Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Travel Photography Nirvana (illustrated with images from Bhutan)

Buddhists in Bhutan believe that when a circle appears around the sun, an incarnation of Buddha is born.
Nirvana is a destination for some, but not a specific place. It is loosely defined as a state of being free from pain, worry, and the external world. I have never reached nirvana, and frankly, I'm quite happy not to. I LOVE the external world - the "sensual world" that I can smell, touch, taste, hear..... and see through the lens of my camera.

Colorful prayer wheels line the public square of Thimpu.

So why do I use the word nirvana? Because in all my travels, there are these moments...moments that simply take my breath away. Moments when nothing else matters - when worries and pains all disappear - and all that matters is being present in that moment. Sometimes I don't have a camera...or I forget I have a camera...and those moments are etched in my soul and preserved in the rich vivid kodachrome of my mind's eye. But sometimes I do have my camera...and I remember to use it.  When I can capture that moment, and immortalize it to share it with others, well, that is something I like to call travel photography nirvana.  

Young boy monk runs amongst the prayer flags at Chimi Lhakhang.

For a travel photographer to find these moments, there isn't a map, a compass, or a GPS. There isn't a schedule to keep. There isn't really anything concrete and obvious about exactly when and where these "moments' will pass through one's consciousness and in front of one's lens.  The point is to be ready.  Be aware of all of the senses. Be completely in the moment. And boom, next thing you know, time has stood still long enough to push a button and capture a slice of it. That's what I'm talking about. 

Traditional Bhutanese dancers leap effortlessly high off the floor.

I suppose traveling in Bhutan is perhaps more conducive to such experiences for a few reasons:

* the geography of the country - it lies in the Himalayas, averaging in elevation around 8,000 feet above sea level. 

 
Above: Snow-capped mountains greet morning light. Below: Taktsang Monastery perched in a cliff high above Paro.


* the religion - Bhutan is a primarily Buddhist society, and it is filled with monasteries and monks on a spiritual path to enlightenment. 
 Nun at Sangchen Lhuendrup Cholin
Buddha Dordenma Statue



 Monks going to puja at Punakha Dzong.

* the politics. Politics? Yes. The government of Bhutan, which is headed by a King, has specific branches whose job it is to develop and monitor the Gross National Happiness of the Bhutanese citizens.  


I met a Planning Officer of the GNH Commission, and that was literally his job, to monitor Gross National Happiness.  Can you imagine having that for your job title? Wow. I wonder if they have an official photographer whose job it is to document the Gross National Happiness with a camera...carrying a GNHC Press Pass....that would sure be enlightening.

Furthermore, there are four pillars against which Gross National Happiness is measured:

1) promotion of sustainable development

Farm Fields of Paro


Bhutanese Farm Owner
Locally grown produce at market in Wangdue


2) preservation of cultural values


 Bhutanese Traditional Arts and Culture - Tangka Art, Weaving, and Archery


3) conservation of natural environment

Buddha Dordenma
4) establishment of good governance

Bhutanese men pay respect to Royal Kings of Bhutan

Given all these parameters, unless you are a photographer immune to spirituality, culture, and happiness, then you are bound to experience some sense of travel photography nirvana in Bhutan.  It can happen anywhere - I've experienced these moments in other iconic settings such as Machu Picchu in Peru, Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, and at a calving glacier in Alaska. But I chose Bhutan because that's where I experienced the moment when those three words just escaped from my mouth, one after the other. Travel..Photography..Nirvana. That moment was upon reaching the final leg on the hike to Taktsang Monastery.


The picture of the Monastery is nothing special - it's the same picture everyone takes who makes this journey.  But it's that moment of arrival, that moment when nothing else matters and you say to yourself, I made it it. I'm here. I'm in heaven on earth. And I remembered to take the picture.



That is simply...travel photography nirvana.


For more from Bhutan, please visit the Bhutan Image Gallery.