XIANGQI(象棋) – CHINESE CHESS

VOLUME #3: MINI STORY MONDAY - CHINESE CHESS

After years in China it was safe to say I stopped noticing a lot of things.  Events that had once been amazing no longer held my attention.  They became commonplace.  The images that filled my catalog changed drastically from year to year as things became “less interesting.”

There was one constant, however: XiangQi, or Chinese chess.  I have hundreds of images of XiangQi alone.  The beauty of it is that there is no way to separate the game from the social and cultural elements surrounding it.  Only two players actually play the game, but the casual observer probably wouldn’t realize this.  Input is given by all bystanders despite experience level.  Most decisions are made via committee.  Talking about the game seems more important that actually playing it.

Very few other events can reveal more about Chinese culture than XiangQi.

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A Painted History of the Himalaya

VOLUME #2: MINI STORY MONDAY - THE TEXTURES OF THE HIMALAYA

Today we continue with Mini Story Monday.  The simple goal of MSM is to tell a story in just a few short paragraphs – an ongoing attempt to break down any story to it’s bare essentials.  Telling better stories requires telling stories.  And that’s my aim.

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Midnight, January 1st of 2006 I was stuck in a car somewhere on the Tibetan plateau headed towards Lhasa.  We arrived in the capital city around 3am and were forced out of bed early the next morning for a scheduled private tour of the Norbulingka – the Dalai Lama’s summer palace.  The Dalai Lama’s old grounds keeper was giving us the tour – an opportunity you don’t get twice and one worth the trouble of being stuck in a car on the Tibetan plateau on New Year’s Eve.  

We meet him at the front gate of the Norbulingka. The groundskeeper was a short man wearing a standard Chinese work coat.  He had a kind, but reserved smile.  As he lead us from building to building I was struck by the artwork - huge, elaborate paintings.  Every wall was covering in something.  Prayers, murals, histories, linages. 

When I mentioned to the grounds keeper how impressed I was, he said “Ah, you need to come with me.  I want to show you something special!”  We wound our way through the Summer Palace.  Past the Dalai Lama’s personal automobiles, carried by hand from India and assembled in Tibet in 1928.  Past the cinema Heinrich Harrer built for him , now a dusty museum piece.  Finally we arrived at the Dalai Lama’s old personal quarters.  Once inside, the grounds keeper proudly showed us a room that was covered from head to toe in the painted history of the Tibetan people.  I was blown away.  The history of a people, painstakingly painted on a wall.  I meticulously followed the entire history from it’s beginning to it’s end, understanding very little of what I saw but fulling comprehending it’s importance.  It was akin to being inches away from a masterpiece:  The Creation of Adam, The Last Supper, The Mona Lisa – but not cameras, plexiglass, or over zealous security guards.

From then on in my travels through the Himalaya I have taken note of the walls – very few are left blank.  It seems that here an unpainted wall is simply wasted space.  The walls, standing as proud and colorful as the people, all carry a portion of that important history, culture, and livelihood.

Walls in the Himalaya are filled with secrets.  Consequently, I’ve spent a lot of time, undoubtedly looking silly, pointing my camera at a wall.

             

 

MSM: The White Monkey Fortress

VOLUME #1: Mini Story Monday - The White Monkey Fortress of Drakar Tredzong

This Monday I’m excited to kick off what I’m calling Mini Story Monday.  The simple goal of MSM is to tell a story in just a few short paragraphs – an ongoing attempt to break down any story to it’s bare essentials.  Telling better stories requires telling stories.  And that’s my aim

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In early 2010 while doing a scouting trip for Plateau Photo Tours, my business partner Jamin, a Tibetan buddy, and myself all set out to do some research on a rarely visited remote monastery called Drakar Tredzong – The White Monkey Fortress.  Drakar Tredzong is seldom visited by foreigners.  It has a few things going against it – remote location, proximity to historic bird flu outbreaks, and certain periods of hostility with the local government(s) have all worked together to make sure The Monkey Fortress remains somewhat a mystery location.

