self-determination. Through photography, design, engaging historical writing, interviews, and the commitment of both foreigners and Tibetans, Lehman and his publisher have created a book that in many ways is transporting.

Lehman, a photojournalist whose work has appeared in international magazines over the past decade, and whose photography in Tibet has been similarly long-term, started this book almost by chance. In 1987, while shopping in Lhasa for supplies for an anthropological study, he happened on a demonstration that changed his life, and the lives of many Tibetans. It was a small political action that included only a handful of monks, but it was the first public outcry against the Chinese in decades, giving it historic dimension. It was immediately apparent to Lehman and to others (including Robbie Barnett, who wrote the historical essay for this book) that the participants were risking their lives to bring about change. Lehman, camera in hand, was moved by their courage and started to photograph.

The abbot is assisted at the sera monastery, built in 1419;

Like many, he had held romantic views of Tibet: beautiful mountains, rushing streams, spiritual thrall, an otherworldly Shangri-La of a place, populated by industrious people whose lives were grounded in a compelling religion. It's a view still promulgated by many photo books, by films, and by a style of Western religious questing that often does not include much political content. And it's a view that this book tries to deepen. Back in 1987, Lehman understood little of the turmoil that lay beneath the surface of Tibet. Since then, he has uncovered much, and this complex knowledge --both that of contemporary Tibet and of its political history--is communicated well here.

The mix of voices he enlists to help tell this story is astonishing. We are spoken to by many, shown places and people, written to, and even offered up bits and pieces of paper. Lehman begins the book with the history of his own connection to the place. He is followed by Robert Coles, the writer, psychiatrist, and professor of social ethics who, in his introduction, writes of the fascination with which many Westerners seem to experience Tibet, and for the need that these interests be more fully informed. A beautifully told oral history by the monk Jampel Tsering follows. Tsering is the man who conceived the 1987 demonstration and, in very personal ways, tells of his family's history: what has occurred to him since his political work began and what has happened to other Tibetan resisters over the years.

The bulk of the book is Lehman's photography, his writing, and quotes from a wide variety of Tibetans. A good number of pages contain collages of sorts, the kind of printed matter that one accumulates over the course of travels: tickets, advertisements, newspaper clippings, and the like, all of which place the work in a tactile, everyday environment.

Top: Prayer offerings of tsampa (barley flour) and incense during the yogurt festival
Above: A giant thanka signifies the opening in Lhasa of the yogurt festival, promoting tibetan opera and dance;

Lehman's writing includes both printed captions and a fair amount that is handwritten, scrawled, in haste, it seems, over the photographs themselves. Initially, this handwritten work was irritating to me. The penmanship, while legible, is often difficult to make out, and occasionally there is an unedited "cuteness" to some of the commentary. But as I struggled through the handwriting, which at times even forces one to rotate the book, an interesting thing began to happen. First, I was simply slowed down, which was good, because much of this material was new to me. Second, more and more, it felt as though Lehman himself were speaking, sometimes strongly, sometimes with hesitancy, but always with passion about the things he had witnessed: the demonstrations, the destruction of indigenous Tibetan architecture, the ecological devastation of the land, the co-option of a culture, and the occupation or (as Barnett puts it), the colonization of a country.

The photographs, which are skillfully framed, though often intuitively grabbed, have a dashed-off quality (some were clearly taken just before the photographer was chased off a scene). Stylistically, this is congruent with the writing. Overall, there is a scrapbook quality to this part of the book, as though one were encountering a very personal political/travel journal. Lehman's photography and writing proceed from his own point of view--that of witness. And this interpretive touch, along with the Tibetan voices, make the events and people photographed all the more real.

Ultimately there is an artlessness to the work, in the best sense, that lets the story be told without the sanitization that "art"-inspired photojournalism often imposes. While many of these images are beautiful in shape, form, and color, conventional photographic aesthetics in politically charged work like this often get in the way of content, creating a sumptuousness that undercuts the difficult point being made. In Lehman's case, gorgeous Tibet is tempered by photographic framing, by spontaneity, by the haphazard, by text, by handwriting, and by design--all to good end.

After escaping to india, Ngawang Khetsun, one of the first monks to demonstrate in 1987, now studies at the Buddhist School of Dialectics, beside the Dalai Lama's home;

I must also say something about the design of the book, by Francesca Richer, which is inspired. With the advent of scanners and an easier placement of objects on a printed page, graphic possibilities have emerged in book design that are exciting (if not overwhelming). In documentary studies such as this one, it's possible to draw on, manipulate, and juxtapose images from the commonplace, more easily than before, with text. (Another fine example of this is Susan Meiselas's book, Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History.)

The book concludes with a lucid essay by Robbie Barnett, which places all we have experienced in The Tibetans in historical context. It makes the confusing history of Tibet understandable. It's an essay that, while possessing a personal point of view, is balanced. A time line of Tibetan history follows.

In all, the book is a fine introduction to contemporary Tibet, demythologizing in important ways the popular conceptions that have grown around it. The complexity of Tibet's story benefits from the multiple points of view Lehman uses, and his varied way of communicating, coupled with a faceted visual approach, give feeling and thought equal emphasis. The result is information that has emotional depth. And through this, Tibet's place in one's interior map changes in important ways.

--Peter Brown


Brown, a photographer from Houston, Texas, is the author of Seasons of Light. His new book, On the Plains, a study of the landscape and small towns of the U.S. western plains, was published in May as a DoubleTake Book by W.W. Norton.




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