At the end of 2018, London-based photographer Tom Johnson travelled to Dharamsala, a city in India at the foot of the Himalayas, home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. A stunning landscape steeped in history and home to the Thekchen Chöling Temple Complex, the spiritual centre for Tibetan Buddhism, Tom returned, as you’d imagine, with images full of robe-toting monks. They are not, as you’d also imagine, meditating and studying, however, but playing basketball.
Tom was sent there by French basketball magazine Entorse to document the 17th Martyrs Basketball tournament, which takes place in homage to the 150 monks who have publicly sacrificed themselves since the 2000s to protest Chinese occupation. “Entorse approached me,” Tom tells us. “I didn’t really know anything about basketball and was really keen to learn about Dharamsala and the Tibetan culture, so I jumped at the opportunity!”
Travelling with Clement Guerre, the writer covering the story, the pair were shown around by Dawa who acted as a guide and translator. Born in Tibet, Dawa was smuggled into India to study when she was young. “She introduced us to the organisers who were very welcoming and gave us access to the games and introduced us to the teams and players,” Tom recalls. “It’s a very peaceful and spiritual place, we quickly learnt how welcoming and hospitable the Tibetan and Indian people were.”
It’s an altogether surprising story, although perhaps due to naivety from us in the West. Monks have, in fact, Tom explains, “been playing basketball for the last ten years, before they were forbidden to play any sports but were becoming unphysical healthy, the young monks play basketball and the older ones practise yoga.” It’s these young people who form a large part of the series, one that is full of youthful energy, in turn challenging stereotypes.
Aesthetically, Tom didn’t set out with any preconceptions but rather acted in response to his surroundings. “I wanted to show the close relationship between the players and monks,” he concludes. “It’s a study on how a group of people living and participating in an ancient practice are embracing modern sport for their collective benefit.” As a result, there’s an honesty to the images. They don’t feel voyeuristic or prying but endearing and joyful.
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