the storyteller

In the summer of 2000, Brian Harris went on his fifth journey to the Himalayas to document the traditional environments of the Tibetan culture. Brian is a photographer and fundraiser for Seva, a non-governmental organization that works in the area of restoring eyesight to people who are blind from cataracts in India, Nepal and Tibet. His photographic portrayals of Tibetan culture have become famous, and have raised several hundred thousand dollars for Sevas work.

One of Brians motivations in his work is service. His art is consciously created to serve the people he photographs. That he uses the medium of sight to benefit those whose sight is threatened is not lost on him, nor is the fact that this type of work and motivation are rare. Like the storyteller he meets on his travels who is the last of his kind, Brian also wonders how much longer he has to do this work, or whether there will be anyone to continue documenting a disappearing culture, capturing the timeless qualities of human nature.

Here, Brian talks about his work, his latest trip, and the stories behind a few of his new photographs ...

On my return, I didn't actually expect to have had a successful trip this time because the Tibetan culture is so quickly disappearing, being modified by both modern culture and Indian culture. In the areas I chose to go, Ladakh, Lahaul and Spiti, there is very little left of traditional Buddhist culture. However, in the end, photographically, it was very successful.

         When I began all this in 1987, Tibet was a natural attraction for me because I am interested in many forms of traditional culture. But Tibet is unique. In our generation, the Tibetan people have gone from essentially a medieval society right into a modern technological society. Before they were occupied by the Chinese – which started in the early 1950s – Tibet was completely cut off from the rest of the world. People lived very much as they did a thousand or fifteen hundred years ago. But by the mid 1980s, the cultural revolution had gone through so there wasn't really much left. There is now just a taste of what that culture used to be like, and I try to capture some elements of the old traditions. I tend to look for expressions of a society that is deeply connected to it's religious traditions.

The storyteller
When I first encountered the storyteller, it was about eight o'clock in the morning and he had his umbrella and a little backpack beside him. I didn't want those to be in the photograph, so I sat there for two hours waiting for his story to be done – but he kept telling the story. So I asked my guide if he could stay longer, and when the storyteller was done explain to him why I wanted to take his picture and if we could adjust his scene a little bit by removing the umbrella and backpack. I came back two hours later and he was still telling the same story and the guide was still waiting to talk to him. So I asked the guide, "How do you feel about staying here longer?" And he said he was really enjoying the story and that he was happy to stay. I came back at 4:30 p.m.and he was just finishing up that one story. He never stopped.

This is how the average person in Tibet, the villagers, would encounter these religious stories. This is similar in all traditions; there have always been storytellers who travel around telling stories that dealt with religious life or some religious deed.

He started learning this tradition when he was eight years old. He told me that there are only two men left who travel from community to community, telling these stories.

Today, you can arrive in Lhasa and one of the first things you see is people walking around with cell phones. There's an odd mix of old and new culture – someone might be living in a house that was built 500 years ago and yet the younger generation is very plugged in, with cell phones, TVs and videos.

The traditional aspect of Tibet has, for various reasons, been pedestalized and idealized. On one level it's understandable, because it was a traditional society. But that doesn't mean that Tibetan people are any different from the rest of us in our own follies and human weaknesses. I've encountered some people who were devastated when they got to Tibet because they encountered people who might be trying to cheat them! They couldn't fathom how Tibetans could be like this. I met people who have had to go home because it was just too radical a change from what they had expected.

under the tarpthe kalachakra
He's a monk. Behind him are all the other monks. They are here for the Kalachakra initiation.

The initiation is a very elaborate ceremony. There were people from all over the Himalayas. People from Ladakh, Dharmsala,Lahaul. There were probably around 20,000 to 25,000 people there and about 1,000 were foreigners from Japan, Italy, Germany and other parts of the world. Most of them were Dharma students there to receive the initiation.

The Dalai Lama began with three or four days of teaching – general Dharma instruction where he read from a text and added his commentary. And then the Kalachakra began. It's a very complex teaching. It's also one of the many things the Dalai Lama does to promote world peace. An initiation means to be given permission or to be empowered to do a practice. In the Tibetan tradition, in order to do particular practices, you have to be prepared and you have to have permission. The way you get permission is by getting this kind of initiation or empowerment from your teacher. In this case, the Dalai Lama is conferring the initiation, and a very simple way of describing it is that he embodies the deity. He is no longer the Dalai Lama, he is the Kalachakra. If you are particularly prepared for this you can actually get a direct teaching,but very few people are at that level of spiritual development. Most of the 20,000 or so people go for the blessing. Their intention is not to do these practices, but rather to get a blessing and to be in the presence of the Dalai Lama. But there are lamas there who want to do this practice. They want to be initiated.

