Anne had the chance to go to Zanskar, I promptly sent her a few questions about her trip there, here are her answers.
Anne, can you tell us a bit more about yourself?
Sure, my name is Anne, I am an amateur photographer and I teach visual communications at Université des Sciences Humaines de Montpellier.
What inspired you to be a photographer?
I have always been fascinated by images, I like to manipulate them, pick them apart, analyze them, understand how they are organized, and look for their meaning—after surrendering to the emotions they stir in me. My first photos were family pictures, but already I would seek the best point of view and think about how the images would be organized.
However, my passion for photography is relatively recent. It started with my first trips to the Orient. As I was discovering a new world, I realized that, to understand what I saw, I needed to take in the details, from the most ordinary to the most intimate ones. I feel that it’s through the microscopic that I understand things. Tourism books don’t interest me; their only use is to give you a quick overview of the geography, economy, and history of a country’s people and places.
What purpose does it serve for you?
Taking pictures is my way of understanding what’s around me. Following my instinct, without a clue at first of what I am looking at, taking photos allows me to slowly discover the why and how of things, from the inside. This was my state of mind when I took these photos.
How did you end up photographing in Zanskar?
I like to think that it was not totally by chance that I went to Zanskar. A surprisingly rich series of events and encounters naturally led me there. The starting point was Olivier Föllmi’s photos—I looked at them for hours, dreaming, my jaw dropping. I never thought at the time of one day going to explore the Himalayas. Then I read Alexandra David Néel and was fascinated. A few more unlikely and decisive encounters, and I was hooked. Five years ago, I went to Zanskar for the first time.
Did you have a specific direction while shooting or were you more receptive
to the images?
On my first trip, I had no direction in mind whatsoever, only to record moments of people’s lives. Zanskar is a Buddhist kingdom that’s now part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, South of Tibet. It is cut off from the world 8 or 9 months out of 12. In the most remote villages, people live in near complete seclusion. We walked for days to reach some villages.
What aspects of Zanskar attracted you most while shooting the project?
What struck me the most is the simplicity of Zanskarpas and the harmonious relationship between these people and the environment around them. Nature dominates the place, steals people’s heart and imposes and exposes the interdependency between everything and everybody. It might be a strange thing to say, but everything seems connected there! The complete opposite of the world we live in, where everything is juxtaposed, specialized to the point where nothing makes sense any more.
What gear did you use? Why?
My photographic equipment evolved over the last few years. I quickly abandoned my Nikon D80 for a D700 first with an 18/120 mm zoom, then a 50 mm lens. Last year, I started using a Fuji Xpro1 with fixed lenses, and it’s much suited to my photographic approach. I like to be close to the people I am photographing and it’s more pleasant for them, and for me, when I am not thrusting a huge camera in their face! I kept my Nikon for the grandiose landscapes which I like to photograph by carving out tightly cropped details.
You were in monasteries, very close to people and even in their homes. How did you get access to these places and how did you get the locals to open up to you?
During all my trips, I walked. I walked a lot in the mountains, guided by my friend Sonam Wangchuk, a lama and guide from the Karsha monastery. I published the book Zanskarpa with him, on Blurb.
When you walk, the pace helps meet the local people, quite naturally, and within minutes of your arrival in a village, there is always somebody to offer you a chai tea or even their hospitality. Homestays have always been part of their culture! They are incredibly welcoming people and you quickly feel at home with them, sitting around a cow dung fire burning in an old stove.
It’s during one of our treks that I discovered the Phuktal Monastery, hanging from the rock over the river below. Visually and emotionally, it is a striking discovery. Between 80 and 100 monks of all ages live there. The youngest must be 4 or 5 years old, the oldest are reaching the end of their life. They spend their whole life studying sacred texts, praying and seeking enlightenment. There too, you feel most welcome and, if the guesthouse is full, one of the monks will often host you.
How were you and your camera received?
Zanskarpas are Indians, so they have no problem with photography. They actually like being photographed and looking at the photos you brought of your earlier trips!
Did you grow as a person, documenting the Zanskarpas?
Yes, Zanskar and the Zanskarpas have had a decisive influence in my life and profoundly changed my vision of the world, my behavior too (most importantly!). Our urge to specialize made us lose sight of our reality. We are no longer able to see the links that exist between things, between people.
I am trying to rediscover these connections and I put my beliefs in practice through an ecovillage project near Montpellier. And between the various stages of this project, I travel—“to align the head, the eye and the heart,” as Henri Cartier-Bresson so aptly put it.
That is our mission too, to develop the Photographer's Eye, Heart and Mind. Any anecdotes you can share?
The photo above….She has a garland around her head. I made it for her. We were together in a green pea field. Her grand-parents had left her with me while they carried heavy loads of pea greens back to the village. We played together making garlands and taking pictures of her. No sooner had her grandmother returned that Dolma took the garland off her head, without any visible regrets, and started turning the drying greens over, to help them dry faster.
She must have been 4 years old. This job was her job, something she was able to do. In Zanskar, children are seen as full members of the community. They have a part to play in daily activities. They are aware of their role and accept it with pride.
The photo above…We are on a trek between Karsha and Darsha, one of the routes out of Zanskar. I just played with these children who are used to seeing tourists pass by and enjoy spending some time with them at the end of the day. We played hide and seek, we played jacks, then I went under our tent to rest for a while. A few minutes later, I heard muffled laughter and fumbling noise, until they got brave enough to lift the edge of the tent. Their surprised looks come from their discovery that I was not alone under the tent!
Any closing comments?
Photography has literally become a way of life for me. Not only is it a mean of expression, of understanding myself better, but it’s also a way for me of maybe gaining a better understanding of the world around me.
Designing the book Zanskarpa made me realise how images can tell a story if you choose them carefully. So I am now at the stage where I’d like to help my practice evolve by having more precisely defined objectives, to start on a trip with a topic in mind that I want to work on.
And I am preparing for this as I write, as in less than two weeks I’ll be deep into the Himalayan mountains to discover the life of Zanskparpas in winter, from inside!
Thank you for this wonderful peek at the Zanskarpas. We will see more of Anne's work in a future issue of Inspired Eye, as the Inspired Traveler.
Please check out Anne's Flickr and please follow her.
Translation from french to english was provided by Marine Armstrong of Ubiquitext.