Tibet has long epitomised remoteness, spirituality and mystery in the eyes of the world, for reasons of both geographical circumstance and historical fact. On the one hand, Tibet was naturally fortified with barren plateaus, high altitude deserts and some of the tallest mountain peaks in the world that served to deter any but the most persistent and hardened of travellers; more significantly still, on the other, Tibet deliberately pursued a strict policy of excluding foreigners from the late 18th century onward, with harsh punishments—including death—meted out to those found guilty of helping them enter. This meant, as Dr. John Clarke notes, “that Tibet preserved, until the mid-twentieth century an extraordinary Buddhist culture very little affected by western technology or thought.”
Tibet: Caught in Time presents a unique window into this culture, through a selection of photographs taken by two British diplomats – John Claude White and Sir Charles Bell, who both held the post of Political Officer in Sikkim, situated at the borders of Tibet, in the early twentieth century. The book is divided into multiple chapters that focus on various facets of life in Tibet at the time, from climate, trade and architecture to nobility and government – which though extremely informative and in instances particularly illuminating—such as the chapter on religion—is rather dry and reflects a more scholarly approach (in contrast to a storyteller’s approach). It is the photographs that really bring to life the world described in the text, providing the reader with a tangible sense of Tibet’s historical reality and cultural context. Though meant to be the highlight of the book, the photographs are somewhat let down by its design that unfortunately often uses them as illustrative, rather than as stand alone documents. That said, the detailed captions provided with the photographs in this book are commendable, providing context and additional information that enriches the viewer’s experience and understanding of them. (And occasionally carrying references from the original photographers’ notes – with wry glimpses of humour, a delight to stumble upon.)
The earliest of the photographs in this book were taken while on a military expedition to Lhasa by White in 1903–1904, and include wonderful sweeping vistas that provide geographical context to his more intimate images of towns and people. However, it is Bell’s photographs that dominate, in both number and range, bringing to life people—peasants and performers, pilgrims and artisans, traders and religious figures, convicts and children—and everyday life in Tibet at the time.
While admirable for their historical value, these photographs also raise questions with respect to orientalism and the complex issue of outsiders photographing secluded societies. Though Tibet was never actually an English colony, these photographs provide an opportunity to widen the axis of postcolonial theory and photography. At the same time, the book’s brief description of Bell as going “further than any other British official of his time in accommodating Tibetan culture” by speaking fluent Tibetan, adhering to Tibetan customs and showing due respect for Buddhism, alongside his befriending of the Dalai Lama, problematises any simplistic notions of ‘colonial photography’ or unilateral power relations, drawing attention instead to several individuals of the empire whose cultural encounters were informed by genuine interest and scholarly pursuits. In fact, as Dr. Clarke informs us, Bell—significantly—was regarded by several Tibetans in a different light from that of his English peers, with one Lhasa official writing to the Dalai Lama, “When a European is with us Tibetans I feel that he is a European and we are Tibetans; but when Lonchen [Great Minister] Bell is with us, I feel that we are all Tibetans together.” Even without the foreknowledge of the respect he engendered from Tibetans, Bell’s photographs (and others from his archive, perhaps taken by Rabden Lepcha, one of his Sikkimese orderlies credited to have taken several photographs during his Lhasa mission by Bell in The People of Tibet) show an honest empathy towards their subjects, not presenting them merely as ethnographic types, but as people in their own time and place.
Tibet: Caught in Time is therefore not only a book for those interested in Tibet, history and cultural knowledge, it is also a great book for the photography enthusiast, featuring wonderful artistic gems in its vintage selection—White’s panorama being a wonderful example of the considerable skill involved in the creation of several of these images—that remarkably invoke and underscore the Tibetan spirit, which as the book’s introduction notes, stems from, among other factors, “a happiness based more on being than acquiring.”