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Voices in Exile
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Jam Yang Nubo
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Monks in Exile
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Monks in Exile
Gates at Dharamsala


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Duke University
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The Tibetan Photo Project co-founder Sazzy Varga presented a katka to Duke Conversations host Kyle Knight. Click photo to enlarge


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The story of The Tibetan Photo Project

About  The Tibetan Photo Project
  By Joe Mickey and Sazzy Varga
 May be cut and pasted in AP Style

Overview of Tibet and China 
 • China's takeover of Tibet began in 1949.

 • Beijing's brutal policies remain intact. In a population of 6 million Tibetans, Chinese government forces have caused the deaths of 1.2 million Tibetans by execution, torture, starvation, forced labor and imprisonment. Of 6,000 monasteries only 13 remain.

 • In 1989 the exiled leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize He accepted on behalf of the Tibetan people and their efforts to find a peaceful solution to China's brutal occupation of Tibet. The Dalai Lama was among the first with a $30k donation to victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York. The complete text of his letter to President Bush on the attack on the World Trade Center can be found at

 • Over 135,000 Tibetans live in exile with between 1,500 and 3,500 escaping into Nepal and India each year.

 • Tibet's exile community offers great insight into the nature of the Chinese leaders at a time when Beijing's role on the stage of world events is expanding rapidly.

The Purpose of The Tibetan Photo Project
 The goal of The Tibetan Photo Project has always been to create a voice from the Tibetans themselves. Varga and Mickey knew that there were thousands of books, portfolios, films and exhibits on the Tibetans but all from the perspective of the Western eye. There was no organized collection of images or films from the Tibetans themselves.

How The Tibetan Photo Project Started
 Joe Mickey and Sazzy Lee Varga's  contact with the Tibetan monks began on the Mendocino stop of their 2000 American cultural tour. Mickey was granted the  privilege of a photo-op and an interview with a Lama.

 At that time, Mickey was beginning a great deal of research on the Tibetan accusations of abuse at the hands of the Chinese government. In "Tears of Blood - A Cry for Tibet" by Mary Craig and "In Exile From the Land of Snows" by John Avedon, I had read the accounts of terrible atrocities suffered at the hands of the Chinese government forces told by Tibetans who had escaped to India.

 The follow-up research consisted of reviewing news from major media sources in print, broadcast and on the Web. Mickey wanted to sort out any Tibetan propaganda from the facts. Mickey developed a hard copy file that numbers about 5000 articles. They cover all aspects of recent developments in China.

 With regards to the Tibetans, the file confirms the claims of horrific methods regularly employed by the Chinese government. China officially labels torture as "Reeducation". Beijing labels accounts of torture "the propaganda of splittists" and "internal matters", and of no concern for the international community

 During Mickey's meeting with the Tibetans he was introduced to a sponsorship program for Tibetan monks living in one of the Buddhist monasteries they have recreated in India. He sends a small monthly amount (to a cause that  he thoroughly researched) and  he enjoys a slow but rewarding correspondence with Jamyang Norbu.

 There is no instant messenger or e-mail. This is all handled by regular mail. When  letters arrive in India they wait at the monastery for available translators. Norbu responds in an original  Tibetan script that he gives the translators and it is eventually typed up on a manual typewriter and sent to Mickey. The process of a single communication cycle can easily take six to ten weeks.

 Mickey  has been a photographer for over 30 years and he immediately began to package up point-and-shoot cameras and added the basics rules of good photography to my letters. From Jam Yang Norbu he learned that the camera was a new concept for Tibetans dedicated to rebuilding and preserving their culture.

 The first roll of photos was processed in India and he received a set of prints. From the start, Jamyang Norbu and his friends paid great attention to the basic lessons in photography and produced a series of well-lit but posed images.

 On the receiving end, this was still, nothing less than a magic view into another world. More importantly, the view was not being provided by an outsider looking in through a lens and preconceived notions. Mickey  and Varga were being given the vantage point from the inside.

 They immediately sent a small flood of cameras and film and in correspondence they discussed how photography could be used as a tool in the Tibetans'  efforts to preserve Tibetan culture if Norbu could record his friends living that culture on film. Again, the monks have paid very good attention and Mickey and Varga fell they have been given the gift of rare glimpses into the lives of some of the 2,500 monks of the Drepung Monastery.

 What has been revealed in the photos and the letters is a dedicated group of men living and struggling and very often laughing through lives that have very few needs or desires. They work with complete dedication to preserve the best of Tibetan culture.

