By Jon Levy.
When Steve Lehman went to Tibet in 1987 it was, he thought, to spend a year photographing a little-known community of cave dwellers. A year putting together a visual anthrolpology of an "untouched culture" whilst at the same time "re-examining his own life experience". What he actually came away with was both far more compelling as a visual photographic document and more defining in terms of his personal experience.
On October 1st Steve Lehman was in Lhasa when he witnessed a rare public uprising against Tibet's colonial occupiers, the Chinese. The photographs he took that day were transmitted around the world bearing proof to the West that the struggle inside Tibet for a nation's right to self determination was alive. The news of civil unrest, manifested in his pictures, was on front pages and Lehman had the exclusive.
As a journalist Lehman quickly understood it was important this story be told and so he switched his attention to find out more about the Tibetan Struggle. His work in this endeavor has taken some ten years and has meant trips to Tibet on five further occasions as well as to India, where he met with and photographed Tibetan dissidents in exile. These days the Chinese authorities know his work only too well, giving him reason to be cautious for his own safety as well as for the safety of his subjects.
The book he has put together is a collection of his experiences over this ten year period. Collages compiled from personal clippings, maps, tickets, visas and collected photographs (like the one above) intersperse the pages treating the reader to a personal scrapbook view of his journeys. As a visual anthropologist he saw that the roots of Tibetan struggle grew from their distinct culture and spiritual way of life and as a photographer he faithfully relays this in his story.
Because the history he tells covers a full decade in the life of Tibet the book is divided into unmarked chapters that draw a broad visual timeline for the reader, starting with "news" images of events in 1987 and then presenting the written testimony of participants and other activists, showing us scenes from the Chinese occupation through images of street-life, industry, architecture and portraits of the countryside and the plight of Tibetan Nomads dispossessed of their roaming lands.
In the front of the book there is an oral history by Jampel Tsering, given to Lehman in 1997, which describes the monk's feelings and intentions on the historic day of the uprising. It reveals how the small group of friends devised and executed their planned demonstration with bravery and selfless determination. The cost was high for some, beatings and imprisonment, but the reward that the world might notice their small voice in the darkness and their own satisfaction at being able to publicly demonstrate their aspirations for freedom and truth provided the spiritual conviction needed to see it through.
In a similar way it was the desire to bring the story out of Tibet, to do some justice for his new friends and their condition, that propelled Lehman over the ensuing years. As he said at a recent book event of his own role , "I see myself as an interpreter for the Tibetan people; it is my aim to recount their stories where they are unable."
The photographs work both as journalism and as a visual ethnography of the Tibetan condition. Presented in a layout which includes Lehman's own hand-written notes on the borders of the images, he puts faces to the political prisoners who we in the West can only imagine suffer in Chinese prisons.
Lehman is ever mindful of the "Tibetan Spirit", using circular patterns for some of his notations so as to incorporate the Tibetan symbolism of the circle which
represent the inter-connectivity of living things. It is Lehman's knowledge of Tibet that we are treated to in this book. The close relationship he enjoys with dissidents in India and the people in Tibet is evident in his photographs. As they have let him into their lives he has acted to both protect their identities where necessary whilst preserving the truthfulness of their experience and the integrity of the Tibetan cause.
The book is an important volume of modern photojournalism in many ways; Lehman uses photography to bring a subject to life but has a keen awareness of its limitations if it only serves to show off his work and not to tell the story. Maybe it is because of this that the book is a mix of many types of photography; color, black and white, 35mm news images and square format formal portraits, each being used in a way that is relevant to the context of the image and helpful with the narrative of the book as a whole. The text designs are also varied; including the photographer's notes and colorful quotations as well as an essay by Robbie Barnett that is both food for a historian's thoughts and a useful tool for those of us who are ignorant of Tibetan history.
Whether you are a photographer interested in the work of a fellow snapper or an academic looking for compelling research material for a piece on modern Tibet, the book goes deeply and thoroughly into the many facets of Tibetan life.
The Tibetans: A Struggle to Survive is published by Red Wheelbarrow books/Umbrage, and will be exhibited by the Newseum, New York starting February 11th 1999.
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