Photographer Joe Tymczyszyn is a retired aeronautical engineer and pilot, who acquired his first camera—a Kodak Brownie—in 1950. He has been devoted to photography ever since. Once he retired from work, he dedicated himself to capturing human beauty in unlikely places: female bodybuilding contests, cosplay conferences throughout Asia (ComiCons), tribal fusion belly dance performances, gay pride parades, and, remarkably, eight trips to photograph the beauty and beautiful people at ethnically Tibetan Buddhist New Year ceremonies.
What was once the Tibetan province of Amdo, an historically significant region for the development of Vajrayana Buddhism, now forms part of the three Chinese provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan. Traveling with Canadian tour operators and Cham enthusiast Susan and William Trimble, Joe has visited Amdo eight times during the traditional Monlam, or New Year, festivities. These are great annual events, as much social as ritual.
There are the Cham dances—which will be featured in this column next month—and there are the Buddhist faithful, for whom the Monlam festivals still continue, despite the very small number of foreign tourists and an increasing number of Han Chinese tourists. Seeing a Cham dance ceremony attended by mostly local people is becoming difficult to do in India and Bhutan. These opportunities, made possible by Susan and William Trimble, and artistically seized upon by Joe, are rare to find, and as such, these photos are quite special.
“I speak native English, plus Chinese and French, and enjoy traveling to places where I can talk with the people I photograph,” Joe explained. “I like to shoot photos of people. I talk with them before I shoot. I almost never take a shot of a person who I haven’t talked with and gained their agreement to let me shoot. They often ask me to send them a digital copy of the photo, and I do that.
“In the past I have mainly shot at events where everyone wants their picture to be taken, such as cosplay shows, bodybuilding contests, and parades. The Tibetan minority Buddhists at the monastery ceremonies normally agree to let me photograph them in their beautiful costumes. They are open and friendly people and happy to meet foreigners who can speak Mandarin. The costumes are beautiful. The women are beautiful. I’ve gone to Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and the Tibet Autonomous Region eight times to do this.”
Of course, Amdo no longer exists as a political reality or a coherent culture. Calling it Tibet is like calling Pakistan “India” because you wish it was. Amdo now exists only in the memory and imagination. But the Tibetan faithful still exist, now often as a minority population among the millions of Han Chinese and many Hui Muslims who have migrated into these areas. This faith, the enduring family culture, remains for now, bereft of the feudal economy, religion, and politics that once gave it life. It is not common that a photographer of Joe’s skill focuses on the people of Chinese Tibet, and it is a pleasure to introduce his work to you here. Because these faces reflect the Buddhist faithful of all times, we have titled this portfolio of images, Candid Amdo. It includes captions by the photographer.
Joseph Houseal is the director of Core of Culture, an organization dedicated to safeguarding intangible world culture and assuring the continuity of ancient dance traditions where they originate. As a religious, philosophical, and ritual expression, dance has an important role in the practice of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and other Asian belief systems. Long unbroken transmissions of movement forms are reflected in religious artistic depictions, where performative iconography is mystical code as well as movement illustration. Ancient Dances looks at the aspects of dance and spirituality to enhance practice and appreciation among readers, and to raise cultural awareness in our changing world. It uses dance as a lens to explore states of consciousness and symbolic representations.
Ancient Dances is published monthly.