Albertina D’Urso took her first trip to Tibet before she was a professional photographer, but a minder still looked through her camera regularly. Accompanied by a Chinese guard for the duration of her trip, she found most Tibetans fearful and quiet — although Tibet considers itself an independent nation, China has occupied the territory since 1950. According to Human Rights Watch, China has systematically taken over Tibetan monasteries, jailed monks, and banned images of the Dalai Lama, practices associated with several self-immolation protests by monks.
Inspired to witness the endangered culture in its unrestrained form, D’Urso has documented the lives of Tibetan refugees and their families in India, Nepal, Taiwan, the U.S., the U.K., Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, Holland, and Canada.
Emily von Hoffmann: You first went to Tibet in 2000, and said you found the culture “repressed,” and felt it might have been lost forever. What was the purpose of that first trip, and can you tell us more about your first impressions?
Albertina D’Urso: In 2000 I was not a professional photographer yet, I went to Tibet because I have read amazing books about this country and this culture and I wanted to see it in person. When I arrived there I was amazed by the landscape, but I had a Chinese “guard” checking what I was doing and what kind of pictures I was taking. On many occasions I tried to speak with people, but no one was open to talking. Everyone looked scared, even monks hardly admitted that they were Buddhist.
EvH: How did you become interested in documenting Tibetan culture? How did it become clear to you that there was an important story that you could tell here?
AD: When I discovered that, in India, Tibetans do not have any restrictions, I felt their story had to be documented. Theirs is such a beautiful culture, and in my opinion it deserves being known and helped.
EvH: Your project documents the communities of Tibetan refugees in other parts of the world — you’ve photographed Tibetans in India, Nepal, Taiwan, the US, the UK, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, Holland, and Canada. Can you discuss your process for these travels? How did you identify these countries, and the specific families and individuals within them?
AD: India and Nepal are the first countries in which Tibetans arrive after crossing the border. Talking with them I discovered where are the countries in which they mostly travel after. When I went into a country to document its Tibetan community, I normally tried to get in touch with a few individuals before I departed. They were often who introduced me to other friends and relatives in other countries.
EvH: Can you please tell us about one or two of your favorite images from the project, and the situation surrounding them? What about these images moves you or makes you proud?
AD: I really like the images — for example the one from Canada and from Taiwan — in which you see Tibetans dressed in their traditional customs and surrounded by a really modern and western environment that does not match at all with them. I like those image because they tell a lot about the conditions in which Tibetans live. They do not have any country so they feel like strangers everywhere.
EvH: Are there any people you met through the course of the project whose stories particularly affected you, or who stand out most in your memory? What are they like?
AD: Yes I have been really affected by Namgyal (the girl with tuberculosis who has all the posters in the background): The images behind her belong to the young boy who occupied the room before her, she disliked them and wanted to change them, but she was too weak to do so. When I went back home, I sent her images of beautiful landscapes and a friend of mine who was traveling to Bylacuppe took care of replacing them.
AD: I also sent her money to be able to do blood transfusions and other medical treatments because, as she was not holding an Indian passport, she was not getting them for free and she was not able to afford them. Namgyal died less than one year after this picture was taken, but at least I hope she didn’t feel totally abandoned.
EvH: When you spent some time with these refugees through photo sessions, were you able to talk and get to know them? Were there any common threads among them?
AD: Yes of course, Tibetans, when they are not in China, are really open to talking and telling their stories. They are all very attached to their homeland and they are all still hopeful that one day they will be able to be back in a free Tibet. What surprised me most in their stories is the way they flee. They all cross the Himalayan range by foot, most of the time without modern equipment. I imagine the great motivation that drives them to face such an hazardous trip.
EvH: Can you share any plans for future travels or projects that you’re particularly excited about?
AD: At the moment I am planning a touring exhibition of “Out of Tibet,” with no other new projects already in mind. I normally do not plan which will be the next story I will get into. I need something to get my attention and make me really passionate. So we’ll see what is going to happen…