We arrived at the monastery right before sundown with plans to stay the night.  As we wandered the monastery, we were invited to grab a cup of milk tea with the lead monk.  He told us the story of how the monastery received it’s name – once abundant monkeys used to roam the once abundant forests. “Sometimes on a warm day you can still hear the monkeys up in the rocks!  We think the monkeys were brought from Darjeeling, India,”  He said. As we pressed him on these facts, he gave us a good belly laugh and said, “I don’t really that there are monkeys here, but that’s okay.”  Tibet’s history is litered stories of monkeys in places monkeys shouldn’t be.  Thus is the paradox of the Tibetan Plateau.

As night began to fall and our conversation with the monk began to come to a close, we decided to look for a place to stay the night.  Then, a local government appointed “police officer” appeared (per usual in remote places like this),  worried by the presence of foreigners.  At first, we could stay.  ”Thanks for visiting this place!  Isn’t it amazing, isn’t it?” said the police officer.  Then, as he thought it through, he wanted us to leave.  Two minutes later, we were allowed to stay again.  Later we had to write down our names and passport numbers. I scribbled down my information.  My E’s and R’s were backwards.  My B looked like a 3.  My 9′s looked like 8′s and my 4′s looked like Korean script.  Finally we were required to leave.  The police from the local township were already on their way to investigate us.

We met the police after two hours of driving on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere.  They took our passports and required us to follow them to the local police station.  At the police station we were immediately berated by a 5′ 2″ police chief who brandished an empty 22′ revolver as a show of force and as an offsetting factor to being so short.  The absurdity of it all made me laugh out loud – an action that undoubtedly added to the length and intensity of the ordeal.  The officer yelled at us for over two hours while his subordinates failed to match his intensity – sneaking smiles and laughs behind his back.  They’d obviously seen this act before.

In the end we were required to write down our information again – B’s, 3′s, 8′s and Korean, and asked to leave the area in the morning, as a courtesy and “for our own safety.”

 

 

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Hello America… Part 2

PART 2: RECAPPING THE LAST 7 YEARS OF MY LIFE AS A PHOTOGRAPHER & BUSINESS OWNER IN TIBET.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…”
― John Muir

 

“Why Not” – that attitude , in a sense, is what established my relationship with the Tibetan plateau in 2005.  I’m glad for it.  And I’m grateful for the time I was allowed to live on the plateau.  My time in the high places is certainly not over.  But for now, the ability to realistically live there, while making a living, working at what I love, retaining some portion of my hair (and sanity), all while contributing to society seems to have come to an end.

The decision to move was a difficult one for both my wife and I, to say the least.  We were building a life and a living in Eastern Tibet. Even now the thoughts that maybe a break was just around the corner, or that things would get better, or that we were over reacting are ones that linger.  The realization, for better or worse, seems to be that just maybe we were living on borrowed time.  The seasonality of life, from my experience, is a real thing.

Even though the move is a good thing, parts of it are harder than others.  The mountains, high-places, and middle-of-nowheres of the world – and of course the people that live there will be sorely missed.  I find myself strangely missing the harsh altitude and bitter cold, the winding passes, the headaches and long car rides.  The hard things tend to stick with you.  Jon Krauker likens this to seeking a state of grace.  Happily suffering in the high places.  A Calvanistic undertaking.  I must agree.  All I know is the happiest times I can remember in the last 5 years involved me being extremely cold and often above 15,000 feet.

So what now?

Though it’s hard at times and the transition is a long one, I’m more than excited to be back in the States.  There are people I’ve been eager to meet and parts of my career that I’ve been wanting to pursue for a very long time.  2013 is a year of readjusting and refocusing for me:  a year to be behind the camera as much as I can.

More than anything, I’m delighted at the opportunity to be a photographer again.  One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my time overseas is that it’s a privilege to be a photographer.  A privilege that I hope to never take for granted.

