Laurent Zylberman was among the first Westerners authorized to enter Tibet after the deadly riots of March 2008. What he found there was a far more complex story that he expected. He met the separatists and those who want to integrate, businessmen and monks, newcomers and the traditionalists. With a stark black-and-white palette, his photographs tell all those stories against stunning background of nature. But after fifteen days in the region accompanied by journalist Eric Meyer, he went home to find his editors, confused by his editorial line, had pulled out funding for a book project. Both men decided to take on financing themselves through exhibitions and crowdsourcing, and managed to raise enough to publish Tibet, The Last Cry, a journal of 40 photographs with text. It’s already been published in Spanish and French, and an English edition is on its way.
Roads & Kingdoms: What’s your reason for publishing in three languages?
Laurent Zylberman: Our stance is that the situation in Tibet is a fixation for many foreigners who know little about it. It’s always been portrayed as a black and white situation, someplace where there is no middle road. The usual point of view is “bad red Han Chinese” versus “cool yellow hat monks.” So we wanted to reach far and wide, adding German and Italian editions, but it’s been tough.
R&K: What were the challenges you faced?
LZ: Editors didn’t agree with our line. As any country that has been invaded and colonized, the incoming influx of people, customs, laws and military power in Tibet is brutal. But there are people keen to maintain some kind of autonomy. These people are hardly heard. Hardliners exist too on the Tibetan side. Many resent the suppression of their culture and the disappearance of former walks of life, mostly the nomadic habits. We met people on both sides, eager to find a common ground and talk to each other, but they can’t really voice their opinions out loud.
This is what I show: control. Everywhere. All the time. But in a subtle way.
R&K: Why do you think editors were uncomfortable with that story?
LZ: Editors want to see more guns and the army beating up monks. Or, they want a nice coffee table book with colorful pictures. Somehow our balanced view was not radical enough for them. That’s why we resorted to a crowd-funding scheme to finance the books.
R&K: It must have been very frustrating…
LZ: Yes, we had this very rare official permission to work in Tibet because authorities knew who we were after we both spent a number of years in China. So we had a deal with a big editor before our departure. While on the go, I posted photos and Eric sent some texts relating the trip. They dumped us saying that this was not what they expected, and that they wanted nice touristic stuff. Others wanted something more gloomy and could not take the fact that some Han Chinese we were talking to had views similar to the Tibetans.