On Thursday I threw up a post about scouting out our local Tibetan market. I was excited to find that these markets have these old plexiglass roofs that have changes to all sorts of interesting colors.  I wanted to shoot the modernizing Tibetan culture in a place surrounded by the ancient.

Things rarely, if ever, go the way you want them to here.  The streets that I wanted to shoot on were blocked off by cars that hadn’t been there the day before.  The guys we had found turned out to be awesome – I’ll elaborate on that in a second.  Anyways, they all showed up 45 minutes late and then everyone had to leave 20 minutes after we started.  To top things off I had a flash completely bite the dust on me.  For those of you keeping track – that’s the setting, the setup, and the timeframe all shot.  Nonetheless, it was an awesome rushed 20 minute shoot.

Over a very quick Tibetan-style breakfast I learned quiet a bit about our models.  One of them is a law student with one year left until he graduates.  He also spoke fluent english.  The other is a striving business man and also a part-time student at one of the high-level colleges in our city.  Is that what you think of when you think of a Tibetan?

Here’s the contrast: Less than 10 years ago both of these guys were nomads.

NGO, humanitarian, and travel photographers everywhere undoubtedly deal with this routinely.  We go off to get the “exotic” shot in some place that we are certain hasn’t been touched by modernization only to find a monastery that owns it’s own gas station (click here & here), a generations-old workshop with a plasma screen tv and a Nintendo Wii setup inside, or a nomad with an iPhone.

What now?  What is our response supposed to be in the face of inevitable modernization?

I fear that our immediate response is to reject modernization outright rather than seeing how it’s adapted into the culture and no harm is done and how modernization has actually helped a society.  How often do we put on the self-righteous mask and end up doing more harm than good?  Am I going to refuse to teach my neighbor how to use his carbon monoxide detector simply because it represents modernization?

I know many people in western cultures that actually takes more offense to this than the changing culture does.  We as humans seem to be creatures of habit – we don’t like change.  As soon as we seen change we throw on the brakes, cry foul, and start picketing the nearest Wal-Mart.  Don’t hear me saying that modernization doesn’t have the ability to erode culture – I believe it does have that ability.  My question is simply how do we as people, often times trying to help and do the right thing, interact with this.

In most societies the machine is in motion and we can’t stop it whether we deem it good or bad.  With that in mind I think we must consider our response

  • How can we effectively document the change?
  • Do we carry a bias that actually prevents us from documenting what is actually happening
  • Do we have the right as a cultural outsider to decide for a culture if modernization is in it’s best interest?
  • If we are seeking to help, is complaining about the change rather than actually helping within the change really a good idea?
  • Are we just miffed because it’s not what we expected?  Does the monk playing the Wii ruin the shot we made in our mind?

I’m an advocate for cultural preservation, but I’m more of an advocate for actually helping rather than fighting the wind.

Some food for thought, these guys that I photographed this morning – every bit Tibetan and every bit business men, students, and future leaders.  They embrace both their culture and the change (notice those suit pants on underneath the traditional cloak). I didn’t plan the shoot this way – I was envisioning something completely different.  The fact that this is what I got should say something about the changing nomadic society.  Honestly, I love what I got.

I intentionally left this post open ended – mostly because I doubt there is an exact answer.

As photographers, what should our response to modernization be?