Step, count to 10, step, step, step, count to 10, and repeat! This recurring mantra fills my every thought as I ascend the formidable Langma La, a high pass that guards the entrance to the Kharta Valley on the east side of Mount Everest. At 5360m/17,585 feet you reach a series of rock cairns mostly hidden under miles of multi-coloured prayer flags: This is Tibet personified; thin air, faith and huge mountains – the Himalaya.
What took me there, why did I want to go, and why do I continue to go back, when again and again I swear it’ll be the last time!?
I won’t bore you with my entire life-story, but by the mid-2000’s I was living in a small mountain town in Southwest China, in the Province of Yunnan. My wife, who is Chinese, visited Tibet in 2006 and fell in love with the place, the people and the unknown – and as a smart husband, I knew to make my wife happy meant me being happy! I was away overseas on a business trip when I spoke to her on the phone – “I’ve changed your flight back” she says – “We’ve moved.” In the two weeks I’d been away, she had sold our 4×4, my motorbike, all our furniture and a good chunk of other personal items. I was so used to this wonderful way of life that my only question was “Sure thing, where to?”
One word that changed my life forever followed – “Lhasa”
A few days later we met in Beijing and bought a couple of decent mountain bikes and shipped them to the capital of Tibet. The next night we boarded a train and started a 48 hour journey into our future. As the dawn lightened on the second day we began to climb up to the Tibetan Plateau and a new hissing sound entered our sleeping cabin – oxygen was being pumped in to alleviate any negative symptoms of the rapidly rising altitude and the reciprocal drop in available life sustaining air. Golden Eagle launched themselves from power poles, herds of Tibetan Antelope and huge, hairy Yaks grazed the infinite plains. A lone Wolf pauses in its gait to watch us glide past – in the distance, jagged teeth of ice block the horizon. All of this beneath a cobalt sky.
We quickly settled into our new home, bought a 4×4 and began exploring the area around Lhasa and the town itself. As a photographer and writer I rarely find myself lost for words, but Tibet often defies description. There is a smell to the place which is unique; you could drop me anywhere in the country blindfolded and I’d know in a second where I was. A mixture of Juniper smoke, yak butter, dust and ice gets into your brain and lets you drop into a sublimely meditative state – life slows down, thoughtfulness reigns supreme and the beauty of simply existing becomes palpable.
At 3650m/12,000ft the air in Lhasa contains about 63% of the oxygen we’re used to at sea level, however, good acclimatisation methodology, common sense and restraint all help to mitigate that and we were quickly up to speed in our activities and I raced about the streets on my mountain bike as normal. While I am the first to admit that even extraordinary things can be normalised, I never got used to rounding a corner and being confronted with the Potala Palace, which looms over the centre of town like a giant white sale, emitting serenity and power in equal measure.
Some nights we would wake up at 1am and travel through the rapidly emptying streets to drive 4 hours north of town to photograph sunrise at Namtso, an incongruously blue lake lying at 4718m/15,479ft. This is one of Tibet’s three holy lakes and it’s sacred to the Tibetan people, the shoreline cliffs are as usual bedecked in flags blowing prayers endlessly direct to the sky. On another morning we’d find ourselves cycling through the deserted streets to photograph a lunar eclipse over the Palace of Potala. Life was never dull, life always had meaning. From the roof-top terrace of our house I could watch the Vultures soaring over the mountains to the north. I knew that a sky burial site was up there, and I used to sit with my morning coffee and think of the ritual of returning the dead to their origins, reincarnated as flesh on the wing.
Tibet changes you, it is impossible to resist, the place demands that you confront yourself and your existence. Regardless of your nationality, faith, upbringing or political persuasion, the landscape, environment and people’s profound nature ask questions of you that must be answered.
As an artist, Tibet is Mana for me. As I began to evolve as a photographer I looked to techniques as my stairway to heaven, and they do provide me with a lot of creative freedom. All techniques are however, are solutions to common problems. Then, I looked to adept processing as the next layer, enabling me to make predictable changes to my images, but why? Soon, I realised that technical proficiency was just a framework on which to build intention – I needed to decide what I wanted to say. This demanded thought and soul-searching – what do you want to say? Why must it be heard?
Life is a journey, we know that, for it has a beginning and an end; but what, or who determines our destinations and the stops we make along the way? What makes us get out of bed in the morning to greet a new day? What energises us and makes us want to sing, or dance, or make an image to speak across the infinity of the internet? Our lives, our perspectives, our imaginations, our passion – all of the above and more.
And here is the key – our lives are what make us, well, us! My intention is to live life so that as I look back on it, it energises me, fulfils me and validates me. And as I look forward, I see new ways to exist and be fulfilled. My photography narrates this evolution, personal development and expression. I can write and wax lyrical using metaphors, similes and hyperbole, but a single photograph can capture an essence that I can fail to deliver in a 1000 words. In this short article I choose to use both words and pictures to capture my vision of a place.
Why do Himalayan mountaineers and explorers make such good motivational speakers? Partly, because they do what so few people dare to do, and partly because they have skills that can be applied to other fields, which companies value and would be happy for their employees to aspire to. I understand the roles that structure, motivation, determination, goal setting and the sense of achievement when we succeed play in our professional development. When I am climbing to a 5000m high pass, that becomes the focus, defeat is unthinkable and the view and sense of achievement are the reward. Lying in my tent in sub zero temperatures is not in itself pleasurable, nor is dragging myself out into the thin air to climb, hypoxic, to a frozen lake to make a photograph; but I can tell you, when I look back on those moments they are the most valuable in my life. The worst experiences make the best stories, hardship creates fibre and determination. It’s not how you behave when you’re winning that define you, but how you handle hardship and defeat.
I apply this structure in my own creative development, to encourage a melting pot of opportunity, preparing myself for when I can perform at my highest level. Not every image I make is a home run, I do not perform at the top of my game every time I step into the arena of creativity. I have learned to allow myself off days, I have earned the right to choose when to be creative and productive. At the same time, I value the idea of a destination, a plan, a route and the logistics of delivering a predictable result within acceptable parameters of risk. Photography is a marriage of art and craft, the latter provides the framework, reliable, predictable and safe. My art is the opposite, I want to it to be bold, daring, experimental, challenging and risky! My Yin and Yang, my light and dark; the balance of good and evil, happiness and melancholy.
As I get older, my desire to dance the thin line in the sky diminishes; perhaps I am more comfortable in my own skin, confident and less insecure. My physical boundaries are more profound and there is more going on in my head that allows my body to sit back and relax instead of being pushed well past it’s limitations. Every visit to the Tibetan regions sets challenges, asking me to try just a little harder and stretch my muscles, both mental and physical, just a little further than perhaps I’d be comfortable with. Being face to face with the biggest mountains in the world is humbling, as too is seeing the devotion and faith of the Tibetan people. I can spend days walking around the Jokang temple in the heart of Lhasa, just people watching; the thin air adding a layer of the surreal to the experience. Who am I, why am I here, what do I think? All question that set markers on my journey through life; the same questions that create the canvas on which I make my images.
Next April we are scheduled to return to Tibet and I know that my experiences this time will be different again – asking new questions, making fresh challenges and moving me to change, evolve, grow, both as a person and as an artist.
About Alister Benn
Alister Benn is an award winning Scottish landscape photographer, author, educator, and guide. He lives on the isle of Skye off the north west coast of Scotland with his wife Juanli Sun. Each year they lead small group workshops and tours to select locations around the Scottish Highlands, Southern Iceland, Northern Spain and of course Tibet and the Himalaya.