 

(Posted below are a few images of my favorite places.  Also, at the bottom of the post is a bit more about what I’m up to)

ABOVE IMAGES:  

  1. A high mountain pass at sunrise in Garze Tibetan Autonomous prefecture in northern Sichuan.  It was extremely cold.
  2. The Old Tibetan Fort at sunrise in Gyantse, Tibet.  This was one of the first battles between Tibetans and British in 1904. (link)
  3. One of the most famous angles of the Potola Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. (link)
  4. Tibetan pilgrims prostrating there way from eastern Tibet to Lhasa.  A very common site and always a good opportunity to share food and drink to the weary travellers.
  5. The first view of Everest from the Pang La Pass (~17,060+ feet) heading south.  Approx 140 miles out from Everest Base Camp.  (link)
A FEW ANSWERS:
  • I will be pursuing commercial and editorial photography in The States – my first photographic love.  At their core, it’s all just about sharing great stories.  I’m excited to share some of my recent work  in the coming weeks. I will not be giving up the travel side of my work, thus making me a weird combination of a commercial and travel photographer – despite the disparity between commercial and travel, I love them both too much to give up either.  Beyond that, once travel gets it’s hooks in you, it’s near impossible to escape.
  • Currently we are located in Northwest Arkansas while we get our feet back under us in The States.  We recently had our first born, Andrew.  All of my free time goes towards the parental ultimate reward of making a new born smile.
  • Plateau Photo Tours is very much still in operation through a local Tibetan partner, and Lobsang (Jamin), my business partner.  Despite my inability to live in the region, we can still operate as a tour provider.  Stay tuned for some great trips to be announced in the coming months.
  • Moving forward you will see some significant changes to this website.  Just a friendly FYI.

 

 

 

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Hello America… Part 1

Part 1: Recapping the last 7 years of my life as a photographer & business owner in Tibet.

This is the first half of a two part post – a recap of the last seven years of my life, my life in Tibet as a photographer, and my family’s recent return to America.  As many of you have suspected, I’m a full time photographer in America now, and here’s my story.

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In 2005, a few months before I graduated from college, a friend asked me to join his company in far western China.  Having no debt and no future job plans, I figured, “Why not?”  That year I packed up and moved to western China on the edge of the Tibetan plateau.  I worked in a Tibetan rug manufacturing plant and traveled and photographed as much as I could.

My career in rural Chinese manufacturing was short lived, but my love for the wilds of the Tibetan plateau and photography became permanent. Trips through the Himalaya with my close friend Jamin plus the people and places of Tibet left a permanent mark on me as a photographer, traveler, and as a person.

I returned to America in 2007 knowing I would return to Tibet.  From 2007 to 2009 I worked as a web developer, designer, and an amateur photographer.  I took a few trips back to Tibet to satiate my palette for the high places of this world.  In July of 2007, I made the best decision I’ve ever made and married my wife (in college she was my Chinese tutor among so many other things).  Meanwhile, photography began to take over my personal and career goals.  Both my wife and I began to look longingly to China and to our friends on the Tibetan plateau.

In 2009, having no kids, no debt, and no strong ties in America (and a simple desire to live in western China), we moved back to the wilds of eastern Tibet.  Jamin and I pulled the trigger on years of planning and started Plateau Photo Tours.  PPT is a travel and photographic workshop service built around Jamin’s and my love of photography, teaching, Tibetan culture, community development, and travel.  Over the last several years we have been able to take some great people to some amazing places.  I worked full time as a photographer and work was good.

Early in 2010 there was a massive earthquake in one of our main tour locations (all of our employees were from this region) that killed well over 20,000 people. Jamin and his family were living in the disaster region at the time of the earthquake.  Miraculously, their apartment complex was the only building on the entire block that didn’t collapse and kill everyone inside.  Many of our friends and tour colleagues died in the earthquake.  At the time my wife and I were living in a Tibetan apartment complex – we didn’t have a single friend in that complex that didn’t lose a family member in the quake.

