Proving the Existence and Power of the Human Spirit
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
• 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
• 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
Please tell friends.