Spotlight: Portraits from Bhutan

POSTED: Monday, November 13, 2017

 

 

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Following a year in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, British documentary photographer AJ Heath is celebrating the release of his first solo book Way of Harmony: Portraits from Bhutan. Driven by a desire to document life in the last Shangri-La AJ’s travels took him high into the eastern Himalayas - 2,300 meters, to be exact - where he lived with a group of semi nomadic yak herders, visited the kingdoms national stadium (where he became the FIFA photographer at the Bhutan v Sir Lanka World Cup Qualifying match), and to the capitals hippest hang-out Space 34. 

 

With a stunning series of images, AJ shares his unique insight into the globalisation of Bhutan through millennial culture, and the fascinating clash of clothing he found on it’s streets. We turn the spotlight on the man behind the lens to find out more…

 

What inspired you to move to Bhutan & set up a Studio there?

 

I first traveled to Bhutan in January 2015, a dream assignment for any photographer. My family had connections with the country, as my grandfather’s business partner was a great friend of Dasho Lhendup (Lenny) Dorji, uncle to the Fourth King of Bhutan. Having grown up hearing stories of the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’, when my then partner’s work presented the opportunity to travel to Bhutan, we jumped at the chance.

 

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I was extremely fortunate to call Thimphu home for a year and this allowed me to really get under the skin of the city. I spent a lot of time photographing the younger generations and was intrigued to hear what it was like growing up in modern Bhutan. The youth culture grabbed my attention because it is so polarised against the traditional Buddhist way of life and I quickly came to realize that this would be the angle of Bhutanese life I wanted to capture.

 

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Like many developing countries around the world, Bhutan is battling to preserve its cultural heritage against the onslaught of globalisation and this conflict could not be more evident than in the clothing people are wearing. There is a fascinating visual clash of clothing (traditional dress versus western / modern clothing) that people chose to wear on the streets. Clothes shops in Thimphu are now stocked full of fake western brands that the kids want to wear but up until reasonable recently by law they had to wear traditional dress, (Gho’s for men and Kira’s for women) at all times.

 

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During the 1980’s the government of Bhutan was concerned about it’s loss of national identity, so in attempt to protect it, they introduced a series of laws, which governed how citizens should dress in public. This meant Bhutan became the only nation in the world to enforce a dress code on both men and women, violation of the law would result in a week’s imprisonment or a fine. This law has softened in recent years and now national dress is only required during business hours or when visiting a government building, monastery, school or other formal institution.

 

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It seemed to me that nowadays the older generations were still happy to wear their Gho’s and Kira’s at all times but the younger generations chose to wear western style clothing.

 

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Keen to document this clash of styles, I set up a small, outside studio near the main square of Thimphu, encouraging members of the general public to have their portraits taken. Over the course of three weekends, I photographed over 150 people, recording their personal details (name, age, occupation), what made them happy and what made them feel Bhutanese.

 

Regrettably, the notebook that contained this additional information was lost. In an attempt to resurrect the project, I reverted to social media to track down the subjects. I had a surprising response to my Facebook search. Out of the 150 odd people I had photographed, I regained contact with almost 70%. The Facebook conversations that ensued add further depth to the portraits and capture an intriguing moment of transition in this most beguiling country.

 

We’d love to know more about life in Bhutan, was it as you expected?

 

I could write pages & pages on this..!! Bhutan possesses an incredibly unique culture and stunning landscapes. It is a truly magical place to have lived. But living there was also a lot tougher than I had anticipated and at times felt very isolating.

 

Living at over 2,300 meters presented multiple challenges not least the weather. Bhutan ranges between stifling Himalayan summers, freezing cold winters and monsoon rains (end of June to late September). I arrived at the height of the Bhutanese winter to accommodation, which had poor insulation and no central heating, meaning I regularly went to bed wearing thermals, my wooly hat and my North Face artic jacket.

 

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Being a Buddhist nation, I fully expected to be a vegetarian for the year, especially since abattoirs and slaughterhouses are banned from operating within the country. However, it transpired the Bhutanese love eating meat, particularly pork, which is imported from neighbouring India.

 

I knew Bhutan was not renowned for its quality of food. The Bhutanese love chilies, forming the main ingredient for many of their dishes and in some cases are even used as vegetables. There was one ‘modern’ supermarket in Thimphu but it had limited stock and imported goods were very expensive. I did most of my weekly shop in the main fruit & vegetable market.

 

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One of the most surprising revelations was the controlling nature of the government. There were moments I felt I was living in a police state, which I elaborate on in the book.

 

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I had some truly wonderful experiences whilst living in Bhutan. From living with semi nomadic yak herders high up in the Himalayas of eastern Bhutan, to photographing the incredible dances the monks perform at the Punakha and Thimphu Tshechus, and then the contrast of being a FIFA photographer at the Bhutan v Sir Lanka World Cup Qualifying match in Bhutan’s national stadium.

 

What does the term ‘documentary photographer’ mean to you?

