One important step in the process of understanding and interpreting documents about a place and its people is to identify the interpretive framework the creator of that document used. In the case of Tibet, a framework that reoccurs regularly is that of a frontier, a boundary, or a space between others. Until the middle of the 20th century, travelers to Tibet often fell into two general categories: those who sought to enter an as yet poorly explored frontier, and those who wised to cross from one neighbor to another, e.g. from China to India. In many cases, the difficulty of entering Tibet's borders reinforced its liminal status.

China's annexation of Tibet significantly changed its status—at least on paper—as a frontier or in-between space. However, I intend to argue in this essay that the region can still be viewed as a frontier, but that the treatment of frontiers has changed radically. The pre-1950 collection I have chosen is from Sir Charles Bell's 1928 book The People of Tibet. The post-1950 collection is from Sara Shneiderman's study of the Thangmi people, who are found in Northeastern Nepal, Sikkim, and Southern Tibet. I chose these two collections for two reasons: they are both focused on people as subjects, and they both make specific use of the frontier trope. It is also an pleasant coincidence that the Thangmi occupy a region that was once under Bell's administrative control, though there is no evidence that he was aware of them as a distinct ethnic group.

Sir Charles Bell

Sir Charles Bell was born in Calcutta, India in 1870. His father was an official in Britain's Indian Civil Service. He was educated in England, and returned to India to work for the Indian Civil Service in 1891. He worked in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, all more or less frontiers of the British Empire. In 1904 he became the administrator of the Chumbi Valley, which the British acquired in the Younghusband Treaty. In 1908 he was named Political Officer for Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet.

Beginning in 1900, and growing concurrently with his political career, Bell took a particular interest in Tibet. He began to study the language, and in 1905 he published phrase book and dictionary called A Manual of Colloquial Tibetan. When the 13th Dalai Lama fled to Sikkim in 1910 to avoid open confrontation with the Chinese, Bell's language skills gave him an unprecedented access to His Holiness. This in turn led to Bell being one of the chief advisors during the 1913-14 treaty negotiations, and eventually to his being sent to Lhasa as part of a diplomatic mission in 1920. After nearly a year in Lhasa, Bell retired and began to write books about Tibet. The People of Tibet is one of these.

Sara Shneiderman

Sara Shneiderman was born in Bloomington, Indiana in 1975. She has a BA in anthropology and religious studies from Brown University, and is currently working on her PhD in anthropology at Cornell University. She has been a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellow in both Nepali and Tibetan. She is a founding member of the Digital Himalaya project, a resource for anthropological information on the Himalayan region. Her published works and editorial projects generally focus on the roles of women in regional politics, and of the positions of ethnic minorities in Himalayan societies—particularly the Thangmi.

Views of People

Both photographers were focused on a frontier. Bell was at the edge of the British empire. Shneiderman was at the fringe between the established social orders of Nepal, India and Tibet. Both shared a goal of teaching others about the people they studied. However, their approaches were naturally quite different.
Figure 1:

The most striking difference between the two collections is the way the images are organized and presented. Bell's book uses the photographs as discrete pieces of evidence. Figure 1, for example, accompanies a chapter about domestic life. As evidence, there is a photograph of domestic utensils. The caption reads "Kitchen utensils. Left, saucepans and teapots; right centre, wooden tea churn and dasher; water bucket on right." Shneiderman's photographs also serve as a kind of documentary evidence, but not in the same manner as Bell's do. Figure 2 shows a drummer participating in a ceremony with a wide array of drums spread our before him. However, there is no caption naming each drum, and the fact that the drumming is part of a ceremony is revealed only by looking at the whole series of photos.

The difference between the two representations boils down to a difference in the approach to the study of a foreign culture between the two time periods. Bell's education almost certainly included a background in philology, and he, like European and American authors before him, devoted a great deal of time to enumerating and labeling everything from trade goods to armaments to family sizes. Modern (or post-modern?) anthropology cannot content itself with matching labels with objects and photographs. It other words, the kinds of drums in the ceremony are less important to Shneiderman than being able to show how the scene of the ceremony appeared to an her as the photographic observer.
Figure 2:

It is also worth noting that, though both collections are explicitly devoted to people, Shneiderman's photographs are almost exclusively of actual people, whereas Bell's are divided into portraits on one hand and photographs of buildings and objects like in Figure 1 on the other. The result for Bell is that his book is a concrete representation of an abstraction—or perhaps stereotype—of what a Tibetan is. Shneiderman's portraits work in the reverse, providing concrete representations of an event or setting whose character must be abstracted by the viewer.

Figure 3 is a portrait by Bell whose caption reads “Golok man and his wife come to Lhasa for trade; they bring salt, dried meat etc. In their own country they are inveterate brigands.” This is one of numerous portraits of couples. They are generally posed in a similar manner, and in many cases they are clearly dressed up for the occasion. The captions explain the subjects as typical representations of a given tribe, city, social stratum, etc.

Shneiderman's portraits show significantly fewer posed photographs, but what is more striking is that there are almost no couples at all. Families are generally shown as a woman with one or more children as in Figure 4, and men are shown alone or in groups of other men. One can imagine that Shneiderman's personal interest in women's roles in Himalayan culture accounts for the fact that there are significantly more portraits of women and children than there are of men. However, the photographs also support her description of Thangmi society as having separate clan structures for men and women. Though she doesn't say this, it may also be the case that as a woman she was given better access to the women's clans than to the men's. Also, Shneiderman uses her portraits as evidence without making any claims about her subjects being typical or archetypal. In other words, the photographs to not claim to show what Thangmi are like, or what they generally do. Instead they claim only to show what a particular Thangmi looks like, or what they are doing at a particular time. From there, the reader must decide whether the evidence adds up or not.


Ultimately the difference between Bell and Shneiderman is a difference between universal and particular claims. That difference, I believe, stems from the way scholarly expectations have changed from the beginning to the end of the 20th century. Bell was expected to deal with an as yet poorly understood culture on the frontier of his civilization by authoritatively labeling it, and by establishing a specific image of what its members look like. The Thangmi, too, are on a frontier between two cultures, and though Shneiderman has lived and worked among them, she does not have the luxury (or perhaps burden) of being an authority on the Thangmi the way Bell is on Tibetans. She must first develop a body of evidence and research which will eventually become a notion of who the Thangmi are. The conclusion of the article that accompanies her photographs begins, “As this article has demonstrated, the Thangmi are a key group in the overall ethnic puzzle of the Himalayan region, and are worthy of further attention from linguistic, ethnographic, and political perspectives.” Her photographs are meant to be the beginning of a course of study, whereas Bell's are a meant to be a complete description.

Below and to the left is Figure 4 from
Below and to the right is Figure 3 from


The Thangmi Ethnic Community of the Himalayas:
The People of Tibet: