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Tibetan Photo Project

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The temple at Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
The Tibetan Photo Project offers the first collection of photos taken by Tibetans living in exile, images of the Dalai Lama, informational texts and rare 1932 pictures of Tibet.
- Tibetan Photo Project website

This statement introduces visitors to the website of the Tibetan Photo Project, and provides the first clue that what you are about to experience is something quite remarkable. Next to this introductory paragraph is a reproduction of a letter from the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama which leaves no doubt about the importance of the project.

Introduction to the Project

For photographer Joe Mickey and web designer Sazzy Lee Varga, The Tibetan Photo Project is a labour of love. This becomes obvious as soon as you begin to explore the long and growing list of photo galleries, each with its own glimpse of Tibetan life as seen through the eyes of Tibetans. These are not images of defeat and dejection in the face of the Chinese occupation of their homeland, but of joy in the details of a way of life that persists and thrives against crushing odds in exile in India.

A New Perspective

The Tibetan Photo Project does not dwell on the suffering of the Tibetan people or the cruelty of China's determination to imprint an alien culture on Tibet. Instead, we see the characteristic Tibetan vitality, humour and joie de vivre. The message that Tibetans continue to be robbed of their basic human rights in Tibet, and their struggles to maintain a precarious existence in exile are conveyed with beautiful eloquence. Photographs of laughing children at play sit alongside the ageless beauty of Tibetan Buddhist ritual and the serene dignity of monastic life free of fear and far from Chinese oppression. These beautiful images of the Tibetan diaspora in India are a poignant reminder of the cost of what has been lost and the value of what is left.

The photographs, the historical background information and the testimonials of Tibetans tell us exactly what it means to be robbed of home, family and religion. China claims to have brought the benefits of civilisation to a remote and backward province. Tibetans say that the Chinese have stolen their country and replaced it with a sham history and a mocking façade of their ancient culture.

The Tibetan Photo Project documents the tremendous effort that Tibetans in exile have made to preserve the best of their culture. It also provides a unique perspective on the nature of China's government and the role of the Communist Party in China at a time when Chinese influence is growing rapidly in world affairs. Chinese leader Hu Jintao1 is well-known to Tibet-watchers as the man who imposed martial law in Tibet in 1989. We might gain some valuable insight by taking heed of Tibetans who have suffered under China's rule.

The Recent History of Tibet

The occupation of Tibet began in 1949, as soldiers and Communist cadres began to impose themselves on Tibetans living closest to the Chinese border. In October 1950, soon after the conclusion of the civil war between Mao2's Communists and the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek, the People's Liberation Army of the People's Republic of China poured into Tibet in overwhelming numbers, beginning the invasion proper.

The so-called 'peaceful liberation of Tibet' resulted in the deaths of roughly one fifth of the population of Tibet, an estimated 1.2 million people, either as a direct result of the invasion, through imprisonment in concentration camp-style political prisons or through starvation and forced labour.

In 1959, a popular uprising which had begun in Eastern Tibet spread to the capital city of Lhasa. The Chinese army surrounded the city and threatened to bombard with artillery the thousands of Tibetans who had spontaneously gathered to protect the Dalai Lama. Fearing the massacre that was bound to follow if the crowd continued to resist the Chinese army, the young Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India. Hopes that the massacre could be averted, however, were in vain; an estimated 80,000 people were slaughtered.

From 1959 to the present, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile have worked to preserve the best and most precious aspects of Tibetan culture in India. At the same time, they have been exploring new ways to adopt an effective system of democracy, modern technology and ideas and the best of what the rest of the world has to offer, until a time when China is open to an honest dialogue about the future of occupied Tibet.

From the outset, the Chinese have seen Tibetan Buddhism - the keystone of the Tibetan cultural identity - as the main threat to their assimilation of Tibet. The majority of Tibetan political prisoners have been Buddhist monks and nuns, charged with such crimes as chanting slogans or owning a picture of the Dalai Lama. Since 1950, more than 6,000 monasteries have been destroyed in Tibet, including the great monasteries which housed tens of thousands of monks, countless priceless religious treasures and irreplaceable Buddhist texts and commentaries.

A growing number of Chinese people are now openly exploring their spirituality and investigating various forms of religious practice, including Tibetan Buddhism. To the chagrin of Chinese authorities, many of the Buddhists evicted from sprawling religious shanty towns, such as Serthar, have been Chinese.

Discovering Tibet

Like many people, Tibetan Photo Project co-founder Joe Mickey traces his concern for Tibet back to reading Mary Craig's Tears of Blood - A Cry for Tibet and John Avedon's In Exile From the Land of Snows, and also to contact with touring monks from Drepung Monastery during their 1999 cultural tour of the USA. The purpose of the tour, which featured sacred songs and dance and often the creation of a sand mandala, was to raise awareness of Tibetan culture and generate income to help maintain the monasteries which have been rebuilt in India. An effective way to accomplish both of these goals was to invite people to Sponsor a Monk, a program which is still running.

Joe decided to take part in the sponsorship program, and was introduced to Jam Yang Norbu, a monk at Drepung Monastery. As a photographer for over 30 years, it was natural for Joe Mickey to include point-and-shoot cameras and basic photographic tips along with his letters to Jam Yang Norbu.