 

In simplistic term, I’m a storyteller and use images to deepen the viewer’s understanding and emotional connection to the story. Documentary photography follows a single topic or story in-depth over time, as opposed to photojournalism’s real-time coverage of breaking news and events. It is a style of photography that provides a straightforward and accurate representation of people, places, objects and events.

 

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Many interviews with photographers focus on process, but we’re interested in your intent…what did you hope to reveal or disclose with your project before you left for Bhutan?

 

Landlocked between the economic superpowers of India and China, Bhutan provides a fascinating case study for the effects of globalisation and indeed the self-conscious resistance to this same global change. My goal was to document this.

 

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The health of Bhutan’s economy is measured in terms of a Gross National Happiness Index, which has led many to believe it is the happiest country in the world. It is also sometimes described as the last Shangri-La. However, when I arrived in the country, I found a young democracy battling many of the same social issues we have come to expect from developing countries all over the world.

 

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country with so many contrasts. The divide between the rich and poor is far reaching, the recent influx of development in the cities has sped up the rate of the rural-urban migration and the difference in living standards between village and city life is stark. There is even a contrast between the West of the country and the East. Some Eastern parts have missed out on the mainstream development, which the rest of the country has benefited from. But the most striking contrast was the traditional Buddhist way of life versus the modern world the millennial generation was now growing up in.

 

I hope Way of Harmony, portrays a true and honest reflection of Bhutanese society in 2015, whilst giving an insight into a fledging democracy as it battles against the pitfalls of globalisation.

  

Did your objectives change once you were there? If so, why?

 

Yes, most definitely. I went with a preconceived list of potential projects under the assumption that I would be living in the ‘last Shangri-La.’ However, modern Bhutan was not as I had expected and red tape meant a lot of what I had planned to photograph was denied or blocked by bureaucracy.

 

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I remember my first night out in Thimphu ended in a basement nightclub called Space 34. I entered down a grotty stairwell, with red stains of Doma (Betel nut) splattered on the walls and floor to be met by a fully kitted out nightclub complete with lasers, smoke machines, a western dressed crowd and a DJ especially flown in from Bangkok. This contrast was totally unexpected, the modern world millennial generation was at odds with the traditional preconceptions I had arrived with. I knew I had to find a way to document the evolution of Bhutan’s cultural identity.

 

Other documentary projects of yours including the Royal Wedding, Foreign Fields and Uganda’s Moonshine Epidemic chronicle events and aspects of a life usually inaccessible to the masses; what is it about exploring, uncovering and sharing the unknown that motivates you?

 

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Those three are very different projects and I’m not sure there is one common thread. Initially I try to find stories, which interest me, or causes that I feel passionate about and go from there.

 

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After I left university, I worked for 8 years for large commercial property company in Central London. I remember looking around the open plan office at the 50+ year old workers and thinking that having a desk job for the next 25 years was never going to be for me. It was then I knew I had to follow my dream and become a documentary photographer.

 

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I am lucky that my job is my passion. I relish in highlighting otherwise unknown stories or important issues to the general public. I am fortunate that my job has taken me to some extraordinary places and I have met some truly wonderful people. It always amazes me that those with the least are often the most generous.

 

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 What has been your most inspiring encounter since you began your photographic journey?

 

Wow that’s a tough one. It is impossible to choose between some incredible assignments.

 

I have always been fascinated by the natural world. My first proper photo trip was to the Congo to photograph the Mountain Gorillas, a truly incredible experience and that trip certainly helped inspire me to become a professional photographer.

 

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My first proper photojournalistic assignment overseas was to Afghanistan. Having grown up fixated by war and war photography, in March 2010 I was given the opportunity to spend three weeks embedded with the Coldstream Guards on Herrick 11, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. I found the experience very humbling and it gave me a true insight into the harrowing realities of war.

 

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What do you think makes a great photo?

 

Being able to communicating with the viewer is key. Most often photographs that really touch me are images that depict the emotions of their subjects and images that give a feeling of insight, freezing a moment in that person's life.

 

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Who inspires you, and how did they influence your thinking, photography and career?

 

The one single image that inspired me the most was probably Steve Mccurry’s Afghan girl’ shot. I loved looking through National Geographic and the photographs inside fuelled my curiosity of the world, igniting my desire to travel. Their documentary style of photography resonated with me. I was always drawn towards picture stories, it is the age old saying, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’!

 

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I was also fascinated by war, especially black and white photography from the Vietnam war and loved looking at the ‘old school’ photojournalist articles in Life, the Sunday Times Magazine, Time etc so I have always greatly admired Don Mccullin’s, Larry Burrows and the like.

 

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I also loved Sebastiao Salgado’s work, especially Exodus & Workers.

 

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Now your back in London, what’s next?

 

I am currently looking for a publisher to collaborate with on a second body of work from Bhutan. This next book elaborates on several of the themes touched on in Way of Harmony and spoken about above, particularly the impacts of globalisation on the Kingdom of Bhutan.

 

I am also researching two further long term projects one in Kenya and another in the Highlands of Scotland.

 

Way of Harmony: Portraits from Bhutan by AJ Heath is available now for £30 from www.ajheathphotography.com, and other online retailers.