The images are of a Tibet that, thirty or so years ago, few Westerners even knew existed. But thanks to Brian Harris and other photographers like him, many of us now see pictures of laughing young monks in crimson and gold robes and know them to be Tibetan. We recognize the harsh, arid landscape of the Himalayas and know it to be the real Tibet, and nothing at all like the Shangri-La of myth and legend. And the colorful, thin squares of a Tibetan prayer flag flapping on the front porch of a South Hill home are indelibly associated with a world 7,000 miles away.
For more than 15 years, Harris, an award-winning Canadian photographer, has journeyed to the remote mountain villages of Tibet to capture images of what he describes as a vanishing culture. The threat to Tibetan culture is not necessarily so much from the decades-long Chinese occupation of Tibet as from the erosion that occurs when too many Westerners converge on an area in search of adventure. In fact, the Manchester (England) Guardian published a piece just a few months ago on Tibet's newest hotspot, J.J.'s, a nightclub situated between "an enormous concrete monument to Chinese rule" and Potala Palace, the former winter home of the Dalai Lama.
Harris brings his multimedia presentation "Himalayan Visions and Tibetan Voices" to the Met this Friday night with two goals in mind. One, of course, is to expose Westerners to traditional Tibetan ways of life before those customs vanish like bits of colored silk in a broad mountain wind. The other is to raise money for the organization Seva. As Harris points out in his Tibetan Voices calendars and coffee table book, "of the 45 million blind people in the world, 90 percent live in poverty - 80 percent of this blindness is either preventable or correctable." Seva has established eye hospitals and ophthalmology centers in Tibet, India, Nepal and most recently, in Tanzania. Where Seva cannot yet perform safe intra-ocular lens operations, they provide eyeglasses and other vision-related services within a community.
While a portion of "Himalayan Visions" does involve Seva's work and the people whose lives have been improved as a result, most of the program centers on the humility and hardship of many Tibetan villagers' lives. In addition to offering more than 90 minutes of digital multimedia and 250 of Harris's compelling and unforgettable photographs, the presentation is set to a score of environmental sounds, sacred music and original compositions, with narration by Zasep Tulku Rinpoche and live commentary by Brian Harris. As the Dalai Lama has said, "Responsibility does not only lie with the leaders of our countries or with those who have been appointed or elected to do a particular job. It lies with each of us individually."
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All the farms I remember from growing up in North Idaho and Eastern Washington were not what you'd call stylish. In fact, what I do remember are blocky sofas covered in that ubiquitous mauve upholstery, copper Jell-O molds lining the kitche