Image Selection XV – Faces

Those naughty ones were spotted in a schoolyard of the TCV Dharamsala (Tibetan’s Children Village). Most Tibetan kids can be funny little demons…or perhaps the demon was the pale man with the camera. | Die zwei Strolche fand ich in einem Schulhof des Tibetan’s Children Village in Dharamsala auf dem Heimweg. Zu entscheiden wer der Dämon ist – der Junge oder der blasse Herr mit der Kamera vor ihm – sei jedem selbst überlassen.

Somewhere between pride, curiosity and anguish. I am still not sure if he came up to me to get a picture of his daughter (what would be the use, since he never saw it?) or if he simply wanted to exchange a few words and we couldn’t understand each other. He came up to me and asked to be photographed, then vanished again. Perhaps he thought I was a travelling photographer. | Irgendwo zwischen Stolz, Neugier und Pein. Vielleicht wollte er ein Bild seiner Tochter, vielleicht wollte er nur ein paar Worte mit mir wechseln. Er kam in der Strasse auf mich zu und verschwand nach geschossenem Bild wieder.Vielleicht hielt er mich (nicht fälschlich) für einen vagabundierenden Fotografen.

A proud young Sikh boy dressed in fine “Sunday” clothes, looking at me with some of the most open and calm curiosity I have ever seen. | Dieser junge Sikh im Goldenen Tempel trägt seine beste “Sonntagskleidung” und blickt mich mit unglaublich offener und entspannter Neugierde an.

A Bihari worker. He kept the small monastery of Reckong Peo in order, laying bricks, cutting down trees. He is a migrant, travelling for work up to nine months a year. The money is sent back to his family. He and his colleague asked me if I was married and, clearly thinking ahead, brought me a packet of Lays chips and a copy of a porn movie as gifts. | Ein Wanderarbeiter aus Bihar, der hilft das kleine Kloster von Reckong Peo instand zu halten. Für bis zu neun Monate pro Jahr ist er in ganz Indien unterwegs. Das Geld schickt er nachhause. Sein Kollege und er haben mich gefragt ob ich verheiratet bin und haben mir später – wohl aus Mitleid – eine Packung Lays Chips und einen kopierten Pornofilm geschenkt.

Image Selection XIII – A Monastery Festival

Dzongsar Khyentse, the mildly annoyed loooking man on the throne, is a high ranking Rinpoche from Bhutan. He is an author and a film director and an immensely charismatic individual who straddles two worlds, Bhutanese tradition where he is a living god and Western disciples (mis)understanding, where he is (yet again) supposed to be a living god. | Dzongsar Khyentse, der Mönch mit dem milde genervten Gesichtsausdruck auf dem Thron, ist ein hochrangiger Rinpocheaus Bhutan. Daneben ist er Autor und Regisseur und ein immens charismatischer Mensch, der sich zwischen zwei Welten findet – der Tradition Bhutans, in der er lebende Gottheit ist, und das gutgemeinte Missverständnis seiner westlichen Akolyten.

A procession of traditionally garbed female dancers makes its way to the stage. | Eine Schlange traditionell gekleideter Tänzerinnen auf dem Weg auf die Bühne.

Eagerness and determination is visible on the faces of this family, for whom the participation in this festival meansacquiring immense spiritual merit. | Eifer und Zielstrebigkeit kann man auf den Gesichtern dieser Familie sehen. Die Teilnahme an dem Festival bedeutet für sie immense spirituelle Belohnung und einen Bonus für die Anderwelt.

Traditional buchan dancers. The group of mystics, harlequins and balladeers travels through the Himalayan valleys to perform in front of audiences everywhere. The arrival of electricity and TVs will mean a slow death to their tradition, but they are still alive and dancing so far. | Traditionelle Buchan Tänzer. Diese Gruppe von Mystikern, Harlequins und Balladensängern reist im Himalaya-Sommer von Dorf zu Dorf um dort ihre Darbietungen zum Besten zu geben. Sobald sich Elektrizität und Fernseher in den Tälern verbreiten, werden sie wohl aussterben, aber noch wandern und tanzen sie nach Herzenslust.

