We are back from Tibet and a glimpse through the rear-view mirror shows a place heavily burdened by the hand of China. Much has been reported about this since the invasion of the plateau by the People’s Liberation Army in October 1950. Our approach in this blog is the visual record of place and we have no inclination to contribute a wordy analysis to the play of political events in Tibet. A few observations, though, are worth noting – accompanying the imposition of a new political order is a transformed landscape.
Nomadic peoples are forcibly resettled and their tented camps give way to sterile, barracks-style settlements. Historic towns with intact native architectures are renovated along designs and infrastructures that reflect urban styles found elsewhere in China, or they become theme parks meant for tourists. Changes in place names on maps infer new cultural or political associations. A wacky signboard near Darchen describes Mount Kailash (also known as Kang Rinpoche – “Snowy Teacher”) as “Kernel Pochin Hillock.” On the one hand, the bad sign simply might be a wonky transliteration problem. It’s so over-the-top, though, that we couldn’t help but imagine it being purposeful – a literary effort perhaps to diminish the cultural significance of the mountain by replacing its sacred nomenclature with a cartoon-like appellation.
It would be easy to dismiss such changes in the landscape as being insignificant when set against the human tragedies, and, indeed, some of them might even be considered to be for the general good of society – better roads and bridges, hot-houses filled with vegetables, functioning service centers, and so forth. Across generations, though, they represent not just transformations in a place but a slow dislocation of a people from their place. When the land no longer holds a clear visible record of a people’s history, the inhabitants of a place may begin to slowly forget who they are as a society. From a photographer’s point-of-view, it is easy to crop out such changes and focus instead on the elegiac remains of an earlier cultural era. This is handily-done in the digital world where pixels may be casually removed from a captured scene. Being of a romantic disposition, Dave struggled with this early on his Sacred Geography series, at least until it became apparent that the real story of a sacred landscape is not how its spiritual places might escape the powerful trends of modernity but rather how they might remain resilient and necessary in light of them.