I have, unfortunately in some respects, participated in the pedestalization of Tibet because I tend to focus on images that can support an idealized point of view. However, I am trying to demonstrate that the images are meant as symbolic, not literally true. I will capture a person in prayer,or laughing nuns. These are reminders of what the rest of humanity can be – not what humanity necessarily is. That's an important distinction. Despite the mirrorlike nature of photography, when I take a photograph, I'm not trying to express social realism.

nomad weaver woman
I came across a family of nomads and their nomadic camp on the side of a road that had become a popular route into a wilderness area. I'd been there in 1994 and nobody was going there. Now it is a major destination. This particular family was maybe 20 metres from the road. And tourists stop all the time, running up to their camp wanting to take a picture of this or that. When I asked if I could take a picture, she said, "No!" She said this happens all the time and she's worn out entirely. Then I asked the guide to explain that it's a fundraiser and that the money that we raise would come back to benefit them. Eventually she consented, but I think perhaps I gave her money.

When I ask to take a picture, I don't mean one shot. I mean, "Can I take your picture for the next 20 minutes?" Some people can't believe that I need to take so many pictures. I try to explain that one picture is not the same as another, that one yak is different from another. They laughed at me and thought it was really stupid that I took so many pictures – that I must be a very bad photographer!

But I'm getting older! And traveling in these parts of the world is difficult. I find it challenging. The climbing – which I have been able to do in the past – caused me some problems this time. My knees swelled up and got infected from overuse. I've been having early indications that my body may not be able to do this much longer.

And the culture is disappearing. In the future, in order to find the traditional culture I'll have to hire animals – donkeys or horses – and walk for hours, days, weeks in the hills and mountains. I think I might have another 10 years in me if I take care. I wouldn't mind having an apprentice. It would be fun to meet someone who has similar interests but is younger and wants to learn how to do this. It's not only taking pictures. I do the marketing, the sales, the promotion, find all the customers, think up all kinds of strategies. My work serves nothing unless I can put it in people's hands. 

the praying monk
This is also at the initiation. The monk is saying his prayers. That's a hard situation to photograph – not from a technical point of view, but from a relation point of view. Photographing a person in this special state of mind is very awkward. He was okay with it, but it was still hard. I'm not entirely comfortable with taking a picture like this, but on the other hand it makes a powerful picture. And it can actually express what it is that I want to convey. I don't know if I would do it if it weren't to raise money. I wouldn't be a photographer doing this kind of work if it were not to bring some kind of benefit. It's just too intrusive.

about Seva
The World Health Organization estimates that there are almost 40 million blind people in the world. The majority of these people live in developing countries and about half of them are blind as a result of cataracts, a curable condition. The Seva Service Society was founded in Vancouver, BC in 1982; it's goal was to help provide basic medical care for sight problems in Nepal. Through the years, the gains in Nepal have lead Seva to embark on providing eye care services in India and Tibet.

Seva is the Sanskrit word for service. Seva's guiding principle is to support people in developing countries by providing the proper resources they need to help themselves. Holly Turner has worked with Seva for two years. She is currently the acting executive director in Vancouver. "I became involved with Seva because it appealed to my understanding of what appropriate and effective overseas work consists of – empowering local people to take the necessary initiatives so that they can make a hands-on contribution to improving their own quality of life. It is the preventative aspects of Sevas eye care programs that appeal to me most."

Holly spent several months in Nepal working on a project to increase women's access to eye care. She says that in Nepal, "compared to men, women have higher rates of blindness from cataract and trachoma, yet there are many barriers that exist which prevent women from accessing the available eye care services." Seva develops programs that address barriers such as gender, illiteracy and cost, which prevent people from receiving the medical attention they need.

Holly is optimistic about the future of Seva: "The people at Seva are compassionate individuals who invest their time, energy and hearts into work that aims to support and nurture the lives of those who may be less fortunate than they are. Seva's wings will surely expand in the coming years to support the efforts towards sustainability of eye care services in Nepal, India and Tibet."

With a small core staff of 30, spread over several countries, Seva proves that the commitment of a few people can improve the lives of thousands of others. The organization is growing and making positive contributions to developing countries by promoting health and nutrition, economic sustainability and education.

The Seva Service Society
100 -2000 West 12th Avenue, Vancouver,British Columbia, Canada V6J 2G2
Tel:604-713-6622, Fax:604-733-4292, Toll Free in Canada, 1-877-460-6622

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