Phil Borges


The Telegraph, London

Monday, July 15, 1996

The Power of Compassion: Portraits of Tibet
by Mick Brown

PHIL BORGES'S first awareness of the plight of the Tibetan people came from a car bumper sticker, 'Free Tibet!'. From whom, or what, Borges wondered. It was not until he picked up a book about vanishing cultures that Borges began to find out.

Since the invasion in 1949 by the Chinese, Tibet has become
a country in peril; its people persecuted; its land desecrated; its religious traditions all but annihilated. Yet the Tibetan culture has proved extraordinarily resilient in the face of assault, steeped as it is in a Buddhist philosophy which emphasises compassion and forgiveness above all else.

It is these qualities that have inspired Borges's photographic portraits of the Tibetan people: a strength, a stoicism, and a palpable sense of the irreducible certainty of self, which is born not of ideology but of faith. These are not pictures of a vanquished people, but of a culture which is strangely triumphant in adversity.

It is estimated that almost 20 per cent of the Tibetan population have been killed in the years since the Chinese invasion; tens of thousands have been imprisoned. During the Cultural Revolution, all but a handful of Tibet's 6,200 monasteries were destroyed and a policy of massive population relocation has resulted in Tibetans now being outnumbered in their own country by Chinese settlers. Following the popular uprising against the Chinese occupation in 1959, more than 100,000 Tibetans followed the county's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

The home of the Dalai Lama, and of the Tibetan government-in-exile is now in the town of Dharamsala, in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India. And it was there that Phil Borges, a Seattle-based photographer, received his first lesson in compassion. Seated in a courtyard, surrounded by Tibetan monks, listening to a teaching by the Dalai Lama, Borges was struck by the Dalai Lama's imprecation that we should treat our enemies as "precious jewels". "I remember thinking," he says, "what good is patience and tolerance if the very people who are practising it are being systematically wiped out?"

Understanding what the Tibetan Buddhists mean by compassion was the beginning of Phil Borges's odyssey to capture the spirit of the Tibetan people, and their non-violent resistance to the occupation of their country by the Chinese. Borges travelled through Northern India, Nepal, Ladakh and into the heart of Tibet itself, photographing exiles and Tibetans living under Chinese rule.

What he has captured are not simply portraits but lives. There is Palden, a monk who had been imprisoned for 24 years, his teeth smashed in beatings, who says simply: "I no longer have anger for my captors". Kalsang, Ngawang and Dechen - three nuns who spent two years in a Chinese prison, in the course of which they were beaten and shocked with cattle-prods; and there is eight-year-old Jigme whose nomadic family had just come down from the Himalayan highlands to their winter camp on the Tibetan plateau - an altitude of 16,000ft - when Borges photographed her.

"When I gave Jigme a Polaroid of herself she looked at it, squealed, and ran into her tent," Borges remembers. "It must have been the first time she had seen herself since her family did not own a mirror."

Travelling in Tibet - where tourists are welcomed by the Chinese authorities, but journalists are not - Borges was careful not to question people too closely about life under the Chinese. Disclosure can be dangerous; dissent punishable by a prison sentence. "But the extraordinary thing was how many people I spoke to, both in and out of Tibet, said, 'I no longer have anger for the Chinese'. I heard it enough that I began to recognize the Tibetan phrase before I heard the translation."

This sense of compassion is the very heartbeat of Tibetan Buddhism. "The Tibetan Buddhists believe that there is no greater vehicle than compassion and forgiveness to counteract the suffering caused by an attitude of self-cherishing," says Borges. "It's that attitude of self-cherishing that prevents us from recognising that everything is interdependent, and that our well-being depends on the well-being of everything and everyone around us. This self-cherishing is slowly dissolved by the daily cultivation of compassion. If the Tibetans were to abandon compassion, even in the light of their suffering, they would be abandoning the culture they are trying so hard to maintain.'

Borges, who is now 53, came to photography late in life. Until the age of 45 he was an orthodontist, with a thriving practice in San Francisco. It was a successful career, but, says Borges: "It had run its course for me." After enrolling in a photography course, Borges sold his dental practice and moved to Seattle to take up commercial photography.

His success in the fields of advertising and publishing has given Borges the platform to pursue his interest in more socially-directed projects. To photograph the Huichol Indians in a remote area of Mexico, Borges signed on as a dentist with a group of doctors flying in to bring medical assistance to the tribe. A project photographing inner-city teenagers in Seattle became an exercise in group participation when Borges raised funds to equip the group with cameras to take pictures of their own lives. His interest in Tibetan Buddhism has led to a more personalised practice of meditation and retreats.

"Everything about the Tibetans seems examplary to me," says Borges. "Here is a culture that has not succumbed to the temptation of violence, retribution and restitution in the face of human rights violations. They face everything that has happened to them with equanimity. That's what's so powerful about it; that's what's inspirational."

Phil Borges's photographs will be on show at Alexandra Palace, London, on July 20 when the Dalai Lama will appear at the 'Tibet - Save A Culture' festival, speaking on the subject of 'The Need to Balance Spiritual and Material Values'. The festival is a family occasion featuring music, speakers, stalls and children's activities. 12noon - 8pm. All the tickets for the Dalai Lama's talk have now been sold but you are welcome to attend the rest of the festival.

Phil Borges

  • Georgia Straight, 2005
  • double-eXposure, 2004
  • Lucie Awards, 2003
  • Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2003
  • OC Metro, 2003
  • New Horizons for Learning, 2003
  • The South Asian, 2001
  • National Post, 2000
  • Common Ground, 2000
  • ArtScene, 1999
  • The Telegraph, London, 1996

  • Inventory

  • Field Notes, 2001

  • About Phil Borges

    Jigme, 8 with Sonam, 18 months

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