Controlling Tibetan crowds: a brief discussion of what the photography of British diplomat Hugh Richardson and blogger Sun Bin can tell us about Tibet

This essay will examine four photos of Lhasa’s streets. The first two date from the late 1930s, and were taken by Hugh E. Richardson. The second two, taken by blogger Sun Bin, are very recent, taken in Lhasa, somewhat covertly and barely a week ago, in early April. These specific pictures were selected for two fairly simple reasons: first, they are - as will be discussed below - candid photographs of special, or in the case of Sun Bin’s photos, disastrous events. This makes them surprisingly unique among the other photographs available. Second, they are strikingly similar in content.

I make no broader generalized claims about the nature of photography or images of Tibet. Nor do I address any deeper philosophical questions about the meaning behind the pictures. This paper is much too short for that. Instead, it will briefly examine the backgrounds of the photographers and their interest in Tibet (insofar as that is possible) before taking a look at the photos themselves and why they were taken. Finally, in the course of comparing the two photos, this paper will offer a few observations about what these images can tell us about Tibet.

Hugh Richardson and his Photos
Born in Scotland, Richardson joined the Indian Civil Service in 1930. After serving in Bengal and what is now part of Pakistan, Richardson developed a keen interest in Tibet and got himself appointed to be the British Trade Agent in Gyantse and then the head of the first British mission to Lhasa, a position he occupied for roughly eight years with a brief intermission during World War II. Unlike many foreigners, Richardson actually engaged with Tibet, learning its language and culture. Indeed, after leaving the civil service in 1950, Richardson became a fulltime and distinguished Tibet scholar.

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"Monk policemen, dobdob (ldob ldob) outside the entrance to the Shira gate on the south side of the Jokhang during Monlam Torgyap. They are wearing padded clothing and holding long wooden staves and branches used to control the crowds during the Great Prayer Festival (Monlam Chenmo). There is a group of lay officials in the background in the entrance to the Jokhang." Caption from the Tibet Album. The photo is available here: http://tibet.prm.ox.ac.uk/photo_2001.59.1.39.1.html

Given Richardson’s genuine interest in Tibet (and photography), both photos seem like a fairly genuine effort to capture Tibetan culture and society as he saw and experienced it. The rest of the collection is devoted to photos ranging from portraits of individual Tibetans to grand post-card worthy pictures of the Potala Palace. If there is any bias, it is would seem to be that of the interested foreigner, trying to record, document, and understand Tibet as best he can, both for himself and for the rest of the world.


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"A double line of laymen carrying gyaltsen (rgyal tshen) Victory Banners along the Barkhor, close to the south west corner of the Jokhang during the Monlam Torgya [an important part of the New Year's festivities]...The streets are lined with crowds of spectators. A tripod with a camera covered by a piece of cloth can be seen on the right positioned on the balcony of the Doring house from where this photograph was take." Caption from the Tibet Album. The photo is available here: http://tibet.prm.ox.ac.uk/photo_2001.59.1.70.1.html

Sun Bin and His/Her Photos.
The second group of photos comes from a China-focused blog called Sun Bin. The author who is anonymous (I am using the name of the blog, Sun Bin, as the photographer’s name simply for convenience), says only that he/she/they are interested in management, communications, and China. At any rate, somewhat remarkably, Sun Bin managed to find his/her way to Tibet not long after the recent crackdown, and took as many pictures of Lhasa’s streets and ordinary people as he/she could get away with – a feat that perhaps implies that Sun Bin is Chinese. The two images that I have picked here were taken outside Ramoche and Jokhang monasteries in Lhasa, both of which, like much of the city, remain heavily guarded by Chinese soldiers.

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Sun Bin: "Front (west) door of Johkang Monastery. Guarded. (but fewer guards than Ramoche, perhaps because there is a large plaza as buffer zone) -- this photo was cropped as my finger was blocking the right hand side of my camera-phone." The photo is available here: http://sun-bin.blogspot.com/2008/04/lhasa-anecdote-1-adventure-into-alleys.html

Comparisons and Observations
These make for interesting and revealing comparisons with the Richardson photos on several levels. First, like Richardson, Sun Bin does not – at least based on the material in the blog – appear to have any set agenda other than recording and analyzing in an intellectually honest way what he/she sees, both for him/herself and for the rest of the world. In a very real way, these are news photographs – candid pictures intended to record an important public event so that others may understand it better – rather than personal mementos, scientific or cultural documentation (although Richardson, Tibet-o-phile that he was, did plenty of that) or works of art. They capture not only an event, but an un-staged, genuine mood.

Second, Richardson’s photos were taken quite openly and with permission, while Sun Bin’s were done almost entirely surreptitiously. The police “asked to check my mobile phone, suspicious of me taking pictures,” Sun Bin writes. But, thinking quickly, the intrepid blogger, “showed him [the policeman] my blackberry, which had no camera function.” Thus in addition to being a reflection of technological advances –Richardson’s grainy pictures required a tripod-mounted camera – this difference also reflects the obvious differences in Tibet’s political situation between Richardson’s time and ours: In the 1930s, as China disintegrated, the region was effectively an independent country. Today its status is that of Chinese province – or, depending on who you talk to, long-time Chinese colony.

external image ramoche+gate.jpgSun Bin's succinct caption: "Gate of Ramoche Monastery. Guarded." The Photo is available here: http://sun-bin.blogspot.com/2008/04/lhasa-anecdote-1-adventure-into-alleys.html

(It’s worth noting that proponents of the latter position might point to the sign in one of Sun Bin’s photos, which reads, at least according to this writer’s inexcusably poor Chinese, “Civilization must be on duty. Protect stability. Please proactively cooperative with inspections. Thank you for your compliance,” – thus neatly allying the Chinese with the forces of civilization and implying that Tibetans who oppose them lack it. If nothing else, that sign says a lot about how the Chinese see their role in Tibet, and perhaps why they are so resented.)

Finally, both Richardson’s and Sun Bin’s photos reveal the enduring centrality of religion and conflict in Tibetan life and politics – Sun Bin by illustrating that the Chinese felt it necessary to stationing soldiers by monasteries, which clearly shows their importance; and Richardson by showing that religious ceremonies were important and large enough to require what appears to be a sort of primitive riot police to keep the peace. Which is not to say that Tibetan Buddhism was necessarily rowdy or dangerous, although it could be both. But when it became intertwined with power and public life – which was most of the time – Tibetan Buddhism and therefore Tibet was and definitely remains, at least according to these photos, a little less peaceful and serene than is commonly imagined.

- D. Chinoy

Sources
Sun Bin’s photos and accompanying observations are here: http://sun-bin.blogspot.com/2008/04/lhasa-anecdote-1-adventure-into-alleys.html
Richardson’s photos and biography come from the Tibet Album, available online at: http://tibet.prm.ox.ac.uk.
Biography of Hugh Richardson: http://tibet.prm.ox.ac.uk/tibet_hugh_richardson.html.