Everyone's a photographer nowadays. Since cameras became digital and then morphed into phones, taking pictures has become as commonplace as making a telephone call. More does not necessarily mean better, however, and a free open-air exhibition about Tibet brings this point home.
A Photographic View of the Sacred Snowland (雪域聖境) "commemorates the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Tibet Autonomous Region" according to organizers from the China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture. They invited photographers from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and China to record their impressions of the land and its people.
Part of the "24-hour" series of exhibitions that began here in 2002, the photographers were on this occasion given a week to snap their shots, given that Tibet is so large and varied. The exhibition is also presented in an innovative way. Prints are displayed 24 hours a day in covered booths, at the Zhongshan Hall (中山堂) plaza.
The result is, as to be expected, a colorful collection of pictures. After all, Tibet provides an impressive canvas for the man (they all were) behind the lens to select, frame and capture arresting images. The question is: what separates a great photograph from snaps taken by tourists or even journalists?
Talking to passers-by yesterday some voiced the opinion that many of the photos appeared to be no different to National Geographic-type pictures we have seen before. There are the typical wide-angle views of the Himalayas and colored ribbons fluttering in the wind at Lhasa. There are also shots of tourists taking photos of historical sites.
A Leica-toting Lee Kun-yao (李方方土垚) wondered if the exhibition showed the "real Tibet," as opposed to what the Tibet tourism board would like us to see. "Maybe because I'm a photographer I'm expecting more of a vision rather than just common images," the bank worker said.
David Yuan, a visiting computer worker from Chicago, said a recent exhibition he visited showed off a side of southwestern China he had not been aware of and was therefore a revelation. "Photographic art," he said, "should not be like journalism. It should be more than that."
Many of the images in Sacred Snowland reinforce one's impressions of Tibet as a pristine and spiritual environment, rather than reveal a side of Tibet we have not seen before.
Examples of these kinds of pictures are those of Taiwan's top photographer Chung Yung-ho (鐘永和), whose works can be found in the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and elsewhere. His Tibet series of photos, however, did not stand out. They had a tourist's-eye view of the landscape and temples.
One of the advantages of this type of exhibition is that one can compare photographers. Most impressive, perhaps, was Chen Haiwen (陳海汶), from Shanghai. Perhaps he knows the region better, because his photos showed a deeper understanding and were works of art that no camera-phone tourist or visiting journalist could achieve. It takes time, expertise and impressive equipment to do this.
His shot of Sera Monastery has a wonderful coloration, with ruddy browns and a hundred shades of granite gray, as the dilapidated buildings merge into the mountainside. Sunlight dapples the mist and focuses in an orange light on two priests. Right time, right place, great subject and technical mastery make this an outstanding photo.
As for the setup of the exhibition, covered booths got a thumbs up from those who were asked and their 24-hour presence provides a great opportunity for anyone to view these photographs at all times of the day. Question to organizers: Why not provide lighting so they can be seen at night?
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