In the epilogue to Culture on the Edge, Phil Borges turns his lens inward. ‘I didn’t want to point an accusing finger. After a year and a half traveling across the Tibetan plateau and seeing the issues the Tibetans face, my finger ultimately came around to point at me.’
He is talking about climate change, and the effect the Western culture of consumption is having on the country that is sometimes called the Third Pole. The Tibetan plateau is heating up twice as fast as the global average. A third of the world’s population depends on the waters that flow from its glaciers, which have been receding dramatically for two decades. Nomads are being moved from their pastures as China takes desperate measures to reverse damage and save the watersheds.
This is just one threat to Tibet’s culture. Another is the education system, which has mandated study up to ninth grade, forcing many parents to send their children to far-off boarding schools where they are taught in Mandarin. Rapid development is throwing down highways and pushing up mobile towers across the plateau, while millions of Chinese tourists are flooding into the region.
All of this is documented in sumptuous imagery. Farmers rescue yaks from a flooded river. Pastures have turned to desert. A nomad sits outside his tent, a black mass of rock exposed behind him where a glacier used to be. A resettlement camp spreads across a plain in bleak rows, its people prey to increased rates of alchoholism, gambling and divorce. The book is divided into three sections – ‘Climate Change’, ‘Devotion’ and ‘Development’ – but most frightening by far are the warnings about the shrinking glaciers.
Borges’s usual style is to make carefully composed and lit black and white portraits, often in square format, then selectively hand tint them to give a vintage effect – see his well-known 1996 book, Tibetan Portrait. This time he has gone for all-out, panoramic colour. Although the intention is documentary rather than interpretative, the overall effect is largely subjective, the emphasis on empathy rather than investigation.
The text is balanced and engaging, but not extensive, and the photography can get repetitive at times as it alternates between classic landscape and portraiture. It would be interesting to see Borges’s magnificent eye for landscape applied to Lhasa, for example, which he writes is unrecognisable from the city he last saw in 1994. Granted, this book is about documenting a culture that is under threat. But if Lhasa looks radically different now compared to 15 years ago, it will surely look different again in another 20 years. The transformation might be painful, but it is worth recording.
Some of the rural pictures tell another story – of monasteries built or lavishly restored, of new mani stones being carved and piled into enormous walls. A spindly construction crane sprouts from the crown of an enormous stupa, the massive concrete skeleton rising above the ancient walls and chortens that surround it. Its construction is being funded, Borges is told, by a lama living in Australia. A journalist and ex-monk laments that the millions being spent on monasteries will distance the religion from the people, turning Tibet into a Disneyland for tourists.
All this activity could equally be interpreted as a sign of a remarkable renewal. Just as Tibet has seduced the West in recent decades, it is now working its magic on China. Taiwanese, Hong Kong and mainland Chinese taking to Tibetan Buddhism and flocking to Tibet as tourists may represent not so much a threat as an opportunity. Perhaps this culture is not quite as close to the edge as it appears.