We recently had the pleasure of meeting Tsering Topgyal in London whilst he was visiting the UK as a finalist of The Photography Show’s under 30 category.
With the help of the Central Tibetan Administration, Tsering is now in New York attending the New York Times’ Portfolio Review. It is very exciting times for Tsering, but it hasn’t always been that way. Tsering fled Tibet when he was 8. His parents sent him to make a month-long journey on foot across the Himalayas, hoping that he would have a better life in India.
“Many foreigners do stories about Tibet, but as a Tibetan I feel it and see it from a different angle”
Now he uses his camera to raise awareness of the realities of being a Tibetan living in exile. All his subjects, like many other exiled Tibetans, have been separated from parents from a young age and most never really have the chance to see them again. His photos are a powerful and moving reminder of the human impact of a people’s own country being invaded and repressed, and the desperate actions Tibetans will take for the freedom to display their flag, speak their language and learn their religion.
Tsering’s interest in photography began at the age of 12 when he was still studying at Tibetan Children’s Village. One student from each class was chosen by ballot to join an after school photography club and Tsering was one of the lucky ones to be chosen! He loved learning all about photography and cameras and a lifelong passion was born. A friend of his teacher who ran a photography studio in Dharamsala became a mentor to young Tsering. Even though Tsering loved photography, he never thought it was an option for him to become a professional photographer. He studied English at university but his passion for photography remained and after graduation he managed to secure an internship and later a job with the Associated Press in Delhi, with the help of his mentor.
Now Tsering finds himself in a great position to tell the story of Tibetans like himself to the world – through Tibetan eyes. As Tsering says, “many foreigners do stories about Tibet, but as a Tibetan I feel it and see it from a different angle”.
His 2014 project Contemporary Issues is a study of his Tibetan peers in India. The inspiration for this project came from seeing other Indian families out together or sitting in the park:
“It makes me think about family when I see families going together, like sitting in a park eating lunch. It makes me wonder and think about my parents.”
With Contemporary Issues, Tsering presents snapshots of what life is like as a Tibetan refugee. What are thoughts of home like? Is the guilt of not missing your family worse than the sadness of missing them? Which mementos of home are most cherished? Not an easy task when some of the subjects of his work are too scared to even show their faces:
“It is easy to find people to photograph mostly in Delhi and Dharamsala but difficult to convince them [to be photographed] because they fear of bad outcomes of what could happen to their family and friends [if they are talking to the press].”
After 18 years in India, Tsering rarely speaks to his own family who are all still in Tibet. “Last time I called my mother she said she misses me, otherwise she doesn’t remember, so I don’t call her so she doesn’t get upset”.
Tsering would love to go back to Tibet to photograph everyday scenes of rural life and customs before they are lost forever:
“Tibet is changing so fast, I want to document what it is like now”.
However, as a journalist, Tsering is aware that this probably won’t be possible. If he did return, he would be monitored constantly as would any friends and family he visited and he fears the repercussions his visit could have for them.