 Varga, a actress, DGA 1st. assistant director and model also fits Web design into her busy schedule and she set up The Tibetan Photo Project Website. She also sponsors a Tibetan child, Tenchoe, in Dharamsala, India


 Starting with just a few disposable cameras, the project has evolved into two traveling exhibits, the first created by Centenary College and the second by Antioch College. The exhibits have been shown in six American communities. A version of the exhibits has also been presented in Belgium. The exhibits also include a rare collection of 1932 photos of Tibet that were donated to the project following an article by San Francisco Chronicle Art Critic, Kenneth Baker.

 Bookings for the exhibit can be made by contacting The Tibetan Photo Project at

Growing the Voice of the Tibetans
 By reporting on photographs by The Tibetans, the combined American print circulation is 26 million and growing. Parade Magazine reported to 16 million readers that the works by the monks living in exile was "Rewarding."

 The Tibetan Photo  Project has been has been linked across the Web and featured on Louisiana Public Broadcasting and in radio interviews in the U.S. and Canada.

 In 2005, Varga and Mickey produced the first Tibetan directed and photographed film by Tenzin Wangden Andrutsang, "Voices in Exile." While they supplied the funds, the film is 100 % Tibetan and follows the only requirement the two have asked from the Tibetans, "Show us what you feel the West needs to know," is the only direction that Mickey and Varga give to the Tibetans.

 Not having the full amount of funds to dive into a second film in 2006, Mickey traveled to India and had all of the Tibetan photographers they had only known by email direct his filming for a documentary on the project. Mickey filmed in Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj, home of the Tibetan Government in Exile, as well as in the Tibetan community in Delhi and in the restricted area of a Tibetan colony in Southern India to produce "Visually and Respectfully Yours - The Story of The Tibetan Photo Project."

 Both films are offered on DVD and preview clips can be found on over a dozen video sites such as YouTube on the Web. In the first three months of postings the clips had over 110,000 views.

 For more on the media coverage of the Tibetan Photo Project

The College and University Connection
 Mickey and Varga offer slide shows and lectures and have presented programs at the invitation of Duke University in North Carolina,  Colorado College and University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Mendocino College, Remington College, Antioch College and University in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Yellow Springs Ohio and Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana.

 Additionally, these presentations have been offered through business and community organizations interested in understanding the nature of China's leadership though Tibet's modern and brutal history with China over the past 50 years.

 Art Centers have also booked presentations because of the power of the image demonstrated by the photos taken by the Tibetans.

 For more on exhibits and a schedule of events and screenings

Future Goals
 The next step for The Tibetan Photo Project is to establish three of The Tibetan Photo Project Filmmaker Education Centers in India. The first will be in the area of the Tibetan Government in Exile, the second in a colony in southern India and the third in the Tibetan community in Delhi. Once established the plan is to turn the entire operation of The Tibetan Photo Project over to the Tibetans.

 For more on these goals

                                        End #   #   #   #

Conclusions of the founders

 Belief in any religion is a matter of personal temperament and life history. At best I classify myself as a skeptical agnostic. Tibetan Buddhism is based in a moderate or balanced form of the practice. Studies have shown that elements of Tibetan Buddhist mind training, meditation and prayer and Tibetan medicines offer the potential for better mental and physical health. What has captured my interest in the Tibetan struggle is the injustice of China's occupation of Tibet. The strength of their peaceful struggle holds a mirror for the world to see the reflection of the brutal nature of the leadership in Beijing.

 Over the past two years China has grown its economy between 7 and 8 percent. Over the same period, Beijing has increased military spending at 12 and 17. China is at the manufacturing end of the supply line for many weapons purchased by countries that support terrorism.

 Tibetans are not all pacifists. Many would be happy to regain Tibet by force, and while not a realistic possibility, that option for a solution is as much a part of their collective thought as any other group of oppressed people. But through my research and contact with Jam Yang Norbu, I have also discovered the power of peaceful resolve of the human spirit that can only be found in rare and great people, past and present.

 Beyond the myths of Shangri-La, their culture and history has all the human flaws but, as Tibetans stand at the edge of a violent forced extinction, they have not given up the search for the soul, heart and true purpose behind the gift of human existence. History says they will prevail. Over 2500 years, kingdoms, nations, and dynasties have fallen, while the simple monks have walked a continuous path through the changing centuries. My conclusion which has grown stronger in light of recent events, We certainly need their examples more than they need ours.

 Visually and Respectfully, Joe Mickey and Sazzy Varga
 Founders of The Tibetan Photo Project
 Please tell friends.

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