Tibetan photographer’s Artspace exhibit offers stark take on self-immolation

Since 2009, 153 Tibetans have carried out acts of self-immolation in response to Chinese government rule in the Himalayan country



In the early afternoon of February 27, 2009 in Ngaba county, Sichuan province, Tapey, a Tibetan monk in his mid-20s set himself on fire in an act of protest against Chinese government rule in Tibet. Since then, there have been 153 more acts of self-immolation in Tibet. Working with Tibetan advocacy groups, photographer Lodoe Laura collected images of those behind the acts of resistance. The photographs form part of an exhibit, “153,” on at Ryerson Artspace at the Gladstone until Sunday, September 25. 

What inspired you to put together “153”?

Like many Tibetans, I was trying to understand the recent self-immolations inside and outside of Tibet. I read [Tibetan blogger] Woeser’s book, “Tibet on Fire,” and it compelled me to want to do more research, and eventually, to lend my voice. I’m not entrenched in the political system, and I don’t have experience organizing protests, but this to me was a small way I could lend my voice. Art about political protest is always insufficient and incomplete, but I do think it has a role to play in these complex conversations.

The way you have presented the portraits — chronologically, stark, minimalist, monochromatic — has a kind of deadening effect. What were you trying to achieve?

To me, it was less important to focus on the obvious – the flames or fire. There is a power, but also a difficulty, to images that explicitly show the act of self-immolation that is hard to access for many, and I don’t necessarily know how productive they are. I wanted to acknowledge the self-immolators as individuals. I thought about sang puja [the Tibetan purifying ritual] and used charcoal and incense as a medium in each of the silkscreen-printed portraits. For me, it was a way of acknowledging, subtly, the nature of the protests. It was important for me to try not to be overly sensationalistic or festishistic in my portrayal of the self-immolations. And so the starkness of black and white, the scale – you have to get up close to each image since they are quite small – were all very important.

As a Tibetan, how did you approach the sensitivity of this issue?

It’s anxious territory to tread. Whenever we encounter images of the self-immolations, if ever, it is usually on the internet. So rather than digital screens, making the prints by hand was important to me. I travelled to Kathmandu, to collect the charcoal and incense ash for the prints. And I suppose there is some performativity to that, since there is no way to tell where the medium came from in the final print. But in the end, it is one of the most important aspects of the work.

What kind of reception have you gotten from the Tibetan community in Toronto?

I wanted to create a work that showed solidarity with Tibetans, and was respectful of the community, but still held a strong visual and emotional power. One of the reasons I chose to display this work at  Artspace was because it is close to Parkdale, which is a hub for the Tibetan community here. Ultimately, the conversations that come out of showing these portraits are as important as what’s hanging on the walls.

How has your understanding of self-immolation evolved as you worked through this project?

The process of putting together this exhibit was intentionally very labour intensive. Milling, drying, and sifting the charcoal and incense ash was time-consuming. My father and I took turns grinding the materials in a heavy stone mortar and pestle, and he taught me Tibetan freedom songs as we worked. The repetitiveness of the motions left a lot of time to think about what we were doing and why. I spent a lot of time looking at these faces, and reflecting on them, and thinking about their lives, and the act they felt they had to take. 

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