No preconceptions

The title of this post is a quasi-quote from the artist and legendary street photographer Garry Winogrand. It has become my main mantra of late, not only about photographic matters, but about life in general. It is a very difficult objective to keep an open mind, especially since I think that the interpretation of experiences and resulting conceptions are very closely bound to human nature, a natural way to make us feel emotionally safer. Brands and advertising, for example, exploit this longing for familiarity and make us reach out for packaging and colours we have seen before.

In itself, there is nothing wrong with this. However, there are certain times, if not most of the time, where we should be self-aware of our preconceptions, if only to prevent us to become easy prey for stereotypes and prejudices, positive and negative. Maybe we have heard something similar several times from from different sources. Or we have heard fractions of facts and our creative mind tries filling in the gaps. The purpose of this is to help making sense of the world in one way or the other, if only temporary. Would we feel the full effect of knowing that we know nothing, we would probably go crazy.

It is in this period of thought, where an email from a friend reaches me, and I am surprised that it discusses a very similar thought that I have been having and have recently articulated in an article for the German-Japanese Society of my hometown. Many people think of Japan by imagining sushi, temples, geishas and other “typical” things. While of course these things exist here, they by no means represent Japanese culture. In fact, I think they are rather offensive as they simplify and distort reality.

In my photos I am trying to show aspects of daily Japanese life, any and all aspects I personally come across. And even though I am not trying to exclude sushi, temples and geishas, unlike others I am also not looking for them. I capture what presents itself to me, and those obvious Japanese things are just several of many, many other things that make up the puzzle of this country. I can’t say I have succeeded, but just like they say in British news when they don’t know for sure: “The Police are keeping an open mind.”

I am quoting – with permission from the author – an article written for Tibetan Review:

Shattering the Shangri-La Stereotype: Tibetans re-branded

“Always. Coca Cola.” The red and white symbol of one of the world’s biggest
corporations has succeeded in embedding this logo in our minds. Strategic
advertising and public relations have helped. Although not as commercial as
Coca Cola Inc., there is an image of Tibetans that is being “marketed” by
foreigners and Tibetans alike and has almost become a brand. Many scholars
and writers such as Peter Bishop, Donald Lopez, Tsering Shakya and Jamyang
Norbu have tackled this issue from various perspectives. We are two young
Tibetans who feel at home in different cultures and yet identify ourselves
as Tibetan. Through our travels and experiences we have encountered mixed
reactions of not fitting the Shangri-la stereotype. This is the stereotype
of mysterious Tibetans being charmingly passive, intriguingly religious and
politically helpless. This stereotype has succeeded in drawing many into the
Tibetan cause but it has led to many disappointments as foreigners meet more
Tibetans that do not fit their preconceived notions.

Over fifty years of Chinese occupation has seen Tibetan society turned on
its head, both in Tibet and in exile. Today, it is practically impossible
for young Tibetans to really know what and how Tibet was before the Chinese
invasion. The Tibetan diaspora tries to preserve aspects of society that
cannot flourish inside Tibet but the question remains, what is Tibet today?
What is Tibetan?

There exists today a generation of exile Tibetans who have never even set
foot in Tibet. There is a new breed of Tibetan, second generation, third
generation – the likes of which have never been seen before. We are an ever
growing number, are slowly getting to know each other and are finding much
in common. Exchanging stories of how we are perceived as Tibetans show how
often we are being confronted with questions of identity and perception.
Being laughed at because we cook pasta but don’t know how to make thukpa,
hearing a comment that we are not really Tibetan because we don’t speak
English with an Indian accent and encountering surprised reactions for
having heard of (and actually knowing something about) Andy Warhol or Haruki
Murakami are all part of our daily lives! We are a new generation who is
educated, modern and international.

Tibetans who are socialized in Western societies are all too often dismissed
as “not being Tibetan”. It is as though the limits of our people have been
irrevocably defined. We’re not expected to eat meat, drive a car, throw a
hip Tibetan New Years Party or even to initiate activism on political
campaigns. Instead, we’re expected to wear our Tibetan chuba to every event
– to look Tibetan and exotic. We are frustrated by these kinds of
stereotypes that are projected onto us. It seems to us that many see
Tibetans no more than “gong-bashing Jedi-like monks”, to quote a friend.

It is almost as though the idea of Tibetans has the ‘dolphin-effect’ on
people – Tibetans are cute and endangered! Look at them and their funny
ways, God forbid they actually have opinions – who cares anyway when they
look so cute… This is a real image problem for Tibetans and has much
wider, more complex indications for the Tibetan cause. Much has been made
and documented about the myth and mystification of Tibet. Our generation
would do well to be taken seriously on an international level as educated,
rational, global citizens – who are also Tibetan.

To a certain extent it is our own fault – there are Tibetans out there who
cultivate this myth to their own advantage. Religious centers, charity
organizations and small businesses have gained the favour of Westerners by
presenting the image of underprivileged refugees. The media is to be blamed
for selecting only images of traditional and religious Tibetans that look so
good in National Geographic and on wall calendars.

However, the romantic image of Tibetans has also helped draw many people
into our cause. Many Tibet supporters, such as Richard Gere, were first
attracted to the religion and then learned about Tibetans and the movement.
The more they research, the more foreigners will find that their first
impressions of all Tibetans do not hold true. Some are even more fascinated
and continue to explore our culture and current situation. Many are
disappointed. Others continue to hold on to these stereotypes as they meet
many exceptions to this romantic image – a case where contrasting views are
held together like geological strata.

We are not in any way implying that we are ashamed of traditional Tibetans
or our religion. They are the foundation of the culture we take pride in.
Our movement has gained so much attention due to His Holiness the Dalai
Lama, who embodies non-violence and compassion. We are rebelling against the expectation that all Tibetans fit the stereotype. We resent the idea that
there is only one way of being truly “Tibetan.” The new young generation of
Tibetans is as passionate about the Tibetan cause as our parents and
grandparents. We see the Tibet problem in the wider context of international
relations and politics and try to understand the political situation so that
we can contribute to the cause in a meaningful way. We celebrate our
heritage and teach others about our cause as we adapt to different

We are a unique and peaceful movement but in today’s world, global young
Tibetans are learning new ways of living and thinking whilst maintaining
their heritage and identity. Those with this “Shangri-la stereotype” must
begin to realize that perhaps they are only in love with their image of
Tibetans and not Tibetans themselves. These stereotypes are not merely
harmless misconceptions. They give a false notion of reality and justify
irrational expectations. They exert a damaging pressure on Tibetans who
attempt to shatter these stereotypes.

Dechen Khando (26)was born and raised in the UK. She studied in London and Berlin and graduated from University College London, England, in English and German Literature. She is currently working in Berlin, Germany. Tenzin Metok Sither (21) was born and raised in India. She spent an exchange semester at Rice University, USA and graduated from International University Bremen, Germany in Integrated Social Sciences. She is currently pursuing her Masters degree at the London School of Economics in the UK.Related: