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May 26, 2011

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Stories of Tibet caught on film

ON a wall in the living room of Wangchuk Dorje's home, a striking photo of Buddha attracts the eyes of visitors.

The large black-and-white photo shows a beam of light being cast from an unknown source, lighting up the Buddha's merciful eyes and shadowing his smiling lips.

This is no ordinary photo of Buddha, but is the work of Wangchuk Dorje's father, the 10th Demo Rinpoche and one of Tibet's high lamas.

"My father took thousands of pictures in his life. A majority of them were taken in the 1930s and 1940s. They are a rare personal record of Tibetan society as it existed at that time," Wangchuk Dorje says.

His father's hobby was inherited by his son. Wangchuk Dorje is a professional photographer and chairman of the Tibet Photographers Association.

"The year of 1951 was a watershed year for Tibet when great changes took place in the region," says the 62-year-old man. "My father and I have a different life and story. Our pictures are different, too."

Wangchuk Dorje's father, Tendzin Gyatsho, was born into the prestigious Ngapoi noble family in Nyingchi of southern Tibet in 1901. At the age of four, he was confirmed to be the incarnation of the Demo Rinpoche, or the head of the Tengyeling Monastery, an important Buddhist monastery in Tibet.

The lineage of the Demo Rinpoche had been closely linked to old Tibet's politics since the 17th century, as the Demo Rinpoche was one of the few high lamas qualified to act as the region's regent when the Dalai Lama was young. The ninth Demo Rinpoche acted as regent before the 13th Dalai Lama became old enough to take the mantle.

The 10th Demo Rinpoche spent his early years in monasteries and earned academic degrees at a young age. In his mid-20s, the monk was living in a cave outside the city of Lhasa when he met an elderly Nepali man, who gave him his first glimpse of his future hobby.

"The Nepali man ran a photo studio in Lhasa. After becoming seriously ill, he left his home. My father pitied him and took him in. The man taught my father how to shoot and print photos and gave him a camera," Wangchuk Dorje says. "There were very few people who even knew about photography in Tibet at that time."

Wangchuk Dorje has kept about 300 photos taken by his father. The photos are a vivid depiction of old Tibet: a dignified-looking monk, a lavishly dressed noblewoman standing in a pavilion, a barefoot servant working in a garden.

"My father took pictures purely for fun. He did not want to achieve any worldly purpose. Maybe because of this, his pictures reflect great humanity and beauty," Wangchuk Dorje says.

At the age of 38, the Demo Rinpoche gave up the monastic life after meeting a woman from a wealthy Lhasa family. "My father believed their lines crossed in a previous life, meaning they were destined to meet and marry in this life," Wangchuk Dorje says.

The 10th Demo Rinpoche was also remembered for his support to the peaceful liberation of Tibet in 1951.

The Demo Rinpoche and his wife went on to have 6 children. Wangchuk Dorje, the couple's second child, was born in 1949.

The Demo Rinpoche passed on a significant gift: his love of photography. In a black-and-white photo his father took in the 1940s, the city of Lhasa was just the Potala Palace and a group of low buildings around Jokhang Temple, with forests and wetlands surrounding them.

In a photo Wangchuk Dorje took in 2005 from the same perspective, Lhasa was bigger and featured more beautiful buildings, wide streets, roads and gardens.

Over the six decades, the main avenue of Lhasa changed from a muddy road where low cottages stood along the roadside to a wide paved street with tall buildings and numerous cars. However, the most striking change appears when one compares the faces of the people whom Wangchuk Dorje and his father photographed.

"The biggest difference between my father's pictures and mine shows on the faces of people," Wangchuk Dorje says. The Demo Rinpoche's portraits often featured farmers and servants with vacant, lost expressions. Wangchuk Dorje's show people laughing and smiling. "There is more confidence in the common people's faces in my pictures than in my father's," says Wangchuk Dorje.


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