The kind of images I look for

When photography turns into a contest about which image is sharpest or has the greatest depth of field or the best colour, it becomes meaningless to me. There are thousands of astonishingly beautiful images out there in the wilds of art pages, but after a while they are very hard to tell from each other. Of course every photographer has his style, many quite inimitable and the hard work of many years, but the feeling they evoke is similar. Dreams, fantasies…breathtakingly beautiful nude women and men, colour and costume games, shapes take straight from the imagination…yet the feeling they evoke is the same…unreality, a door into someone’s head.
Nowadays I find the world more astonishing, frightening and beautiful than the insides of other people’s heads, so perhaps that explains my boredom with those kinds of images. I used to love them and attempted to make similar ones, but my abilities didn’t allow me to, so I decided to take a picture or two of the world as I saw it, full of odd moments, misunderstanding, mundane beauty and cruelty. Solitude ripens the imagination, but I never managed to fall into my head again, I never saw my dreams as vividly as my waking life again.
At some point you just move from one step to the next and any extravagant dream becomes a burden more than something to fuel you. Now I look for images that are still windows into dreams, but wider-ranging ones. Dreams that are too big for the insides of heads. Dreams that burst into reality because you cannot keep them inside and dreams that accept what dream, frightened, calls the cold hard facts.
I believe the world is an inextricable mixture of dreams and realities and I look for photographs that reflect that.
What sort of images do you look for? Do you look for any at all?

Image Selection XII – Losel Doll Museum

Lost in a realm of gold, flowers and brocade – imagine you come a long way to see an image you consider to be a treasure on earth and enter into one of those temples. Opulent and beautiful or sometimes bright and kitschy, the images stand as a testament to the religious imagination of the people and for a religion that ultimately discards sensual reality while celebrating its irreality. | In einem buddhistischen Tempel fühlt man sich manchmal verloren in einem Reich von Gold, Blüten und Brokat – aber man stelle sich vor, man kommtnach langer, entbehrungsreicher Pilgerreise an so einen Ort…wirkt er dann nicht wirklich wie ein Schatz auf Erden. Opulent und schön, manchmal auch grell und kitschig – diese Bilder und Skulpturen sind Testament der religiösen Vorstellungskraft der Menschen, die sie geschaffen haben, und stehen für eine Religion, die zwar schlussendlich der sinnlichen Realität entsagt, ihre Irrealität aber dennoch feiert.

The Losel Doll Museum is home to multiple dioramas detailing the history of pre-invasion Tibet. It’s the only place where you can find such scenes, real or unreal. The multiplied monk is  numerous in his dreams and imaginations, but very solitary in reality.

Group scenes show opulently dressed women and finely garbed monks in marketplace scenes, evoking a strange medieval-religious atmosphere that is only eighty years in the past.

One feels strangely transported and affected by those little guys and dolls – it’s easy to imagine that they come alive at night and play out scenes from Tibet’s timeless past…

Visual Literacy – Advertisement or Visual Poem?

If you want to be a good photographer, you have to be visually intelligent and literate. What a writer does with words, juggling and dancing with them, subduing them, making them do things that they ordinarily do not, that you have to do with images.

But what does it mean to be visually literate? It means to be able to read an image; to understand that in a good image things might be coincidental but never meaningless; to be able to gather information from clues, hints, gestures – in short from all wordless things.

An image may tell you a story and in fact a simple hint for beginners is to make sure that there is a thread, a story, a visual movement in any image that you take. Imagine your subjects as actors of some sort of self-chosen and spontaneous drama. The image becomes a representation, something removed from the actual subject.

This may sound awfully philosophical, but it is true and very unwieldy. To see a picture of your dog on a cell-phone is not seeing your dog, even if the instinctive reaction inside yourself tells you different. It represents your dog, either in an act, or in a state. You have chosen to depict that moment because you want to achieve some purpose with it – the image is, for example, a squeal of remembered delight or a bittersweet reminder of your pet. This is very different from your actual dog who may be – in the very moment that you look at the image – looking entirely different in reality than on your image.

We are inundated with images, flooded with them, yet the fewest of us are actually visually literate and able to differentiate between them. Differentiation means a clear awareness of the intent and the information conveyed by an image, the active, conscious part as well as the subconscious part. Visual literacy means not only a quick ability to separate advertisement from information – a necessity in an age that gave birth to something as insidious as infotainment – but to be able to access the deeper layers of information contained within an image.

Look at a couple of portraits of people and attempt to describe their state. Can you do it in a word and is it utterly clear what their expression conveys? In that case it’s a bad image or an advertisement. Human expression is varied and always contains more than one emotion at a time. A clear expression might be good for propaganda, journalism and advertisement, but when it comes to actually depicting a human being, complexity is necessary. Apparently simple expressions like wonder, joy and frustration – how often do they appear clearly on a person’s face? Is it not more usual to see them mingled with other expressions?

