SACRED LAOS IN PHOTOGRAPHS: THE MONK’S GAZE

Our Head Librarian Valerie Scott recounts the story of the Buddhist Archive of Photography, an ongoing  project founded by Hans Georg Berger. This project, comprising over 35,000 historical photographs is in partnership with the Endangered Archives Programme at The British Library.

A BSR journey began in 1991 on the island of Elba with BSR archaeologists excavating medieval iron-working sites on Monte Serra overlooking the sea. This led to an encounter and long friendship with Hans Georg Berger, photographer and writer, at the Eremo di Santa Caterina, a small abandoned monastery on the same mountain, discovered and restored by Hans, which had become a retreat for writers, artists, scholars and scientists. This, in turn, led to my meeting Hans and his first visit to the BSR when he invited BSR artists to spend time working at the Eremo: no electricity, no hot water but wood stoves and candlelight, listening to night jars and scops owls on the mountain, the milky way overhead and the full moon’s reflection in the sea.

eap1

Eremo di S. Caterina, Rio nell’Elba (photographs courtesy of Roger Kite

eap2.jpg

Eremo di S. Caterina, Rio nell’Elba (photographs courtesy of Roger Kite)

A project to record the life, through photographs, of Buddhist monks and novices in the 64 monasteries in Luang Prabang took Hans to Laos, which became his home, but annual visits to S. Caterina, where we would often meet, continued. Hans recounted the plight of monastic photographic collections in South East Asia. He writes:

‘Most have been destroyed by a difficult climate, by neglect and by poverty, and, above all, the extraordinary political and social changes, war, civil war and revolution that affected the region during the 20th century. The influx of tourism and the development of a capitalist market economy constitute a new threat today’.

He spoke of his friendship with the learned and highly respected Abbot, Phra Khamchanh Virachittathera, who confided in Hans that he had collected photographs throughout his long life and they were safely stored in cupboards in his reception room.  The future of this unique collection, documenting 120 years of photography of Theravada Buddhism, concentrating on monastic life, ceremonies and portraits of eminent monks and scholars was, however, uncertain.

As Hans writes, ‘On the Venerable abbot’s death his photographs would traditionally, be distributed to the monk’s followers, as a Dhamma gift, or the photographs might be cremated with the monk’s body (they are considered carriers of Karmic energies of those portrayed). If the archive falls into the hands of non-Buddhists, neglect, mistreatment or dispersion are very likely’. With great generosity and wisdom the Abbot entrusted his collection to Hans.

News of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme was passed on to me by a colleague and reading the following statement on the website made me immediately think of Hans and the monks in Luang Prabang:

‘The Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) facilitates the digitisation of archives around the world that are in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration.’

A simple click on my computer to forward the information to Hans set in motion over 10 years of funding for a number of projects directed by Hans, working with the monks and leading to the creation of the ‘Buddhist Archive of Photography’ of Luang Prabang. The National Library of Laos, the national archival partner and the British Library today host digital copies of the images (the originals will remain in the monastery). To start, an overview of the Venerable abbot’s collection of 10,000 photographs was carried out, the photographs were identified and then digitised and catalogued.  Research on this unique material is on-going considering, for example, Luang Prabang’s importance as a centre of Theravada pilgrimage, and its continuous connections with similar centres all over south-east Asia.

As the project progressed other hidden collections emerged from the nearby monasteries and to date 35,000 images are available online at https://eap.bl.uk/project/EAP177/search and  https://eap.bl.uk/project/EAP326/search.

 

eap3

Two travelling monks from Luang Prabang
photographing an approaching train in Thailand
(X0856)

eap4

Pha Khamfan Silasangvaro,
Studio portrait, early 1930s (C1969)

The BSR journey continues, nearly 20 years later, marked by a special event organized by the Endangered Archives Programme at the British Library in January 2020 to celebrate the success of this remarkable project that has recently been selected by UNESCO as part of its Memory of the World Programme. This event coincided with a major exhibition at the British Library on Buddhism and a smaller one showing some of the Lao archive’s holdings.  Hans gave an inspirational talk about the history of photography within the monasteries in Laos throughout the 20th century and the remarkable results his project has produced. An endangered Archive has not only been saved but also discovered.

cropped_hans

Hans Georg Berger at the British Library
(Photo courtesy of Robert Miles)

And to complete the cycle this occasion also reunited three BSR Award Holders, Sarah Pickstone (BSR Rome Scholar in Painting 1991-2), Duncan Bullen (BSR Rome Scholar in Printmaking 1991-2) and Roger Kite (BSR Abbey Award 1994), artists who have all spent time in residence at the Eremo di Santa Caterina on Monte Serra on the island of Elba where this story began.

eap6

Sarah Pickstone, Hans Georg Berger, Valerie Scott, Duncan Bullen and partner Lorry Eason, Roger Kite

Warm thanks to all at the Endangered Archives Programme for organizing such a memorable event.

For further information on EAP see https://eap.bl.uk/

Valerie Scott, BSR Librarian