Photographer Liling Cui on moving Tibet away from the Western gaze
The London-based, China-born photographer brings her subtle talent to the high-altitude villages of Tibet, showing the genuine life of people she knows well.
- Joey Levenson
- 15 February 2023
So often do we see the life of Tibet through a Western gaze that it’s hard to find artistic portrayals of the region done from artists of Asian descent. Liling Cui is here to change that, offering up an authentic lived-in point of view of Tibet through her beautiful photography. It all started with a specific aspect of the region which captured Liling’s curiosity. “I have always been fascinated by religious culture, as well as by the art derived from it,” the photographer tells It’s Nice That. “Before I started this project I travelled frequently to Tibet and studied Tibetan Buddhism for a while, so I lived surrounded by Tibetan culture.” It was when Liling visited the hometown of her friend for one summer in Tibet that the project truly came to life. “Since my friend is the abbot of the village monastery, it allowed me to photograph some monastery states in the village,” she recalls.
The village, named Tarshul, is located at an average altitude of 4,520 meters. It’s one of the highest villages of China, and provides a serene, somewhat tranquil backdrop for Liling’s photos. “I visited it twice in two months, every time I stayed more than two weeks. It came into existence 300 years ago, when a monastery was built here,” Liling passionately explains. “Being with them makes me feel like I'm a part of them, but that also prevents me from observing.”
For Liling, she found that approaching young people of the village was far easier than larger families. “Since they live a simple life and rarely interact with people outside their village, they are very shy,” she says. “I take very few pictures with the camera during our time together, making them feel as if I'm just taking family pictures for them.” It worked wonderfully, as Liling managed to capture photos which don’t feel intrusive nor detached, but rather inviting and somewhat curious. “Whether I am an observer or a participant, or both, I must adjust my role, which is a challenge for me.”
Interestingly, one of Liling’s favourite photos of the project features none of the people who inhabit the village. Instead, there’s a simple black cow in the background and a window in the foreground. “The photo appears to be very humble,” she tells us. “Through the window, it's the grassland freedom the young people cannot give up, but at the same time, they are attracted by the new life in social media.” That brings Liling to another favourite image of hers, that of her friend; the cousin of the family. “When I photographed him, he was going to be a monk after that summer,” she recalls. “Full of courage, in the blink of an eye, without any equipment, he had climbed a very high rock wall because he wanted to check the Eagle's Nest hanging on the rock wall. I would regard him as a very typical young Tibetan, suntanned skin, full of courage.”
So, what’s the takeaway from the project? For Liling, “it’s a good opportunity to show Westerners the real living conditions of people in this small village of Tibetan herders,” she says. “Minority cultures are being eroded by mass culture and globalisation in every corner of the earth, so consider what we can do to help nearby minority cultures and maintain them.”
Liling Cui: Chozsang (Copyright @ Liling Cui, 2021)
About the Author
Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. He was part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.