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Photographer Elaine Ling’s Tibetan images blend modern life and ancient traditions

A man prostrates himself on the ground.

When photographer Elaine Ling returned to Tibet last year, 20 years after her first visit, she noticed some changes, some for the better and some for the worse.

In terms of oppression, things have not improved, she said. Today, people can be arrested for owning and displaying a picture of the Dalai Lama.

“So they hide them—one man had his picture of the Dalai Lama hidden behind a rice bin in his kitchen,” Ling said, during a talk at Linderman Library Tuesday. Ling, Artist-in-Residence from March 31-April 4, also will give a gallery talk at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, April 3, at DuBois Gallery in Maginnes Hall.

On the other hand, the airport that was formerly a shack has become shiny and modern, and there has been quite an upgrade in transportation over the two decades in between Ling’s visits.

“Before, we had to hitchhike in trucks and then figure out how to get back to where we started,” she said. “This time, I hired a car that met me at the airport and took me everywhere.”

But overall, Ling—a former physician who has traded her stethoscope for a camera and traveled the world as a photographer—noticed a familiar blend of the old and new during her second trip to Tibet.

”Photography of Tibet: Part I”, Ling’s photographs from her 1987 trip, appears in the DuBois Gallery in Maginnes Hall through Sept. 12. “Tibet Revisited,” which features photographs from her second trip last year, will be exhibited in the Zoellner Main Gallery from May 7 to July 27 in conjunction with the visit to Lehigh University of His Holiness the Dalai Lama on July 10-15.

Tibet revisited

Monks walking, from Ling's 1987 visit.

Ling first became connected with Tibet when she worked as a physician in a women’s clinic in Nepal. “A lot of the women there were Tibetan refugees,” she said. “And one woman invited me to come visit her in Tibet.”

Ling said one of her first realizations of the preservation of traditional culture in Tibet came when she discovered that the woman who had invited her was married to multiple men. “They have this ancient tradition—which maybe they should upgrade—that the women marry all the brothers in a family,” she said.

Ling embarked on her second journey to Tibet 20 years later after some coaxing from Ricardo Viera, associate professor of art and architecture and curator of the Lehigh University Art Galleries. “Ricardo asked me if I had enough pictures of Tibet for an exhibition. I didn’t think I did, so I went back last year to take some more.”

In all of Ling’s pictures, the blend of the ancient Tibetan culture with modern life is evident. You see people talking on cell phones outside of Buddhist temples thousands of years old. You see monks with shaved heads in traditional robes talking and laughing with men in jeans and sneakers. And at one festival, amongst the traditional prayer flags and katas (white scarves offered in greeting), you see balloons decorated with Mickey Mouse and the Transformers.

In the photographs from her second trip, a few things remain constant—the vibrant colors and the heavy influence of religion.

There are multiple photographs of prayer wheels, prayer flags draped everywhere, temples, monks, and people lying on the ground prostrating.

“On the highways, you see people prostrating on their way to India to see the Dalai Lama, some who have been traveling for five years,” Ling said.

Luckily, in an area where people are oppressed in many ways, the Tibetans are still free to practice their religion, which is evident in Ling’s photographs.

One example is her images of the Shoton (or “yogurt”) festival. “During the festival, you get up very early in the morning and start walking up this mountain,” Ling said. “Everyone is going up and burning incense along the way. Both the old and young are worshipping.”

Another festival takes place at the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama, where people gather to have a big picnic. “It is a wonderful party,” Ling said, as she showed a photograph of a pile of empty beer bottles on the side of a mountain.

“When you see these things, you know Tibetan Buddhism is alive and well,” she said.

A cultural divide

Portrait of a Tibetan man.

Unfortunately, in the 20 years since Ling last visited Tibet, the tensions between the Tibetans and the neighboring Chinese have not gotten any better; in fact, in many cases, they have gotten worse.

“When you first leave the airport, you drive through this huge Chinese town, and there are a lot of Chinese there now—it looks like little Beijing,” Ling said. “But the Chinese and Tibetans do not integrate at all.”

Ling experienced some of the oppression by the Chinese first-hand during her travels through Tibet by truck.

“Every half hour, there is a road stop, and the Chinese guards look at your papers,” she said. “Well, I insisted on having a Tibetan guide and a Tibetan driver, and they were scrutinized all the time. At one of the stops, the Chinese guards thought our truck was illegal, and they were going to confiscate it and throw us out.”

But then Ling remembered a red button she had received with her packet of travel information that said, ‘Chinese Travel Service’ in both languages.

“When I first saw it, I thought, ‘I’m not putting that button on anything—that’s ridiculous!’” she said. “But luckily, I kept it because I pulled it out and showed it to the guards and they said, ‘OK, go ahead.’ That red button saved our whole trip.”

She also realized the tensions when she got sick of yak butter soup.

“I really wanted a Chinese restaurant,” Ling recalled. “And the Tibetans said, ‘Oh no, there is much better Tibetan food here.’ I was not allowed anywhere near anything Chinese.”

The strength of tradition

Ling had her fill of yak butter by the end of her second visit.

Despite political tensions, the robustness of Tibetan traditions is evident in Ling’s photographs.

She shows images of the yak butter she grew sick of, a staple of the Tibetan diet. “They serve yak butter in the lining of the yak’s stomach (for extra taste) and put it in almost every food, including tea,” Ling said.

When they’re not eating yak butter, you may find the Tibetans eating meat directly off a sheep’s carcass.

“You can buy a full, dried sheep’s carcass at the market, and a lot of people do,” Ling said. “They walk around town with the carcasses and then squat down and start tearing off the meat and eating it.”

Another of Ling’s images portrays a young baby with a black mark on his nose, a symbol of his first journey from home since his birth.

The warmth of the Tibetan people helped Ling capture so many elements of their landscapes and cultural practices.

“The Buddhists will never say ‘no’ to you; I wandered along with my camera, and they would just invite me in,” she said.

Ling was born in Hong Kong and lives in Toronto. In addition to Tibet, she has photographed sites of ancient culture and architecture across four continents, at sites ranging from Mongolian deserts to Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat.

Her photographs have been exhibited throughout the world, and are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Brooklyn Museum; Bibliotheque Nationale de France; Musee de la Photographie, Charleroi, Belgium; and the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography in Ottowa, among others.

Photos by Elaine Ling

Posted on Thursday, April 03, 2008

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