In 1977, as Americans searched for ways to cope with the residual anguish of the Vietnam War, twenty-five-year-old Don Farber began visiting the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles to photograph its refugee community and learn about their Buddhist traditions. He eventually published the photographs as a collection, along with text by Rick Fields, in Taking Refuge in L.A.: Life in a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple. Over the years, Farber continued to visit Buddhist communities in the United States and traveled to Buddhist countries throughout Asia, producing three more books of photographs. His iconic portraits of Tibetan masters, including early images of the Dalai Lama, have earned him a reputation as a preeminent photographer of living Buddhism. Last year, Farber published Living Wisdom With His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a multimedia box set that includes over four hundred images of the Dalai Lama spanning twenty-five years. This past spring Farber and his family visited Tricycle’s New York office, where we spoke about his three decades of Buddhist photography.
—Alexandra Kaloyanides, Senior Editor

Kalu Rinpoche, 1988. © Don Farber, buddhistphotos.com
Kalu Rinpoche, 1988. © Don Farber, buddhistphotos.com

 

When did you start taking portrait-style photographs of Tibetan masters? In 1988, I did a portrait of Kalu Rinpoche in New Mexico, a few months before he died. That picture became very special to his followers and went everywhere. At Kalu Rinpoche’s funeral in Darjeeling, I took a photo of two little monks that also became very well known. Right after the funeral, I rushed back to L.A. to photograph the Kalachakra given by the Dalai Lama in 1989. Two of the portraits I made of His Holiness then became classics, even icons. In fact, one of them is on thousands of pendants worn by people all over the world.

Yangsi Kalu Rinpoche, 1995. © Don Farber, buddhistphotos.com
Yangsi Kalu Rinpoche, 1995. © Don Farber, buddhistphotos.com

What is it about the portrait format that makes these images so powerful and popular?I’ve always loved great portraiture; whether it’s Rembrandt or Irving Penn, I’m moved by a great portrait. So if I can make one that moves me, maybe it’ll move other people. One powerful element of the portrait is having the subject against black, without any distractions. My photograph of Kalu Rinpoche from 1988 was the first one I did like that. It was a very sacred time because he was dying and we were surrounded by his disciples. Also, because this was my first formal portrait of a Buddhist master, I took it really seriously. I used all of the skills that I had developed doing corporate photography, and went all-out with studio lighting and a Hasselblad camera. When I was ready to shoot, I was looking through the camera and Kalu Rinpoche looked kind of distant, like he was in meditation. So I looked at him above the camera and tried to catch his attention. He seemed to understand what I was trying to say, and I got him beaming for the camera.

In Sogyal Rinpoche’s foreword to my book Portraits of Tibetan Buddhist Masters, he writes about traditional portrait sessions of Tibetan masters, about how the master would reveal the nature of mind in that moment sitting before the camera to benefit his students. The photos would then be used by the students in their practice. So this tradition had been going on long before I got involved.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, 1989. © Don Farber, buddhistphotos.com
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, 1989. © Don Farber, buddhistphotos.com
Vietnamese Monks in Los Angeles in 1977. © Don Farber, buddhistphotos.com
Vietnamese Monks in Los Angeles in 1977. © Don Farber, buddhistphotos.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1977, as Americans searched for ways to cope with the residual anguish of the Vietnam War, twenty-five-year-old Don Farber began visiting the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles to photograph its refugee community and learn about their Buddhist traditions. He eventually published the photographs as a collection, along with text by Rick Fields, in Taking Refuge in L.A.: Life in a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple. Over the years, Farber continued to visit Buddhist communities in the United States and traveled to Buddhist countries throughout Asia, producing three more books of photographs. His iconic portraits of Tibetan masters, including early images of the Dalai Lama, have earned him a reputation as a preeminent photographer of living Buddhism. Last year, Farber published Living Wisdom With His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a multimedia box set that includes over four hundred images of the Dalai Lama spanning twenty-five years. This past spring Farber and his family visited Tricycle’s New York office, where we spoke about his three decades of Buddhist photography.
—Alexandra Kaloyanides, Senior Editor


