One bummer about not understanding the language of one’s hosts is that often I have no idea of plans that are in the making, and changes in those plans (of which I am oblivious) are even more rarely communicated. On the day of our departure, I was under the impression that our bus left from Labrang for Lanzhou at noon. There was very little sleep for me because, of course, I had that disturbed repose one has when morning tasks before departure are many. My bed can’t be dissembled (and hopefully aired out) till I arise. As it is the base layer for my packing, it is important to allow time for all that that entails. And, I want to wash my hair and the rest of myself as well as possible, too. Lots to do, you see.
Meanwhile Samtso is gone. She went early to pay her respects to the Mountain Gods in their special valley (two loads of garbage from Labrang arrived while she was prostrating. See The Dump). I managed to get most of my belongings together before her return, and even put my luggage out by the courtyard gate. Her blasé approach is unnerving. Then I discover we are not leaving til 3! The family, fully aware of the timetable, has resumed their daily tasks and are pretty much ignoring me. Visitors arrive, and chatting prevails. Samtso is with them and I am just hanging around the courtyard.
What I ultimately realize is that Samtso’s leaving is very hard on this close knit family. Her house in Shangri-La is so far away that they only see her once a year. Now, while she is in Pugdê Village, the house is filled with the joy of both her and Padrun. Everyone, especially her mom, is camouflaging their sadness at the impending departure by being gruff and busy. Unaware of the depth of the situation, I ask to make a picture of the family with me in it, as I have no photos of me in the village at all, let alone with them. The answer is “No, we are busy. She should have done that earlier.” Of course I accept their decision, but it is a bit of a sting. Then I get that they are suffering, their grief only thinly veiled.
Of interest on a curiousity level, very unlike before, not one person has asked to have a photo with me in it. I could be there or not, although it is very clear I am welcome. I am simply not part of their lives. They happily live around me. As we have no conversation, it is hard to see me as anything but an enigmatic presence, I am sure.
Which brings up another change in my Tibetan visits. Certainly in 2005 and I think in 2007, a visit to a villager by a Westerner brought prestige to the family. This I was told. But, now that outsiders are everywhere, and Westerners are a dime a dozen, this is no longer true. We can be a liability, as I mentioned in The Men’s Room. Another very significant shift is that very few people, be it in the village or in town, are OK with having their picture recorded. I get it actually. Being a curiosity myself has afforded me a new perspective. It is tiresome.
Ed Ross, a California Academy of Sciences entomologist and world traveler, made extraordinary images of people during his travels in the 1950’s through the 80’s. He would have lunchtime slide presentations at the museum for employees, where this gorgeous, intimate work was often summarily dismissed because he “paid the villagers he photographed.” This was said with great disdain, but it was how he gained entry into their lives. His subjects were not only cooperative, they were happy. I find this laudable. After all, we are using these images we make for some self oriented purpose, be it the joy of capture or paid assignment. Models can make a lot of money because there is really something about them that makes the image work. Why should we get to TAKE pictures of people, especially if we are going to use them? I realize this brings up some logistical issues, and I am not advocating that we all need to pay for our travel pictures. But there is something to respecting those who do not wish to participate in our documentary efforts.
Another thing: as I write about my photographic explorations, I find it disturbing that the terminology is so war oriented. Only a few artists create images, most of us take pictures, or capture an image, or shoot a subject. It is awkward to discuss a photo outing without such descriptions. How many times in a paragraph can one “create an image?” Anyway, I perceive I am gathering raw data. The image making comes later.
Well, our delay has its benefits. Something has just happened and the family is now in the courtyard awaiting the creation of the final photograph, the one with me in it. Goody. Also, we have time for a nice meal, and I get to take a last pass around the village. The chained guard dogs get their final lunge, and I have the great fortune of seeing one of the “jumping girls” from my first visit. She lets me take another picture, and I am please to have a recent image of her.
I also have time to put Neosporin in my little dog-pal’s eyes, and give him one last scratch. He is a sweet guy.
Thank you. And that is it. We leave Fudi Village.
No emotional good-byes, but I can see Samtso’s departure is very hard for everyone, especially her Mom. I want to tell Tse Dai Kyi that she has done a magnificent job raising her family, thinking that would be a true and nice thing to say to a mother. But Samtso cannot get the words out. She, too, is barely holding it together.