Thus began 9 months of full time (12 to 16 hours a day) relief work, of which photography was strictly off limits as a foreign photographer known by the government.  The government was concerned (rightfully so) that the world media (or me) would paint the Chinese relief efforts in a poor Tibetan village in a bad light.  The watchful eyes off the Chinese government were on the foreigners, and the only role I could accomplish was design work, web work, and press releases for an NGO I was working with in the area.  I was glad to do whatever I could and understood it was best for everyone to keep my camera in the bag.

Shortly after the earthquake, areas we had previously traveled to were closing; the government was restricting foreign travel in the areas where our Tibetan tour partners were located, visas were harder to come by and the working life of a photographer in one of the most politically and socially sensitive environments in the world become, if possible, even harder.  Much of the tightened control had little to do with the earthquake and quite a bit to do with an opportunistic government wanting to mask off areas that would illustrate any Chinese-Tibetan relational struggles.

Starting in March of 2011, Tibetans started setting themselves on fire in protest of Chinese rule, which caused the tourism and travel industry in that part of the country to come to an almost stand still.  By late 2011, I was spending too much time away from the camera – none of it by choice.  There were times where I was told by government officials to not leave the city.  There were other times when government friends gave me soft warnings about ‘media and photographers.’  There were times where I was followed on foot by plain clothed cops. There were times where I was concerned enough about taking my camera out in public that I just didn’t – broken gear and threatened local friends aren’t worth it.  All my work (read: working income) and personal projects that involved being outside came to a sudden halt as we were left waiting for the storm to pass.

I started to question my identity as a photographer, story teller, and a business owner.  In many ways, my identity as a person.  Who is a photographer that can’t go out and photograph?  Who is a business owner with no clients?  Who is a person who wants to positively impact a part of society who can offer anything?   One of the largest parts of our business model was the ability to use local talent to bolster community development, cultural preservation, and add to the local economy. Jobs among the locals was completely undermined.  We couldn’t do anything about putting money and jobs where they belonged, among our Tibetan and Chinese colleagues.

By the beginning of 2012, things were even crazier.  Over 70 Tibetans had set themselves on fire in protest. We’d witnessed larger and larger protests, and the feeling that things could get way worse very quickly was palpable.  I relayed all this information to my buddy Jeremy Cowart and his response was so blatantly clear.

…I’m really sorry to hear about all that. Seriously. Have you thought about getting out of there or are you there for good? It seems like if you can’t do your profession, then it might be time to move on, right? Don’t mean to be so blunt but that’s the first thought that hits me… 

It makes perfect sense and it was good advice–timely to say the least.  A few weeks later I had a meeting with our governmental head of the China Daily Newspaper who also (by governmental design, I’m sure) ran the only government sponsored photographic society (the ONLY photographic society) in that part of the country.  This was the guy to talk to if you want stuff done on a high level.  The meeting was great.  Smoke was blown, promises and plans were made.  It looked like the break we’d been waiting for had come in the form of strong governmental support for our business.  It wasn’t so.  In the end, I was told that my career choice was impossible in that part of the country and that everything we’d talked about in our previous meeting was “真的不可能“ - “Really Impossible.  We can’t work together.”  Two weeks later I was told that getting my visa renewed was out of the question.  With a baby well on the way and the future of my wife’s teaching job being in question, our decision was seemingly made for us.

In September of 2012 we returned to The States not really knowing what our future in Tibet looked like.  Some time away and some perspective seemed to be a smart decision.  Perspective is like gold.  Weeks after returning to The States, major protests broke out near where we had been living.  Tibetan self-immolations were happening daily.  The only feasible avenue for us to return long term would have been for me to take on a Chinese student visa at a local university – essentially eliminating my ability to work as a photographer, my ability to travel, and my ability to run Plateau Photo Tours - or really work at all.  Essentially the opposite of income.  The opposite of making a living as a photographer

Our decision to stay in America was made.

 

 

The gallery listed above contains images from 2005 and my first trip to Lhasa and Mount Everest.  They aren’t great.  My gear sucked.  I sucked. However they represent a time of falling in love with Tibet, travel, and photography.  A special time for me.  Please keep an eye out for the second part of the story coming up in the next few days.