The Tibetans
A Struggle to Survive
Steve Lehman Red Wheelbarrow/Umbrage:
New York, 1998
200 pp.; $45.00 (cloth)

For a photojournalist, one image must tell an entire story: A bombed-out house in Kosovo is the end of a cease-fire; a sad-eyed orphan in Africa is the AIDS epidemic there. In his new book of photographs, The Tibetans, award-winning photojournalist Steve Lehman expands the boundaries of his field. Throughout this groundbreaking book of photographs of the sad state of contemporary Tibet, the stories and voices of the individuals depicted are included whenever possible. Lehman’s point, echoed in a moving introduction by Harvard Sociology professor Robert Coles and an authoritative essay by Tibet specialist Robbie Barnett, is that Tibet’s story is best seen in the direct experience of its people, free of the veil of Western ideals and desires. Anyone who suspects they may be harboring any illusions about life in Tibet today would do well to take a look at these unsparing and often beautiful images.

Image 1: Chinese People's Armed Police photograph themselves in front of The Potala Palace, in Lhasa, Tibet. Courtesy Steve Lehman.
Image 1: Chinese People’s Armed Police photograph themselves in front of The Potala Palace, in Lhasa, Tibet. Courtesy Steve Lehman.

The Tibetans was ten years in the making. Lehman actually began his career in photojournalism in Lhasa when he stumbled onto the 1987 pro-independence uprising, the first reported act of organized resistance in Tibet since 1959. The shocking photographs that he captured of the violence there were smuggled out of the country and made the front pages of newspapers around the world. Lehman went on to cover conflicts in Rwanda, Burma, Chechnya, and China, among other places, but he traveled back to Tibet five times, spending a total of approximately two years there, always photographing.

The first section of The Tibetans explodes with the intensity that marked the unrest in Lhasa in 1987. A group of fearless and defiant young monks from the Sera Monastery wave homemade Tibetan flags as they initiate the first act of resistance. Subsequent photographs capture the chaos and violence that erupted five days later when 3,000 Tibetans rioted after the public beatings of other Sera monks. Ten died and forty were wounded in the disturbance: In one wrenching black-and-white photograph, an eight-year-old boy, shot in the back, is carried down the street by a stunned-looking man. From those initial events, Lehman followed the Tibetan independence movement closely. In 1997, he took a penetrating series of beautiful black-and-white portraits of ex-political prisoners in India, most of them clearly showing traces of pain in their eyes.

Image 2: A Tibetan street child in Lhasa with a photograph of the Dalai Lama. Courtesy Fosco Maraini.
Image 2: A Tibetan street child in Lhasa with a photograph of the Dalai Lama. Courtesy Fosco Maraini.

Lehman devotes the most space in the book to photographs that show the social, economic, and environmental havoc wrought by the Chinese in Tibet. The color images clearly reveal the awkwardness of these two very different cultures being unnaturally forced together. A Chinese armed policeman poses stiffly for a snapshot in a military plane in front of the Potala; another policeman’s hat is also the subject of this same picture in its eerie semblance to the curve of the Potala’s steps. In a related image, a Tibetan street child wears an oversized Chinese soldier’s hat as she proudly holds up a framed picture of the Dalai Lama in a Lhasa square. Sterile concrete apartment complexes show up in many of the pictures as the traditional Tibetan architecture is seen crumbling in the background. The final photograph of the section is of a putrid-looking garbage dump behind a military installation; the caption points out that it is “half a mile away from Sera Monastery.” It is clear where Lehman’s sympathies lie.

Although The Tibetans is not a Buddhist book per se, and Lehman is not Buddhist, he clearly understands the essence of the Buddhist teachings and the centrality of the religion to Tibetan culture. Next to a contact strip of color portraits of the Dalai Lama, Lehman has scribbled in marking pen: If there is one things to learn/observe from [the Dalai Lama], it is to be kind to every person that you meet—that is his power. He is truly compassionate.” And it is not by accident that the final section of the book shows images of Tibetan Buddhism flourishing both inside Tibet and in India—an affirming tribute to the endurance of the culture.

The Tibetans is beautifully designed but is not an easy read, and neither was it meant to be. Part of what’s admirable about Lehman’s effort is his willingness to make a loud political statement in the overcautious atmosphere of late 1990s American politics. The Tibetans asserts itself bravely on our coffee tables by saying, in eloquent words and pictures, that what is happening in Tibet is terribly wrong and that much more needs to be done about it.