Tibetan Photo Project:
Proving the Existence and Power of the Human Spirit

Compiled by Lisa Norman, material provided by Joe Mickey

Amidst struggle the likes of war and oppression, finding purpose beyond the climate of chaos shows admirable strength. For some, their path has been inherited and may spiral down. For others, a nobler path has been chosen and an upward journey unfolds. The ripeness for change comes in time and only those who are truly ready will feel the shift.

Joe Mickey has been a photographer for over thirty years. He is a local resident of Fort Bragg and his most recent and rewarding endeavor has been The Tibetan Photo Project.

“For myself, this is simply the most important thing I have done. Just finding something this important is a gift,” says Mickey.

Overview of Tibet and China
• China’s takeover of Tibet began in 1949.

• Beijing’s brutal policies remain intact. In a population of six million Tibetans, Chinese government forces have caused the deaths of 1.2 million Tibetans by execution, torture, starvation, forced labor and imprisonment. Of six thousand monasteries only thirteen remain.

• In 1989 the exiled leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize. He accepted it on behalf of the Tibetan people and their efforts to find a peaceful solution to China’s brutal occupation of Tibet. The Dalai Lama was among the first with a thirty thousand-dollar donation to victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York. The complete text of his letter to President Bush on the attack on the World Trade Center can be found at www.tibet.com.

• Over 135,000 Tibetans live in exile with between fifteen hundred and thirty-five hundred escaping into Nepal and India each year.

• Tibet’s exile community offers great insight into the nature of the Chinese leaders at a time when Beijing’s role on the stage of world events is expanding rapidly.

The Purpose of The Tibetan Photo Project
The goal of The Tibetan Photo Project has always been to create a voice from the Tibetans themselves. Sazzy Lee Varga and Joe Mickey knew that there were thousands of books, portfolios, films and exhibits on the Tibetans but all from the perspective of the Western eye. There was no organized collection of images or films from the Tibetans themselves.

How The Tibetan Photo Project Started
Joe Mickey and Sazzy Lee Varga’s contact with the Tibetan monks began on the Mendocino stop of their 2000 American cultural tour. Mickey was granted the privilege of a photo-op and an interview with a Lama.
At that time, Mickey was beginning a great deal of research on the Tibetan accusations of abuse at the hands of the Chinese government. In Tears of Blood—A Cry for Tibet by Mary Craig and In Exile From the Land of Snows by John Avedon, he had read the accounts of terrible atrocities suffered at the hands of the Chinese government forces told by Tibetans who had escaped to India.

The follow-up research consisted of reviewing news from major media sources in print, broadcast and on the Web. Mickey wanted to sort out any Tibetan propaganda from the facts. Mickey developed a hard copy file that numbers about five thousand articles. They cover all aspects of recent developments in China.

With regards to the Tibetans, the file confirms the claims of horrific methods regularly employed by the Chinese government. China officially labels torture as “Reeducation”. Beijing labels accounts of torture “the propaganda of splittists” and “internal matters”, and of no concern for the international community.

During Mickey’s meeting with the Tibetans he was introduced to a sponsorship program for Tibetan monks living in one of the Buddhist monasteries they have recreated in India.

He sends a small monthly amount (to a cause that he thoroughly researched) and he enjoys a slow but rewarding correspondence with Jam Yang Norbu.

There was no instant messenger or e-mail. This endeavor was all handled by regular mail.

When letters arrive in India they wait at the monastery for available translators.

Norbu responded in an original Tibetan script that he gave the translators and it is eventually typed up on a manual typewriter and sent to Mickey. The process of a single communication cycle can easily take six to ten weeks.

Mickey immediately began to package up point-and-shoot cameras and added the basics—rules of good photography—to his letters. From Jam Yang Norbu he learned that the camera was a new concept for Tibetans dedicated to rebuilding and preserving their culture.

The first roll of photos was processed in India and he received a set of prints. From the start, Jamyang Norbu and his friends paid great attention to the basic lessons in photography and produced a series of well-lit but posed images.

On the receiving end, this was still, nothing less than a magic view into another world. More importantly, the view was not being provided by an outsider looking in through a lens and preconceived notions. Mickey and Varga were being given the vantage point from the inside.

They immediately sent a small flood of cameras and film and in correspondence they discussed how photography could be used as a tool in the Tibetans’ efforts to preserve Tibetan culture if Norbu could record his friends living that culture on film. Again, the monks have paid very good attention and Mickey and Varga feel they have been given the gift of rare glimpses into the lives of some of the twenty-five hundred monks of the Drepung Monastery.

What has been revealed in the photos and the letters is a dedicated group of men living and struggling and very often laughing through lives that have very few needs or desires. They work with complete dedication to preserve the best of Tibetan culture.

Varga, a model, director and actress also fits Web design into her busy schedule and she set up The Tibetan Photo Project Website. She also sponsors a Tibetan child, Tenchoe, in Dharamsala, India.

Save Tibet… Why?
Left in the dust of the human race are but tiny remnants of tattered cultures trying desperately to hold on to the keys that unlock the great mysteries of life.