Think about watching an actor or an actress that you admire. Are those the people that clearly and unmistakably show one emotion on their faces or is it people who stimulate discussion and wonder because the expression is multi-facetted and unclear? Because it needs more than one word to describe it?

Come away from thinking that every images needs to be entirely clear in composition or meaning. Juxtaposing different meaning, misleading the viewer, offering them to make their own interpretations…those hold much more fascination than a clear, easily readable image. It’s the difference between reading an instruction manual and a poem. Sure it’s nice to know exactly what’s going on, but wouldn’t you rather engage your imagination?

Image Selection XI – From the Himalayas

A bone-white sheet of cloud draws slow dreams across the darkening sky.

A hole in the clouds is relief, even though at times one feels as if the eye was staring straight into the darkness of space.

Like settlers on a distant star…

Snowfall means the world is gone. The clouds are threatening. One might wander into them and never return.

Copyright by Sebastian Buchner.

Travel books for people who miss the road

Travel companions for people who miss the road – nutcases, artists, poets, soldiers…the voice at your side shapes the world around you, whether it’s in a book or in real life. This is a selection of books to be read when the travel bug bites hard and you can’t follow the itch but only, feebly, scratch it.

Colin Thubron – pretty much anything from the somber and poetic Englishman, offspring of a Poet Laureate. Thubron travels to the timeworn city of Damascus, through the forbidding snow-wastes of Siberia or follows the Silk Route from China into Russia. His voice is the voice of the solitary traveler, the person who becomes his surroundings and transforms them with clear melancholy. The people he meets speak clearly of loss and joy, frozen in time, ephemeral…beautiful. The closest he came to India was a journey to Mount Kailash, and it is hard to imagine his perception in the maelstrom of quotidian India, but one can imagine him crossing the Himalayas and the Hindukush or walking through the jungle valleys and hillsides of tea of Sikkim.

Tahir Shah – son of Idries Shah, the late Sufi grandmaster who lived in Britain, Tahir has inherited the flavor of language from his father. His writings mix observations and fantasies, deliberately blurring the line. I like the idea of not knowing at what point the writer decides to walk into his own head, although purists of “realistic” or observational travel writing might disapprove (although of what is not so clear to me, unless it is their own inability to separate fact from fiction). The descriptions of India and how it appears to a bemused outsider (one can find them in Sorcerer’s Apprentice) are recognizable and hilarious. His books mystify those who have no sense of the mystical and lie to those who cannot separate truth from fiction, a perfectly regular Sufi behavior, I’d say. He goes to India to become a sorcerer or rather his apprentice, so that should give you a hint to the level of humour, detachment and fantasy you should expect…as well as the level of self-importance of the author (fair warning if you’re sensitive that way).

Helena Drysdale – she moves us away from India (although she has written a book on her solitary travels in Nepal and Tibet, which I haven’t yet read), but her book Mother Tongues is a excellent account of her search for tribal communities in Europe. In a time where the Euro and maybe the European Union itself are about to scatter, this is a timely reminder of cultural uniqueness, personal identity, diversity in a continent that finds it just cannot pretend equality for too long. Drysdale travels with her husband and her two young daughters, so this becomes a family account as much as a travel book or an anthropological study. It’s fascinating and personal and leads the mind far away from the trappings of globalization and corporate identity.

Simon Allix – after the death of his brother during an accident on a road in Kashmir, Simon Allix, a graphic designer by trade, decided to create a memorial to his sibling. Mandala Mountain or Rivers of the Mandala, a beautiful picture book (for grown-ups, if you need that disclaimer) about the two brothers’ multiple journeys to and around Mount Kailash is the result. It is filled with snapshots, memorabilia, sketches and drawings taken from their travel notebooks and put together in a wonderful zany way that evokes both a bande-dessiné and a travelogue.

Olivier Föllmi – a Swiss photographer (one of my favourite photographers) who founded a vast project called Sagesse de l’humanité. He travels the world photographing people, cities, places. Having lived for several years in Tibet and the Middle East, he understands the worlds he moves through better than an outsider would and his photographs are vast and personal, calm and assured. You can pick them up in beautiful oversized hardcover books and travel through them for a few hours…or days…or months…