Arresting, horrifying, sad… what else to describe the photographs and illustrations in the offices and gallery of GuChuSum. GuChuSum is the Tibetan Former Political Prisoners Association. The name means “March, September, October”, which are the months during which the Chinese crackdown on Tibet happened. Yesterday Alex and I went to GuChuSum to meet with and photograph Semtum, a Tibetan man who was imprisoned for six years as a young Buddhist monk in Tibet. This is a photograph of Semtum. Semtum still has family in Tibet, but he agreed to have his photograph taken and his story told. His family has already been interviewed by the police in China and they have basically disowned him to protect themselves. In addition to meeting and photographing Lobsang, we were approached by another former prisoner who wanted to talk about his experience and was willing to be photographed. He was in the same prison as Semtum for five years. I am trying to keep these blog posts short, so I will keep Semtum’s full story for another time, but there is a lot to write here.
I’ve decided to photograph Tibetans and Chinese separately rather than together as I have done with other conflicts so far. This conflict is so hot and tense now, that it just makes more sense. I’ll print the images together – next to each other. Initially I asked Lobsang if I could photograph him at home, but he said that he would rather be photographed in the offices of GuChuSum. I took his photograph standing in a dark corridor, because it seemed to reflect the serious and stark reality of the story that he was telling. However, that said… reality is complex. Lobsang and the other former political prisoners I met were both tortured, but now they are happy and grateful for their lives here.
When Alex and I were looking around the gallery of photographs in GuChuSum one of the things that struck me the most was the year of the Chinese crackdown on Tibet – 1989. I don’t have any memory of that in the news at all. At the time I was living in Japan. I remember all the coverage of the Tiananmen Square incident, but I had no idea of anything happening in Tibet. It made me think about what I was doing at the time that people were protesting and being shot and arrested, and the vast contradictions of experiences that happen simultaneously in this world – at any one moment there may be people meditating, being shot, having an orgasm, fleeing or any one of a thousand other intense human experiences.
Later that day we also visited the Tibetan Youth Congress and the Tibetan Woman’s Association. Altogether the five NGOs we visited made me realize just how successful the Tibetan community has been at organizing aid, rallying support in the western world and supporting their community. These groups aren’t operating in unison – they hold different opinions on what should be done. It is a complex democratic society, but it is amazingly successful. I imagine that some credit goes to the genius level diplomatic skill of the Dalai Llama, but it also seems at least as much due to the motivation and drive of the people themselves. Impressive.
Later that evening I went for a walk around McLeod Ganj in the evening. Monks from all over south Asia; yoga and meditation tourists; partying tourists; Westerners; East Asian tourists; Indian Tourists; Tibetans; Indians; tiny winding streets; daily traffic jams; sacred cows; bars and meditation centers; yoga shalas and internet cafes… McLeod Ganj is one of the strangest towns I’ve visited.
McLeod Ganj in the evening…
The next day Alex and I ran into some of the Cosmopolitan Monks Society by chance. Took this picture. I love these goofy monks…
Quick update… This evening I got a text from the head of the Tibetan Woman’s Association telling me to come to the center of town for a candlelight vigil being held for a monk who had self immolated and died today in Llasa.