For 20 years, Rinchen Ato has tenderly documented life in the Kham region of Tibet
The photographer has been travelling to her father’s home country since she was a baby, and for the past two decades has captured the region’s unique customs and characters.
Rinchen Ato has always been something of a perfectionist. Born in Cambridge, she studied fine art at A-Level and developed a precise and hyper-realistic style of drawing. “But I was always frustrated that I wasn’t good enough and ended up dropping out spectacularly,” she recalls. A year later, she went back and re-took her final school year, this time concentrating instead on photography. “I found I could focus on the subject instead of my own incompetence,” she says. “Plus, I drew in this really lifelike way, so photography was a better medium anyway.”
Rinchen went on to study Photographic Arts and for a while thought she might want to be a documentary photojournalist in the Don McCullin mould, shooting “important”, honest stories. But it didn’t take long for the reality of this life to dawn on her. “I remember watching a documentary about [McCullin] and he said, ‘You can file away and archive those negatives, but the memories never leave you.’ He looked haunted. I decided I couldn’t live my life with that same kind of haunting.”
After university, Rinchen went on to work for a photography agency, and this profession enabled her to fund her own personal photography projects. “I decided not to compromise on my photography,” she explains. “I would do it my way. I didn’t want a creative director hanging over me. And anyway, the stuff I’m interested in wasn’t really getting commissioned anymore.”
One of those personal projects has been ongoing for the best part of two decades and is especially close to her heart. It has involved multiple trips to Tibet, the birth country of her father, Ato Rinpoche, whose story is an extraordinary one. Rinchen’s father was discovered early in his life as a lama (a spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism) and grew up in a monastery, but at the start of Chinese Communist rule in 1959, he fled to India. While in exile he met and fell in love with Rinchen’s mother, gave up monastic life, and moved to England, where Rinchen was born in the early 80s.
Since she was two years old, Rinchen has been travelling to Tibet, both with her father and alone, and for the past two decades has been photographing the monasteries and communities of Kham, in the province of Qinghai. Over the years, she has built up an astounding body of work, hundreds of photos shot in medium format, lovingly documenting the religious practices, customs and lives of the people in rural Tibet.
GalleryRinchen Ato: Kham
Rinchen is well aware that these communities have been photographed a lot in the past by western photographers and that many of these images inevitably cast the society as foreign and shrouded in mystery. “It’s really important to me that my work is seen as different from all that, an attempt to decolonise photography in Tibet,” she says. “It’s important that these people are seen as my people, not foreign, but my family, and that the culture is not seen as magical and mysterious.”
The photos certainly carry a palpable warmth and intimacy, revealing the photographer’s closeness to, and understanding of, her subjects. One of the most striking images of the entire series shows two young girls, twins in fact, holding a pair of rabbits and wearing pink dresses. “I’ve seen those girls since they were six months old and I’ve shot them since they were two,” says Rinchen. “They’re now at university. It makes me so proud, seeing that series of them.”
GalleryRinchen Ato: Kham
The photographs across the series are also incredibly multi-layered, not necessarily betraying all their meanings to the viewer immediately. “I always try to have a message in my photography, but only if you really delve do you find it,” says Rinchen. “I like my work to look beautiful, but for the beauty to act like a bit of a smokescreen for the message underneath.”
It’s a lovely notion, and one that can be discerned in a lot of her work. One shot, for instance, shows a young monk holding a tiger pelt above his head. “It was a pure documentary shot,” says the photographer. “He walked past and I just stood up and shot him. But the backstory to that image is really interesting.” In 2006, she explains, the Dalai Lama made an offhand statement saying that he was saddened when Tibetans wore animal furs. “The message got into Tibet and people burnt their furs in their thousands,” she says. Around that time, someone donated a tiger fur to the monastery, which somehow got stashed away in a cupboard. The pelt then resurfaced during a big clear-out. “The picture holds all of that,” says Rinchen. “But it’s also just a portrait of a boy.”
Another image depicts three monks sitting at a table, in a state of relaxation and good humour that is distinctly at odds with most of the imagery we’re accustomed to seeing of these men in formal situations. Tacked to the wall high above their heads, almost lost in the gloom that dominates the top of the shot, is a small portrait of the current Chinese President Xi Jinping.
