The greatest photo opportunity that never was!

Published on Dec 14 2009 // Commentary
By Yeshey Dorji

November 20, 2009 was the opening day of the 4th Session of the National Assembly of Bhutan. I awaited the arrival of the day like an excited little boy. I cancelled or postponed all my other engagements in order that I can be in Thimphu to attend the Opening Session. But when the day finally arrived, I spent the whole of it feeling frustrated, disgusted, angry and even almost rebellious but totally helpless to do anything about it!

I worked for weeks in advance to obtain clearance from the relevant authorities to photograph the colorful Opening Ceremony presided over by the Druk Gyalpo. I had never before photographed the Opening Session of the National Assembly and so this was a big moment for me. From what I have seen in the BBS TV, the grandeur, the setting and the regality of the event is unmatched. I met and sought advice from the Hon’ble Speaker and the Secretary of the National Assembly on how best to photograph the event; which gates to enter through and ran through the entire gamut of the DOs and DONTs of photographing in the great Hall.

Both the Hon’ble Speaker and the Secretary of the National Assembly (with whom I had separate meetings) explicitly told me that I could photograph the Opening Session. However, they categorically stated that I am not allowed to photograph His Majesty the King. That was a blow – for me personally as a photographer as well as an adoring subject, it would be such a life time opportunity to be able to photograph His Majesty the King presiding over the Opening Ceremony of the National Assembly.

Among the birding community of the world, there is a term known as “life bird”. What it means is that the birder has never seen a certain bird ever before in his life and so on a given birding trip, his entire focus is on sighting his “life bird”. Everything else is secondary. Similarly, as a photographer, I would have hit my proverbial high Note the day I get to photograph his Majesty the King. But obviously, 20th November, 2009 was not that day for me. Well, no matter, perhaps one day I too will be lucky enough to get my “life bird” but for now, I will just concentrate on the Opening Ceremony.

The rules of the game were clearly understood. I obtained my “MEDIA” Card from the Chief Security Officer of the RBP. I resolutely adhered to my resolve of the night before not to drink my customary one flask of black tea that morning so that I don’t have to keep running to the loo instead of shooting the Opening Ceremony. I checked to see that all my camera bodies and lenses were packed in the bag, I checked every lens to see that the UV filters were all dismounted (attention photographers: when you have to shoot in dim light, remove the UV filter to allow in more light – it helps). I checked to see that I had extra battery for each of my 3 camera bodies that I was carrying; I checked to see that I had enough memory cards to last me through the Ceremony. It was all systems GO!

And now the anti-climax! – when the moment finally arrived, I was not only prohibited from photographing the proceedings of the Opening Ceremony, but I was also barred from sitting in the Hall, even after I repeatedly gave my assurance that I will not engage my camera. I was unceremoniously ushered out of the Assembly Hall with one officious looking roundish girl offering to give me a photograph of His Majesty, if that were my wish. I am not sure if she was mocking me or sympathizing with me for my misfortune, but for sure she did not know the unwritten rule among professional photographers: no professional photographer worth his salt will want to use other photographers’ images. In fact, it is considered an insult to suggest such a thing! She had the audacity to further announce to me that even Kuensel photographers were not allowed. WOW!! That is certainly news! I know that in the past, other photographers have been barred but never, ever before in the history of the National Assembly was a Kuensel photographer ever disallowed from photographing the proceedings. In fact, it was mandatory that they are there without fail. So then what unknown upheavals had taken place in this country without my knowing about it? Has apartheid actually arrived in Bhutan? I remember that almost three decades ago, a chilip journalist had fumed and commented that Bhutan practiced “apartheid in reverse”.

I am truly baffled! I have time and again been told that the Speaker of the National Assembly had sole authority to grant or disallow permission to photograph the proceedings of the National Assembly. I was given to believe that in matters concerning the Parliament and its conduct and proceedings, his authority and power exceeded even those of the government. That is the reason why I explicitly sought and obtained his permission to photograph the Session. Had I known that some other agency had the legitimate authority and power to override him, I would have attempted to seek that organization’s permission as well.

It does not seem correct that the government has not yet put in place a central authority to oversea such matters instead of making it possible for every one to issue and impose rules and restrictions at will – as and when they please. Lot of confusion and hardship to the citizens of this country can be avoided if all those who think they have a need to impose their rules and restrictions channel their impositions through a nominated central authority that has been appropriately mandated with a proper legal basis to do so. This way, new rules and regulations can be disseminated with effectiveness through one single source so that unsuspecting people like me are not caught unawares. It will also prevent incidences of someone actually challenging the legitimacy of the authority that is imposing an out-of-turn restriction at the last minute.

On the stairway leading to his office, I ran into His Excellency the Opposition Leader who asked me if I was getting good photos. I told him I have been thrown out of the Hall. He looked startled and pained and muttered something kind which did little to suppress the anger that was welling up within my chest. I needed to get out of the complex fast before I did something stupid and get myself into a situation about which I would live to regret later.

