Photography appeared in my life with my first trip to Asia. In 1980, I set off for southern India equipped with the allocated 100 dollars, a Soviet Zenit E camera and a few rolls of ORWO slides purchased “under the counter” – like anything of value at that time. More photographs arrived with subsequent travels and filled albums with images from all around the world.
Though always improving in a technical sense, the photographs did not go beyond the convention of travel photography – I concentrated on the colourful, the exotic and the, by its nature, very superficial. Photographing people always interested me the most. However, the hundreds of pictures I took in all those continents were like a record of a sort of “human safari”. The photos documented the diversity of our kind at the most superficial level: appearance, clothing and expression. There was no attempt to go deeper, to question how people experience life and what story they have to tell us.
The awakening came, as usual, by surprise. Travelling in Bhutan around the typical tourist attractions, one day I arrived at a mountain monastery. It was a sunny day and there was a break in the prayers so, as ever on such occasions, the courtyard was crowded with monks. My attention was caught by a large group of small boys, more or less about seven years old. I had already seen children in monk’s robes at other Buddhist monasteries but here there was an unusually large amount of them and they were also younger than usual. The contrast between the childish faces and the seriousness of the monk’s robes naturally attracted attention. Instinctively, lured by the unusual quality of the situation, I decided to take a few pictures.
This was another tourist attraction and it had not only captured my interest. Before I managed to get any closer, the children were surrounded by a group of American pensioner tourists, and the whole customary ritual of tourists taking pictures of the local exotic attractions got under way.
The children, treated like colourful trophies, were grouped together for collective portraits, or acted as decorations for pictures of couples or patiently posed for individual pictures. Finally, they were given sweats or pens and then there was the appreciation of the hunt trophies in the camera screens as the group, clearly pleased with its consumption of another element of the local folklore, set off with their guide in search of further attractions. I had already seen many such scenes and had taken part in them myself. But this time I was struck by a dominant sense of absurdity, or rather one of depression and distaste.
Observing this short meeting between local children and a group of adults from my cultural sphere, I could not help wondering what their reaction would have been if the boys in monk’s robes had different features and skin colour. After all, they were themselves parents and grandparents. Would not they ask about those children’s lives, where their families were and if they were there of their own choosing? After all, we would normally find it shocking to see a seven- year-old in monk’s robes. The only explanation seemed to be that, by their “otherness”, these children had ceased to really be human in those tourists’ eyes. They had become no more than an exotic decorative elements in a photograph, not living, feeling human beings.
I lost the will to take any more photos. Instead, I felt a growing embarrassment at this total lack of elementary empathy that allows one to feel a common bond with another person, whether young or old. I felt I could not just turn around and leave and could not drive away questions about what their childhood was like in these extremely hard, rigorous conditions. Their lives would probably have been an intolerable nightmare for my children. Who had sent these children to this fate? Was it family, tradition or social situation? Did they have any kind of choice? These children’s fate suddenly became important for me at a personal level. I needed to understand and tell others their story.
I returned to the same place a year later. Thanks to a National Geographic letter of recommendation, I got journalist’s accreditation in Bhutan and clearance to take pictures for a report on child monks. This was not only a great challenge in the photographic sense, but above all an emotional one. I often laid aside the camera. More important at the time was providing medicine and medical help, or the purchase of paper and pencils to organise the first drawing lesson in their lives so they could draw their dreams. The photographs came along as if as an afterthought.
The vast majority of the children in the pictures are orphans for whom the monasteries had become the only family they could find in Bhutan. When I thought about naming them, I decided that, on having been abandoned by their parents, they had become “Buddha’s Children” in the monasteries. Persuaded by colleague photographers, I sent the pictures to the International Photography Awards in the USA, where they gained second prize in the photo journalism category.