 

Ani Panchen, 1997. © Don Farber, buddhistphotos.com Image 2: Togden Amting, 1997. © Don Farber, buddhistphotos.com Image 3: Two young monks in Darjeeling in 1989. © Don Farber, buddhistphotos.com
Ani Panchen, 1997. © Don Farber, buddhistphotos.com
Image 2: Togden Amting, 1997. © Don Farber, buddhistphotos.com
Image 3: Two young monks in Darjeeling in 1989. © Don Farber, buddhistphotos.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In that book you have the portrait of Kalu Rinpoche, and across from it you have a portrait of the boy who has been recognized as his incarnation. What was it like to meet the young Yangsi Kalu Rinpoche? Let me give a little background first. Kalu Rinpoche’s funeral in 1988 was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen. The quality of the devotion of the disciples, the depth of their practice, their chanting, and the focus on his coming back and taking rebirth was remarkable. On the forty-ninth day of the funeral, his disciples were carrying his body in a box, preserved in salt, up the hill in a procession with horns and gongs and everything. And at that moment we saw this amazing halo around the sun. His disciples took this to mean that he’d entered the Pure Land and that the universe acknowledged his enlightenment.

When I met the young boy recognized as Kalu Rinpoche’s incarnation in L.A. in 1995, he tapped my belly as if to say, “Hey, you’ve put on weight.” I don’t know if he meant it that way; we’ll never know. But I hear that he’s really a remarkable young lama, that he’s in a three-year retreat, and all signs show that he’s developing as a great master in his own right. When I hear of or meet these young incarnate lamas who seem to have this brilliance, it just adds a sense of faith that this is the real thing, this reincarnation of masters.

So are you a committed Tibetan Buddhist practitioner? Yes, I am but I’ve also been a Zen practitioner since I got into Buddhism and this continues to be an integral part of my life and photography. Also, when I’m in Asia, I do the practice of the monastery where I’m staying and photographing—whether it’s a forest monastery in Thailand or a temple in Japan. Actually, I’ve received most of my teachings from the Dalai Lama because of all the time I’ve spent photographing him. It’s hard because I’m trying to listen to the teachings as I’m looking through the lens, so I don’t get to totally concentrate as I’d like to.

Do you feel as though your priority in those situations is to be more the photographer than the student? I don’t think of them as separate, but these days I’m more the student because now His Holiness wears a sun visor when he’s teaching and it’s just not very photogenic. So I get more time to take notes.

Much of your published photography is of the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan masters. Do you have many opportunities to photograph Western or other Buddhist teachers? I continue to photograph teachers from other traditions when I get a chance, but I guess photographing the Western teachers is one of the weaker points in my study. It’s something I’d like to do more of because they’re really pioneers. As I get older, I think more about documenting the elder Western and Asian teachers. I’ve been concentrating on the Tibetans because Tibetan Buddhism doesn’t have a country. The Japanese, the Thai, the Vietnamese, they all have countries with cultures that keep their traditions intact. Buddhists in Tibet have been severely persecuted by the Chinese government while Tibetans in exile have been preserving Buddhism in India, Nepal, and now in America and Europe. And so capturing the Tibetan Buddhist masters who are the last to have received their training in Tibet while it was a sovereign nation has been my priority. Another reason I’ve been concentrating on Tibetans is because, my wife, Yeshi, is Tibetan and has been my guide to the culture; I’m making a long-term study of Tibetan Buddhist life through the network of people we know. But there are also these great masters from other traditions who are really old and need to be photographed, so it’s something I hope to do more of.

When my first Buddhist teacher, Dr. Thich Thien-An, died from cancer, he was only 55. Having a close relationship with him and then experiencing the shock of his death taught me how precious these beings are. When you’re with an elder teacher, you know they’re not going to be around too long; they may be gone tomorrow. In the same way, when I’ve photographed Buddhist life in Asia, I know that, with the rapid changes in the world, these precious ways of life are also changing and being lost. So it has been a kind of mantra that I’ve had over the years—“Get it on film, get it on film.” ▼

 

 

 

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