Did the American Indians understand things that we will never know? And what of the Aborigines of Australia? Did one ever find proof of the existence of the human soul while on a walkabout?

One of these keys also belongs to the Tibetans.

The concept that solutions to the ills of the world lie within the content and quality of each individual’s heart are now lost on the “me” generation.

Bigger weapons, faster computers and wireless technology are the answers and things have become the gods. More money, more power, more...that is the new sound of Om, the new amen, the new shalom.

“Free Tibet” is a cause that has risen on the world stage to the level of the Nobel Peace prize for the Dalai Lama in 1989.

For most who know their plight of human annihilation and cultural desecration by the Chinese over the past 50 years, the soul of Tibet is embodied in the Dalai Lama. Every Tibetan seems to contain a portion of that soul.

While life holds little mystery, those who have come in personal contact with the Dalai Lama can at least recognize that his gentle presence is powerfully felt—like a mystery of life.

To the ingrained Judeo-Christian sensibilities of the West, in its understanding of the Tibetan cause, the Dalai Lama is ironically seen as the symbolic representation of Tibet’s soul. Ironic because Tibetan Buddhism does not recognize the existence of a permanent human soul, but rather a transitory spirit trying to find its way to being nothing more than truth.

What is it about the Save Tibet effort that seems to maintain a hold on the one element of human nature that we cannot define in DNA or through technology?

Why will the concept of saving Tibet not stop nagging at the collective conscience? A Tibetan monk, when asked what he thought was in it for those in the West who were trying to help Tibet, said there is nothing in it for us, except that it is right. When asked about becoming a Buddhist, one Lama answered that religion should be a choice that follows one’s own tradition. A person should pick a religion that matches their nature because religion is there to make people better.

China is rising on the world stage as a military and economic force. China could save Tibet with a slight change in policy and in doing so it would rise above all other great nations. Their current path is to gut the Tibetan culture, while leaving a corpse dressed up to attract tourist dollars as a sort of Tibetan amusement park. Parading the image of the Tibetan culture will undoubtedly part of the propaganda gained when China presents the 2008 Olympics.

But realistically, there will be no great change coming from China. That leaves it to us to do what ever we can, large or small, to help the Tibetans save their culture. Individually we will gain nothing from the effort, but in saving Tibet we prove the existence and power of the human spirit.

—Joe Mickey, Co-Founder of The Tibetan Photo Project

Starting with just a few disposable cameras, the project has evolved into two traveling exhibits, the first created by Centenary College and the second by Antioch College. The exhibits have been shown in six American communities. A version of the exhibits has also been presented in Belgium. The exhibits also include a rare collection of 1932 photos of Tibet that were donated to the project following an article by San Francisco Chronicle Art Critic, Kenneth Baker. Bookings for the exhibit can be made by contacting The Tibetan Photo Project at tibetanphotoproject@hotmail.com

Growing the Voice of the Tibetans
By reporting on photographs by the Tibetans, the combined American print circulation is twenty-six million and growing. Parade Magazine reported to sixteen million readers that the works by the monks living in exile was “Rewarding.”

The Tibetan Photo Project has been has been linked across the Web and featured on Louisiana Public Broadcasting and in radio interviews in the United States and Canada.

In 2005, Varga and Mickey produced the first Tibetan directed and photographed film by Tenzin Wangden Andrutsang, Voices in Exile. While they supplied the funds, the film is 100 percent Tibetan and follows the only requirement the two have asked from the Tibetans, “Show us what you feel the West needs to know,” is the only direction that Mickey and Varga give to the Tibetans.

Not having the full amount of funds to dive into a second film in 2006, Mickey traveled to India and had all of the Tibetan photographers only known by e-mail direct his filming for a documentary on the project. Mickey filmed in Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj, home of the Tibetan Government in Exile, as well as in the Tibetan community in Delhi and in the restricted area of a Tibetan colony in southern India to produce Visually and Respectfully Yours—The Story of The Tibetan Photo Project.

Both films are offered on DVD and preview clips can be found on over a dozen video sites such as YouTube on the Web. In the first three months of postings the clips had over 110,000 views. For more on the media coverage of the Tibetan Photo Project www.tibetanphotoproject.com/media.html

The College and University Connection
Mickey and Varga offer slide shows and lectures and have presented programs at the invitation of Duke University in North Carolina, Colorado College and University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Mendocino College, Remington College, Antioch College and University in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Yellow Springs Ohio and Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Additionally, these presentations have been offered through business and community organizations interested in understanding the nature of China’s leadership though Tibet’s modern and brutal history with China over the past fifty years.

Art centers have also booked presentations because of the power of the image demonstrated by the photos taken by the Tibetans.

