Marieke ten Wolde's blog

Documentary photography, and other things interesting enough to bother you with

Big Brother in Lhasa

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big brother6
Lhasa (Near Chakpori hill with CCTV camera looking down on the Linkhor, the pilgrim’s path around the Potala palace and Yokhang temple)

One of the commenters on my photo series on the New York Times Lens blog said that the obvious was missing:

I’m surprised there is no mention of what is obviously missing from this photographic essay. When my family visited Tibet two years ago we were told NEVER to take pictures of the sizable and ubiquitous Chinese military presence. Everywhere we went the Chinese authorities glared at us from rooftops, checkpoints, installations, and their regular units of street patrols. Aiming the camera at them would result in certain confiscation of your device.

That’s an interesting observation but first of all I think a distinction should be made between Lhasa and surroundings (where indeed most the western tourists are going), and the greater Tibetan area including Kham and Amdo in the Sichuan and Qinghai provinces. Until recently the omnipresence of the police, the army and surveillance camera’s was mostly felt in the Tibetan quarter in Lhasa, outside the Tibetan quarter and away from the well-known monasteries, that presence is less obvious and less in your face. This is one of the reasons I prefer visiting these other area’s. But recently the army presence has been stepped up in many places, the amount of army trucks I saw going into the Sichuan area’s of Tibet in February and April of this year was staggering and very worrying.

I am not sure if cameras from tourists are being confiscated, I have only once been asked to wipe some images but that was in the train, no idea why I could not take some silly pictures there, and no one ever threatened to take my gear.

The ways to control the tourists are more subtle than that. Westerners are not allowed to enter the TAR without a special permit and in Lhasa one is not allowed to walk around without a guide. That guide is held responsible for everything the (group of) tourists do. So if a tourist were to take pictures of the army, which nowadays would certainly not be appreciated, that would have an immediate repercussion on the guide, the guide’s organization and the travel agency that brought the tourist to Lhasa. So to protect the travel organization and (Tibetan) guide most people would behave as expected of them.

That combined with the Chinese authorities restricting access and controlling communications in the areas where there is unrest explains the general lack of army pictures.

And with regards to my photos, that is easy: I hold the very simple rule not to shoot people holding a gun. I am simply not that type of photographer. But especially for people interested in security cameras and army trucks I dug up some shots.

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Army convoy passing through a village in Kham (Sichuan) early in the morning

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Written by Marieke ten Wolde

December 14, 2012 at 11:00

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