As I was driving out of the parking lot, a friend stopped me to enquire if the Opening Session was over. It hadn’t even begun, but I told him yes it was over. He was puzzled that it should be over so fast. I informed him that the Opening Session of the 4th Session of the National Assembly qualifies as the shortest and the fastest in the history of Bhutan’s National Assembly. With that I drove off; I was in no mood for small talk.

I am angry and I feel cheated and deprived and my right as an equal citizen abused but there is nothing I can do about it or anyone to whom I can complain about it without risking serious repercussions. I simply cannot risk distortion of truth. I am old enough and wise enough to know that it is best for me to take it in my stride. But somehow, I need to vent my frustrations so that it helps me to put this detestable episode behind me and to move on. So here I am, within the confines of my own private weblog, pouring out my frustrations in the hope that, at the end of it, my anger and frustration is smothered to an extent that it is no longer a pulsating, throbbing pain in my temple.

Very few people know of the hard work and the pain and planning that goes behind creating beautiful and appealing images. But as a passionate and committed photographer, it is commonplace for me that each of my pursuits does not yield a great photograph. I have grown to consider every defeat as a challenge to strive even harder, to capture that one perfect shot in the way I visualize it. I am never disappointed at my failed attempts at photographing a rare or flighty bird or a beautiful peak exposed in all its majesty. I will try again and again and keep trying, until I get it! After all, if it were that easy to get great shots, any Tom, Dick and Harry would qualify to be called a photographer.

In the life of a photographer, daily challenges thrown up by the uncompromising nature of the natural world is nothing new. I live it and triumph over it from frame to frame. In fact, I find that more difficult the pursuit, greater is the reward and satisfaction of achievement. But at times there are situations and occasions engineered by fellow humans that no amount of commitment or good intention or hard work can yield results. It is at these times and in such situations that I have to concede defeat – times such as the 20th of November, 2009 when prohibition was imposed on me from recording the historical moment of the Opening of the 4th Session of Bhutan’s National Assembly; times when I am even barred from sitting in the Assembly Hall – let alone photograph the event.

Photography is not an exact science – it is a creative process. Only in automated factory assembly lines it happens that the outcome of each and every process is exactly the same in all respects. By contrast, every photographer’s work will differ from one to the other. Each will compose and frame and apply totally different perspectives to the same subject or scene. It is an expression of individual creativity and thus, no two individuals will produce an identical work. Therefore, it is my belief that allowing only one or two photographers to record the country’s historical events, each of which are unique in themselves, would be to limit and stifle the scope and scale of things. I do not mean to challenge the competence of the photographers but that there are others who could provide differing and more interesting perspectives to the same events. Participation by other photographers should not be misconstrued as competition but as something that will add variety.

The historical moments of which they are a part, belong to the people of Bhutan and must be recorded and archived for the benefit of posterity. Towards that endeavor, it is my belief that no single individual photographer can claim to be able to do the job so well and so perfectly that others are not required to render interpretation of the same event from a different perspective.

I am not a gawk-eyed tourist bearing an idiot camera and pointing it at His Majesty to take a mug shot. I am a professional photographer with the world’s very best professional gear attempting to record a piece of history that is in the making. If anything, people should be happy that I am contributing to the collective enrichment of our history, instead of chasing me away from a place to which I have gained lawful entry to conduct an authorized activity from an authority empowered to grant such permissions.

From all the reports and images in the media, His Majesty goes to great lengths to endear Himself to His subjects. All those beautiful and heart-warming images of Him hugging and embracing His subjects, holding small children in His arms, laughing and smiling away with His people all indicate that His Majesty truly and genuinely wishes to identify Himself with His people with whom I am told He is most at home. Therefore, I think it is wrong on the part of the government to put up barriers and deny licensed professionals like me the occasional opportunity to proliferate the mystique and the enigma that is the Druk Gyalpo.

It is a pity and a great injustice that even while being in the thick and thin of it, I as a professional photographer, with the very best of equipment and the necessary credentials do not have a single credible image of the country’s greatest and most illustrious Icon, to prove that I am a worthy photographer. It is not that I didn’t try – I tried every occasion that presented me an opportunity but every time I was shooed away like I was a leper. It is as if these people think that I am not responsible enough to know how to acquire the images of His Majesty or what to do thereafter.

No matter, for the moment, I have no choice but to eat humble pie and give up my aspirations of photographing the National Assembly. I will not do so hence forth. However, I hope that times will change and those people who currently deny me my life opportunity to photograph my King will move on and be replaced by ones who can introduce a system of separating the wheat from the chaff – instead of erecting an impregnable barrier around a photographic subject of such unparalleled appeal and allure.

Until then, I will bid my time – if ever it will come.

(Reproduced from his blog – Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon, posted on November 23, 2009)