For more on exhibits and a schedule of events and screenings www.tibetanphotoproject.com/ExhibitsPresentations.html

Future Goals
The next step for The Tibetan Photo Project is to establish three of The Tibetan Photo Project Filmmaker Education Centers in India. The first will be in the area of the Tibetan Government in Exile, the second in a colony in southern India and the third in the Tibetan community in Delhi. “Most recently, I have been filming interviews with Tibetans in America,” says Mickey. “In India, even if they were born there as second or third generation Tibetans in exile, their refugee status require that they register every year and therefore stability is always at risk for Tibetans in India.

“We have also been getting information on a situation that is deteriorating for Tibetans in Nepal.”

Mickey reflects on the project’s development over time. “The project has found its own way since 2000. When you look at something like this, you realize that there is a book, a film, exhibits and given that we work from our own wallet, making it a begging-bowl production we have found our way to the exhibits and films and with the Internet as a key tool we just keep trying to push it forward, one step at a time—for example, the first exhibit was created by Centenary College in Louisiana after e-mailing introductions to three hundred museums.

“Our ultimate goal is to make this completely Tibetan. This is the best guarantee the project will continue . Our focus at this point is on the development of The Tibetan Photo Project Filmmaker Education Centers in India and then we will turn the entire project over to a team of Tibetans.”

For more on these goals www.tibetanphotoproject.com/build_education_center.html

Challenges Ahead
Mickey recognizes, “The Tibetans are facing a huge struggle to save their culture and with China growing, its becoming more and more difficult because China is able to exert the pressure of economics.

“In America, the Tibetan Dalai Lama, will be presented with America’s highest honor. In October, he will be given the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor which requires a vote of congress and the signature of the President. This was accomplished by The International Campaign for Tibet. For our part, we are sending an eight-minute DVD to all hundred senators. Save Tibet… Why? is the final sequence of our film and the script has also appeared as an Op-ed in several publications in the United States and across the Web.

“Through the Web and with exhibits, films, lectures and most importantly press such as this, The Project is a vehicle that can educate.

“Most of the Tibetans living in exile are in India where we are concentrating our efforts. Most have limited access to the Internet, but we are contacted all the time. In fact, most of what has been accomplished by the Tibetans in India has been organized via e-mail and the Web.”

A Rewarding Journey
Despite challenges in the process, Mickey is optimistic in his review. “We have certainly learned a great deal about the nature of China’s leadership and we have been invited to speak at colleges and universities in California, Colorado, Louisiana and most recently Duke University.

“Personally, after the first documentary Voices in Exile was produced by Tenzin Wangden Andrugsang, the project led me to India. I traveled for six weeks across this amazing country while the Tibetans we had been working with for up to six years, directed me in the filming of Visually and Respectfully Yours—The Story of The Tibetan Photo Project. That trip, which was in the hands of my Tibetan hosts was as amazing as life gets. It was a street-level view with none of the gloss or blur of a prearranged tour.”

I ask Mickey to share his perspective with those soon to be traveling to China from Fort Bragg this year,
subtleties that may be overlooked.

“China is the greatest financial and military challenge the West will face in modern time. People should make no mistake, on a tour of this size (I understand there are a couple hundred people going), they will be shown what the Chinese Government wants them to see. We hear about government control of trips quite regularly from tourists into Tibet.

“But it is very important that as many Westerners as possible make an attempt to understand China and see past the tour.

Understanding comes at a cost. Western exchange also finances China’s one-party authoritarian government and that in turns finances China’s ability to do huge deals that finance many of the world’s worst dictators. So, if I could offer any advice, go to learn and as best as possible, keep your wallet closed. If at all possible, try to get away from the tour and on the streets,” says Mickey.

Belief in any religion is a matter of personal temperament and life history. At best I classify myself as a skeptical agnostic. Tibetan Buddhism is based in a moderate or balanced form of the practice. Studies have shown that elements of Tibetan Buddhist mind training, meditation and prayer and Tibetan medicines offer the potential for better mental and physical health. What has captured my interest in the Tibetan struggle is the injustice of China’s occupation of Tibet. The strength of their peaceful struggle holds a mirror for the world to see the reflection of the brutal nature of the leadership in Beijing.

Over the past two years China has grown its economy between 7 and 8 percent. Over the same period, Beijing has increased military spending at 12 and 17. China is at the manufacturing end of the supply line for many weapons purchased by countries that support terrorism.

Tibetans are not all pacifists. Many would be happy to regain Tibet by force, and while not a realistic possibility, that option for a solution is as much a part of their collective thought as any other group of oppressed people. But through my research and contact with Jam Yang Norbu, I have also discovered the power of peaceful resolve of the human spirit that can only be found in rare and great people, past and present.

Beyond the myths of Shangri-La, their culture and history has all the human flaws but, as Tibetans stand at the edge of a violent forced extinction, they have not given up the search for the soul, heart and true purpose behind the gift of human existence. History says they will prevail. Over 2,500 years, kingdoms, nations, and dynasties have fallen, while the simple monks have walked a continuous path through the changing centuries. My conclusion which has grown stronger in light of recent events, We certainly need their examples more than they need ours.

—Visually and Respectfully, Joe Mickey and Sazzy Varga,
founders of The Tibetan Photo Project

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