Written by Ned Morgan.
Pat Morrow knows the Himalaya, high and low. The Invermere, BC–born photographer summited Mount Everest in 1982 as official lensman to the Canadian Mount Everest Expedition. He is the second-ever Canadian to reach the top.
After Everest, Morrow and his wife, photojournalist and environmentalist Baiba Morrow, climbed, trekked, bused and bicycled throughout the ancient patchwork of countries encircling the Roof of the World. In 1986, he became the first climber in history to summit the seven highest mountains on Earth.
Pat and Baiba’s abiding interest in the Himalaya continues to draw them back. Their new “coffee tablet” e-book Heart of the Himalaya focuses on the human story of a region whose mountains may be sturdy monuments but whose governments and cultures have repeatedly crumbled under the weight of oppression. Using diary entries, video and masterfully candid photography, the book highlights the pageant of indomitable peoples living in the shadows of Earth’s highest mountains.
We spoke to Pat Morrow recently about his book.
Mountain Life: Your photos record everyday, intimate moments in the lives of monks, pilgrims, Sherpas and others. How did you get such access? Did you and Baiba strike up a lot of friendships along the way?
Pat Morrow: The perennial challenge for those of us wishing to take natural-looking candids of indigenous peoples is that we often don’t spend enough time with them to put them at ease with the camera. In the case of the Sherpa dancing [above], he was our cook for an 80-day, 650-km trek from Annapurna to Everest and we got to know him really well. (He was joking around, pretending to be a star in a Bollywood film.) Some of the other people in the book we photographed again and again through the years, getting to know them and their families intimately. When you only have a fleeting encounter with someone you want to photograph, this is where teamwork comes into play. A typical scenario would be if we found ourselves in a potential “environmental portrait” shooting with a stranger, Baiba or our guide/interpreter friend would chat with the subject, setting them at ease.
I would hover in the background, using a longer lens, and squeeze off a couple of discreet shots while they were distracted.
ML: Your connection to the people of the Himalaya goes back several decades. What is your perspective on social change in the Himalaya over the last 30-odd years?
PM: The deteriorating Tibetan plight is, in our opinion, one of the most pressing in the region. We first visited Tibet in 1987 at the start of a seven-month overland circumnavigation of the Himalaya by truck, mountain bike and on foot, travelling with another couple. We knew we were in an occupied country, but in Lhasa everything appeared normal, and being newbies we didn’t notice any conflict between the Tibetans and the Chinese although there was a certain tension in the air. Five months later, by the time we reached Dharamsala, there had been a revolt. Many Tibetans were killed and lots of people jailed for many years. It was a real shock to see photos of bloodied monks and nuns being beaten and tortured by the Chinese.
The experience initiated a life-long sense of vulnerability for Tibetans in their own country. Over the years, the situation has deteriorated. In 1987, a Tibetan quarter still existed in Lhasa. Since then every Tibetan structure has been bulldozed, save for two iconic Tibetan buildings – the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple. A railway has been built, using Canadian technology (Bombardier trains), bringing in hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants and tourists. More Chinese now live in Lhasa than Tibetans.
Michael Buckley, a Canadian writer who has produced 10 books on Tibet and the Himalayan region, has just released his most important work to date, a book called Meltdown in Tibet. It’s a must read for those wishing to understand the political takedown of this beleaguered former Buddhist kingdom.
While Tibetans have been welcomed in India, particularly in Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama has lived in exile for decades, any who attempt to resettle in Nepal are in for a rough ride.
The Nepalese are being pressured by the Chinese to make it hard on Tibetan refugees. They are totally restricted from any freedoms. They have no right to a passport, no right to assembly. They’re forbidden to celebrate the birthdate of the Dalai Lama, or the birth and death date of the Buddha. It really saddens us to see these politically motivated hardships and the stranglehold that China has on Nepal.
With the Tibetan diaspora spanning the globe, Canada is in the process of accepting 1,000 Tibetan refugees from northeast India over the next year. Banff and Canmore have already accepted a few, and Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto a couple hundred more.
With another 800 on their way, it would be nice for Canadians to be aware of the opportunity to help with job placements and accommodation, and to welcome these hardworking and joyful immigrants. Anyone interested should contact projecttibetsociety.ca and while there, meet these people by watching our film, 1000 Tibetans, on the homepage.
To check out the Tibetan dropka (nomad) who bears an uncanny resemblance to Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards (or is it Ron Wood?) you’ll have to buy Heart of the Himalaya. And stay tuned for a profile of Pat and Baiba Morrow in the 2015/16 edition of Mountain Life Annual, published in July.