When she first saw a similar scene, Rinchen asked herself why the family would have given this image such pride of place. The answer is perhaps surprising, but encapsulates so much about Tibetan history and culture. “It’s basically a hangover from the Cultural Revolution,” she explains. “Back then, people weren’t allowed religious iconography, so they hid and sometimes buried statues, paintings and photos. So what do you do? You replace all that with a picture of Mao – a show of support, an insurance policy. This tradition became a part of the culture, an iconographic hangover.” Again, like the picture of the young monk, the image holds all of this, but at the same time is also just a photograph of three monks having a laugh.
Other photos from the series have a more sombre background. One set was taken by Rinchen in the aftermath of a destructive earthquake in 2010. “The town was totally obliterated and so many people died,” she recalls. She looks back at the photographer she had once wanted to be: the unflinching photojournalist, capturing the misery and the tragedy in excruciating detail. “That would have been that series, that Don McCullin series of people crying,” she says. “But I couldn’t do it, because these were my friends. I couldn’t not hold their hand. I was not a photographer coming in and remaining detached.”
Instead of shooting that McCullin series, Rinchen wandered around the area, often at night, and photographed the landscapes, using long exposures in the low light. “On the surface, these are really beautiful,” she says. “There’s the pretty moon and the blue tents. But they’re relief tents, so there’s a really sinister undertone to them.”
Generally, the atmosphere of the series is difficult to pin down. Rinchen herself describes her photos as hovering somewhere between “super-nostalgic and realistic”. The nostalgia stems from the fact that she and her family have witnessed the dramatic changes that Tibet has undergone over the past few decades. “My dad says the country has gone from the Bronze Age to the 21st Century in 50 years, and that’s absolutely true,” she says. “When we first went there, we travelled around by horse. Now we fly into the nearest town.”
This has produced in Rinchen a strange yearning for “a Tibet I didn’t have,” she says. “Photography is a way for me to hold on to moments and people, but also of celebrating who they are.” Nostalgia and realism, again. For instance, she believes that the nomadic lifestyle of some of Tibet’s communities will not survive much longer; other customs are quickly vanishing. “Now, you go out for dinner and everyone is on their phones,” she says. While she finds this sad, she also understands that it’s not fair to expect a society to stay static. Still, there is always a tension there: “I see what they’re losing; they only see what they’re gaining.”
GalleryRinchen Ato: Kham
Rinchen’s series only recently began receiving the recognition it so richly deserves. Partly this is down to her aversion to self-publicising. “I’m not very good at promoting my own work, even though I do that for other people,” she says. “I never felt it was really ready. I kept getting to the last hurdle.”
In 2019, however, she spotted that Kettle’s Yard, the University of Cambridge’s modern and contemporary art gallery, was putting on a “Cambridge Show”, bringing together artists based in and around the city. “I threw a couple of images at it on the last day before it closed,” she says, “and got selected. I didn’t realise how big it was until the opening night. I was stood there with these amazing artists in this amazing space and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really special.’”
Rinchen had always wanted to turn her series about Tibet into a book, but her own sense of perfectionism had always been a stumbling block. “Originally, I wanted to do a really beautiful hardcover book,” she says. “It’s a massive task, though, which was one of the obstacles to actually starting.” The Kettle’s Yard show gave her the confidence to create a book, called Kham, that’s more akin to a high-quality exhibition catalogue. “I pulled it together in three weeks in the end. The show was really just the incentive I needed.”
There are a multitude of lessons that can be extracted from the story of Rinchen’s Tibet series. Don’t compromise on your artistic vision, have confidence in your own creative voice, and always create things that are meaningful and personal to you. But perhaps the most important lesson is to not put too much pressure on yourself to make something perfect, because – to borrow a cliche – the best is often the enemy of the good.
Rinchen hasn’t forgotten her desire to one day publish the series as a hardcover coffee-table book. In fact, she is seeing its current iteration as “the first edition of a book that will have many more lives”. As she puts it: “Maybe when I’m older, like 60, I’ll turn it into a hardcover coffee-table book. Right now, though, I just had to get it done.”
Rinchen will be joining us at the next Nicer Tuesdays on 25 February 2020 to talk about the project and her story. Click here to buy tickets to the event.
GalleryRinchen Ato: Kham
Rinchen Ato: Kham