The results were astonishing. As the monks' familiarity with the new medium grew, the quality of the images they produced - surprisingly good from the outset - steadily improved.

What has been revealed in the photos and the letters is a dedicated group of men living and struggling and very often laughing through lives that have very few needs or desires. They work with complete dedication to preserve the best of Tibetan culture.
- Joe Mickey
The Tibetan Photo Project

Joe soon realised that he was compiling a unique photographic archive of the daily lives of Tibetan monks, as seen through their own eyes. This was something that had never been done before.

Wider Horizon

i am geshe lobsang topgyal i am gaden shartse monk.but now i am in sangli i have dental laborator in sangli.when i was in gompa i amthinking about tibetan refugee photo porjet but that time i have no time no moniy.now i have time work with you.now will think one photo book about tibet in india.what do you think about me.i am bhon in india 1974 25 12.o k.good bay.geshe lobsang topgyal sangli maharaster india.
- Geshe Lobsang Topgyal

In October, 2003, the Tibetan Photo Project received an email from Geshe Lobsang Topgyal, who introduced himself as a monk of Gaden Shartse monastery. To become a Geshe takes years of study and a very profound understanding of Buddhist philosophy and practice. Lobsang had received his Geshe degree and then had gone out into the Tibetan exile community, virtually from one end of India to the other, to document living conditions and do whatever he could to help.

Lobsang was invited to join the project, and soon began to contribute his own insight into life as a refugee. At the time, Lobsang was working in a dental laboratory in Mundgod, in the south of India. He had also trained in psychology in Dharamsala, and served as a councillor to recent exiles suffering from the ordeal of their escape from Chinese-occupied Tibet through high mountain passes.

The images Lobsang contributes cover a broad range of subjects, from posed portraits of monks, schoolchildren or aid workers to breathtaking landscapes and photographs documenting improvement projects in the exile communities. All of them bear witness not only to Tibetan life but to Lobsang's skill and sensitivity as a photographer.

Voices in Exile

Voices in Exile is a documentary film by Tenzin Wangden Andrugtsang, produced by Cameras for Culture in association with the Tibetan Photo Project. The film mirrors the goals of the Tibetan Photo Project: to give a voice to Tibetans so that they can tell the world about their struggle to survive as a distict culture.

Like the Tibetan Photo Project, we know there are many beautiful and sensitive views of Tibetan life and nearly all of these have been created by the Western eye looking in on the Tibetans with preconceived notions. 'Voices from Exile3' will be Wangden's vision and, if not the original, he will be among the first to create a voice from the Tibetans in this medium. I have been a professional photographer and photo teacher for 30 years, so when Wangden asks, I will offer only technical advice.
- Joe Mickey
The Tibetan Photo Project

Wangden has contributed still photographs to the Tibetan Photo Project for several years. His work features life on the streets of Dharamsala. It includes a wide variety of subjects from charming shots of young children to powerful images of protest rallies. Perhaps some of Wangden's most poignant photos are intimate portraits of the elderly, which speak of wisdom, endurance and profound compassion.

At the time of writing, Voices in Exile had a projected release date of July 2005 on DVD and VHS. Anyone wishing to order a copy of the film may do so by contacting the Tibetan Photo Project.


Joe Mickey also takes the Tibetan Photo Project on the road, giving slide show presentations with live commentary to capacity audiences. The slideshow has been presented to full houses at Colleges, Universities, Art Centres and Church groups in the USA.

At the time of writing, a much more ambitious undertaking was scheduled to take place, with part of the Tibetan Photo Project collection being exhibited at the Meadows Museum of Art at Centenary College, Shreveport, Louisiana, 27 February – 29 May 2005. This exhibition was set to showcase a selection of contemporary photographs taken by Tibetans together with 20 recently discovered photos of Tibet in 1932, Tibetan artifacts, guest lectures and cultural performances by Drepung monks.

The touring gallery exhibits, lectures and slide presentations represent a natural evolution of the basic philosophy of the Tibetan Photo Project, which has been to give the Tibetan people a voice of their own that is audible to Western ears. Any profits generated are used to benefit Tibetan causes.

A good way to keep up with news and gallery updates at the Tibetan Photo Project is to visit the Exhibits/Presentations page of the website. You can also subscribe to the Cameras For Culture mailing list by entering your details in the form provided.

How You Can Help

The Tibetan Photo Project operates on a shoestring budget; ongoing operating costs are met by personal donations, by money raised from the sale of prints and from the resources of the projects co-founders. Without the work of people like Joe Mickey and Sazzy Lee Varga, and their commitment to helping the Tibetan people preserve their unique way of life, the last traces of this unique culture might soon vanish forever. You can help by making a donation via the Tibetan Photo Project website.

You can also help simply by sharing information about Tibet and by telling your friends about the Tibetan Photo Project.

We believe that this kind of activity will increase education and awareness about Tibet. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is pleased to learn about this and fully supports Joe Mickey's project. We would therefore be grateful for any assistance extended to this work.
- Tenzin Geyche Tethong
Secretary to His Holiness the Dalai Lama
14 December, 2001

Related H2G2 Entries

1Hu Jintao, the former Party Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), replaced Jiang Zemin as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2002 and became President of the National People's Congress in 2003.2Mao Tse-tung, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party from 1931 until his death in 1976, and Chairman of the People's Republic of China from 1949 - 1959.3The original working title.

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