The Himalayan peoples have long captured the hearts of photojournalist adventurers Pat and Baiba Morrow. Over three decades of excursions and expeditions to the region, they have welcomed these foreigners in, befriended them, shared details of their lives, and impressed with their resilience, generosity, and ability to thrive at high altitude in often bleak geographical and political conditions. Behind this tale of trust between cultures, however, lies a deeper story of longstanding relationships, profound social change, and a couple living a lifestyle that is itself rapidly becoming unviable—threads woven throughout the Morrows’ latest project, the eBook Heart of the Himalaya.
The book began with an invitation from the Whyte Museum in Banff, Alberta, for the British Columbia-based couple to put together a photo exhibit on their adventures and cultural exploration of the Himalaya. During the process of selecting 55 prints to fit that space, however, the couple realized there was simply too much material to chose from, and that they were best served to narrow the focus of the exhibit down to just Tibetan culture.
Despite this, in no way did the ef fort feel constraining, as there was so much to depict. With its small-footprint culture and inherent reverence for nature, Tibetan Buddhism has helped preserve large chunks of land in the Himalaya. Its intact farmlands, treed regions and wildlife contrast with neighbouring Hindu, Muslim and Communist Chinese regions that have cut and burned extensively to make room for ever-expanding populations. Through the vehicle of visitation, the Morrows variously bore witness to the influence of Tibet’s Chinese occupation, and to the creep of environmental pressures and commerce brought by increased numbers of Western tourists.
On bike, on foot, on climbing expeditions, on assignment to document events and rituals, Pat and Baiba collected their own nomadic vision of being Tibetan. But by dint of travelling so widely in the region they had also collected a much broader vision—that of the Himalaya’s great diversity of mountain cultures, and this became the subject of the eBook, as digital media provides the kind of space and opportunity no gallery can hope to offer. Captured in the book are thirty-some years in the evolution of various ancient cultures that manage to preserve a reasonably high standard of living, clean water and clean air—despite being sandwiched between rapacious superpowers. Inevitably, however, the changes witnessed have been sources of both joy and sorrow, a reality that surfaces repeatedly as I speak with the couple.
“I have immense gratitude to have experienced all of these people when we did,” notes Baiba. “Each time we went we were more informed, and that knowledge determined where we’d go next and how we’d go about it. It has been a powerful influence in our lives.”
Photojournalism is honest and impartial observation. Sorting through the past is a different journey. Over the course of their career, the Morrows have been through this process numerous times. For different stories and purposes, they have developed an internal inventory of shots that have never been used and others that have taken on a life of their own and no longer fit into a single narrative. Given this, how did they approach the selection criteria for the book? Both claimed spontaneous decision making. Pat’s take: “It was totally arbitrary, as there were literally hundreds of selects to choose from. However, in some cases, we chose a photo because it was the best representation from a certain part of the Himalaya. This doesn’t mean it’s a top photo, it simply means we didn’t have a better one to use. And in other cases, it represents a certain custom, or type of clothing, or an important person.”
Heart of the Himalaya isn’t an editorial assignment. It’s a celebration of people, and what is found outside the frame is friendship. The photos vibrate with intimacy. Private exchanges. Candid, smoky and textured imperfections that make up the spontaneity of everyday. It’s like being dropped directly into a situation. “People tend to romanticize Himalayan culture. It takes time to penetrate the surface.” Always more willing to talk about his subjects than himself, Pat is finally becoming animated. We are getting to the nut of the situation.
I see a personal book. The places and the people reveal an immense trust, in the observers and the intentions behind their documentation. “We are always trying to relay wisdom.” Baiba, the art director of the team and more talkative of the two is a quiet rudder, steering underwater.
“Whenever and wherever we took photos, we were careful in our deliberations. Thinking about what we were doing, for whom and why… what the next piece was of that experience.”
We touch on the concept of a foreigner on assignment, a reality that has been somewhat lost in translation in the past decade. Communication and technology create an open page; there are few places left where visitors remain an oddity. More profoundly, what accompanies that shift is a faded appreciation from the audience for the significance of what it once meant to be an outsider and a photographer. Rudimentary living in austere environments relies on community.
Establishing trust was of huge importance, not only for success and, at times, survival, but to open up a network of communication that would ease things on the path ahead. Take the “tiger torch” photograph. Behind the thousand words the image tells is the tale of 2,000 kilometres of dry plain on a broken, rutted road that destroyed vehicles and spirits, but was still the only way forward.
Butter tea is the staple drink in the Himalaya, traditionally brewed in an elaborate and beautiful ceremony using a wooden cylinder. Pat recounts that the driver of the truck, having neither the time nor means of protecting such a treasured vessel, developed his own tradition of making tea with a torch, just as everyone’s spirits flagged and their bodies needed refreshment.
“Remember, we were at 4,500 metres. It was cold, dusty, difficult to breathe and we were standing up in the truck bed because sitting would shatter your kidneys.” A casual observer wouldn’t have that opportunity, and certainly wouldn’t understand all that was unusual and comical in the situation.
Artistry or craft? The photo is striking—without the back story. There’s so much going on, from the landscape to the action, to the sheer barrenness of it all. Pat also believes it reveals change.
“Roads are the most significant change we have witnessed. Now there’s $40,000 Land Rovers and pavement. It brings the best and the worst of the capitalist world.”
