1999 saw two valuable additions to the library of Tibet literature; Tsering Shakya's first-class Dragon in the Land of Snows
is now followed by The Tibetans
, an attractively produced monograph by photojournalist Steve Lehman, who brought images of the pro-independence demonstrations in 1987 to the world's attention. Both are united in their desire to reclaim a sense of Tibetan consciousness from the romantic myth that has come to enshroud their cause. Both deal with a people rather than a concept.
Lehman's pictures yield few surprises, but are well composed and selected judiciously. He breaks up the flow of aesthetic with montage and the blurred capture of agitation, with most frames having a scribbled sentence or paragraph to provide context (though on occasion infuriatingly spiralled around it). This almost "soft sell" does more to drive home the poignancy of the people's plight under Chinese rule than sheaves of worthy prose tend to. Having said that, there is an achingly articulated oral history by a monk who was imprisoned after leading the 1987 demonstration and who now lives in India, and the book concludes with a thoughtful and well- argued essay by journalist Robbie Barnett. The truth seems to be too complicated to condense into a single answer, and both Barnett and Lehman argue that the efforts of high-profile Western celebrities, however well-intentioned, do little to help the cause of the Tibetans, and may actually turn out to work to their detriment.
What the West laments with Tibet is its own loss of innocence and spirituality, but while this sentiment is commendable, it does little to answer the demands of the people. The march of capitalism will inevitably capture the souls of Tibetans in a way Chinese indoctrination never succeeded, with junk food replacing the junk and prostitution supplanting procrastination. Lehman's book succeeds in redefining Tibetan culture in terms of a people rather than an archaic abstraction, while crucially recognising the need for it to evolve at the same time as maintaining a distinctive identity. It can provide no answers, but it does contribute to a rephrasing of the question. --David Vincent
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.