Phil Borges went back to Tibet in 2009, with a plan to continue on the path he had been on. For the last several years, the Mercer Island-based photographer had been working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to photograph, film and highlight women in the developing world.
“I went to Tibet to do a story for One Heart,” he explained. “The organization had set up a maternal health program to specifically address maternal mortality, which is extremely high in the Tibetan plateau.”
But when Borges arrived, he found out that the Chinese government had kicked out all of the NGOs after Tibetans began intense and prolonged demonstrations in 2008.
“One Heart couldn’t work there until the Chinese government told them they could. I was scheduled to be there for six weeks and had nothing to film.”
With his assignment shelved, Borges hired a guide and a yak driver and set out across the Tibetan plateau. What emerged is his book, “Tibet: Culture on the Edge” (Rizzoli, 2011).
This isn’t the first time that Borges found himself in Tibet with no clear agenda. In 1994, he went there for the first time after meeting someone from the Tibetan Rights Campaign at a party in Seattle. He said he was already feeling a lack of fulfillment in the commercial photography he was doing at the time, and “something clicked” that compelled him to just go.
“I didn’t know what the story was except that it would be something about human rights,” he said. He interviewed Tibetan nomads, farmers, monks, nuns and Tibetan refugees, including the Dalai Lama. With his experience in commercial portraiture, combined with Tibetans’ accounts of what happened to them, their country and their culture since the Chinese annexed Tibet in the 1950s, he developed, “Tibetan Portrait: The Power of Compassion.”
The Tibet he saw in 1994, however, was vastly different from what he saw when he returned in 2009.
“When I arrived in Lhasa, I couldn’t believe how much had happened in 15 years. It was mindboggling,” Borges said. “The two-lane road that came out of Lhasa was now six lanes, packed with cars. When I was out with the nomads, they all had cell phones. And this was my first real experience with climate change. I saw rivers overrunning because the glaciers are melting so fast. The Tibetan plateau is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world.”
Borges traveled throughout this rugged area the size of Western Europe and asked the Tibetans he met how they were dealing with all the technological, developmental and environmental changes that were happening. He said Chinese telecommunications companies are erecting cell phone towers all over Tibet, and improving communication access. “I never had any dropped calls, even in the most remote areas,” Borges added. The Chinese government is building roads, solar panels, schools and infrastructure, all of which can improve access to health care and education, but these developments also devastate the landscape, already affected by global climate change. Farmers see their crops ripening too fast, so they cannot produce enough yield to feed themselves. Nomads cannot maintain their herds because there is not enough to feed the animals either. The Chinese government closed village schools and opened regional ones that offer nine years of education – in Mandarin – and because of the distance, students end up living there, away from their families, removed from the fabric of their communities.
Borges says he did not want simply to blame China for all of Tibet’s woes.
“My finger ultimately came around to point at me,” he writes in the book’s epilogue. “To see nomads and farmers forced off their land and to realize Asia’s water supply is under dire threat made me stop and reflect. What will happen as India, China, and the developing world adopt our Western consumption habits? What ecological disasters and social disruptions are we facing in the years ahead?”
The book features Borges beautiful portraits, but in a way slightly different from his trademark style. He incorporates much more of the environment into each frame to highlight the contrasts. On one spread, Boogie, a 64-year-old woman, sits inside her yak-hair tent, with her dirt-packed floor, mud stove and a television flickering in the background. On the facing page, Droga, 37, wrapped in a bright fuscia shawl, talks on her cell phone while standing outside her yak-hair tent, with its solar panels and satellite dish looming behind her.
The book also includes photos non-Tibetans have grown more accustomed to: bright sun-kissed and -lined faces; people adorned in layers of textiles and colorful jewelry; monks and nuns, regal in simple crimson and saffron robes. They are praying, prostrating their whole bodies every couple of steps while crossing over rugged mountain passes. This practice is to remind themselves of their interconnectedness with all sentient beings, to banish their biggest enemy, the illusion of separateness and ego.
Borges writes, “There is no doubt that the hospitals; schools and communication infrastructure built by China in Tibet, can enhance the well-being of the Tibetan people. By the same token the Tibetan culture’s foundational ethic could provide the holistic perspective that today’s economies so badly need. In an ideal world, these very different cultures could beneficially share their values and resources and become a model for cross-cultural cooperation and ecological sustainability.”