Asked if he also sees a progression in his own art, he answers No—which isn’t as harsh as it sounds. “I’m naturally drawn to storytelling imagery; it’s second nature. It has to be good enough to stand alone or be part of a larger collection of images. But any picture I take for myself, is one that I would put in a book. We don’t live for the craft. We live for the experiences that the craft gives us a window to. The reality is you have to sell pictures in order to do that.”
Every form of documentation has certain requirements for it to be commercially viable. For the Morrows, the selection begins at home: what is the project; who is the audience; what is the intention. In the field, another set of filters comes into play: where to set up; what is the composition; when to press the shutter. Much depends on the scenario: is it two-week coverage of a certain event or ceremony; part of an 80-day trek where, at most, a single day is spent in any one place; or a documentary for which they can reasonably expect to revisit a location two or three times?
And for both partners looms the constant awareness of limited resources applied to the shaping a bona fide story with a beginning, middle and end.
“In older cameras, which is what I started with, we looked at one frame at a time,” recalls Pat. “There were no bursts. Film was heavy and expensive, you couldn’t check what you’d just taken; it was a different thought process. On our longer journeys, we hauled around big bags of film, but even so we were limited. A hundred rolls would weigh 2.5 kilos and last thirty days. That’s 3,600 images. With a digital camera, you can burn that off in a week.”
Is there anything that stands out for him? On one page of the book are two photos of Bhutan’s parliament buildings, a straight-on shot taken from a different angle on different days. One has zigzag lines on it. Pat was trying to get a time-exposure of the buildings lit by external light and was set up on a narrow one-lane road with a tripod for a five-second exposure. But when a truck nearly ran him over he had to grab the camera and jump out of the way, resulting in the zigzags—an effect he calls a “happy accident.”
That some photos are personal is a difficult admission to extract; both partners are skilled in deflecting the conversation back toward their subjects. With Baiba pressing, however, Pat relents. “Well sure, they [also] represent a time and place in our own journey.” It makes sense.
Their work is intimate, demanding, genuine, and speaks of the compassion and cultivation that allows people to freely be themselves. Poverty, oppression and scarcity stand side by side with joy and curiosity. Understanding the people, respecting their lifestyle, and being in a situation long enough to recognize what the opportunities were and how best to capture them was the foundation for this celebration. “Taking the time to get to know the place, traveling with the people, living as they do. It can be easy to become absorbed in taking the picture, rather than being in the experience. Baiba is really good at recognizing opportunities. Where I might be preoccupied with other concerns, she sees something out of the frame and anticipates a situation that I don’t know is coming. She sees the world differently and expands the results of what we have been shooting.”
A good example is an image captured while Baiba is showing a collection of personal photos to a group of children in a refugee camp near Manaslu. All of them are focused intently on what she’s saying about Canada, the animals that live there, and what life is like through something that they can recognize—like a cow or a chicken.
Pat knows from experience that kids’ eyes are everywhere. It’s a natural scene and impossible to guess when someone might look up at the camera. But eventually one child does. Straight into the lens, radiant with wonder, and in that expression is revealed a relationship. “You can’t anticipate the exact moment, but you can see the pattern and organize the camera and yourself in these situations where you might get that shot. I probably took ten frames, which was a lot then because we were on an eighty-day trek. But you have to get yourself into those situations. Create the opportunities to be there, and then don’t miss it.”
The Morrows would often arrange for prints of their photographs to be carried back to remote villages and presented to the people as gifts and recognition of their lives. Few had ever seen a framed print. For the messengers, the Morrows’ network would open, enlarging and building the community.
It’s also important to note that in addition to no one ever being paid as a model, the candid, everyday nature of these images reveal changes in cultures over time. The slides can be dated by what the subjects are wearing, particularly women. At one time, traditional clothing was worn every day. In the mountains, at ceremonies, or at home, to greater or lesser degrees of ornamentation depending on the scenario. Influences from Chinese and Indian cultures are evident. By accident, the Morrows’ collection is becoming an archive.
As an example, the large incense burners featured in one of the book’s shots are no longer in use in that particular location. The scene is embedded with such rich detail and admiration that it feels more like a contemporary experience than one lost in time.
“The bottom line is that it’s all deeply superficial,” laughs Pat at his own oxymoron. A deeply superficial life of adventure and dedication to providing a view inside. “Photography is a ticket to see the world, satisfy our curiosity and share with an audience this amazing culture.”
For the most part, they have been the authors of their careers, choosing and then seeking support for the stories they wanted to tell. On a few occasions, Pat has been a hired gun, but both acknowledge how fortunate they are to have self-directed the majority of their time.
“That type of life is very difficult today. When photographs were expensive—to develop, to print, to carry––image opportunities were measured. There was no choice but to be patient and to compose our thoughts, every time.”
The Morrows represent an enduring personal and artistic partnership. A love affair of people and places that demands finding ways and means of feeding it. When asked, Pat confesses to carrying a recording device with him at all times. Even downtown? “At least a point-and-shoot.”
Is it to keep the observer at the forefront or because he is uncomfortable without that tool in his hands? I didn’t ask; it would take time, indeed, to turn that lens around.
Postscript—Sadly, in light of the recent catastrophe in Nepal, the Morrows’ body of work has taken on a tragic importance. Many of the buildings and some villages depicted no longer exist. The irony of their arbitrary selection process, from decisions taken in the field to the curatorial process, now carries historical as well as cultural significance.
Learn more about Heart of the Himalaya