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.
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.