CNN Photos

Tibetans highlight ‘one voice’ of all refugees

Photographer David Zimmerman realized he was especially drawn to the Himalayas and Tibetans as he worked his way along the Ganges River from its source in the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal.

He made friends with scores of Tibetan refugees and listened to their stories during his four-year project.

Zimmerman, an American who divides his time between New York and Taos, New Mexico, says he recognized a parallel with the American Southwest, where people living on environmentally compromised land struggle for identity.

“The people linked to those regions have a bond with the landscape and often suffer the same consequences as the land itself, whether precipitated by environmental, social or political changes,” he says.

“Many of these people have few options, and remain, living in a damaged place. Those who move on must uproot their histories and seek a new sense of society. What do people do when all is lost? Are people defined by their territory or by the culture they construct in their new life?”

Zimmerman discovered that most of the Tibetans he came across had never had their picture taken, so the portrait sessions sometimes offered a sense of discovery. On return trips he would travel with gifts, small prints of everyone he had photographed.

He said his “One Voice” series, on view at the Sous Les Etoiles Gallery in New York through the end of November, tells the unique story of Tibetans in exile in India.

“The Tibetan story is a story of a people in transition, a transition from the Tibetan plateau to a new life in India, with a changed landscape and culture and language.”

Zimmerman says he sought to emphasize the emotional quality of the portraits by isolating the subjects against a black background.

“I was moved by the sensitivity in the Tibetan peoples’ faces and believed a portrait would best communicate the Tibetan story. By removing environmental context, the portraits became a study of expression, individual form and emotion.”

The flow of Tibetans out of the Himalayas began during the 1959 Tibetan uprising, after the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India. The uprising disputed China’s military takeover of the region in 1950, a dispute that continues today.

A 2009 census put the number of Tibetans in exile at 150,000, concentrated in India, Nepal and Bhutan. It is estimated that close to 4,000 Tibetan refugees arrive in Dharamshala every year.

Zimmerman photographed in 17 refugee camps in the north of India, mostly in the home of the Dalai Lama, Himachai Pradesh, as well as Jammu and Kashmir.

He felt that the Tibetan refugees didn’t succumb to anger or hopelessness.

“Throughout my travels in India, whether in Tibetan nomad camps in the north or in sprawling urban settlement camps, two things remained constant: a desire to serve his or her community and to communicate the Tibetan desire to return to their homeland, and an ever-present shy smile, welcoming me to their homes to share a cup of tea.”

Zimmerman said he hopes his images of the Tibetan diaspora will highlight the plight of refugees around the world.

“There are millions of people displaced worldwide. Over the years, new global events overshadow the stories of people who have lived as refugees for decades,” he says.

“The Tibetan story is a universal story, and ‘One Voice’ speaks not only for a specific group of people, but for all refugees who are waiting – waiting to return to their homes.”

- Rebecca Horne, Special to CNN