Shinya Arimoto – Tibet

One of the reasons Shinya Arimoto’s Tibet rings so true for me is that the work was begun from a point of self-critique. Towards the end of the book, Arimoto recounts that he was once a twenty-something, backpacking in India, travelling fast and shooting freely. When his undeveloped film was stolen, he fell into a period of doubt and confusion, seeing himself as disinterested in people and without good reasons for continuing. As he picked himself up and kept moving, a chance meeting with a Tibetan family helped him realise what was lacking in his practice: kindness, connection and openness. Facing up to his previous mistakes, Arimoto began the work that is now Tibet, resolving to replace disinterest with care and nonchalance with intention.

Knowing this story opens up so many facets of the book. Many elements of what may appear to be a simple and repetitive strategy become a more subtle and committed work. Knowing that Arimoto really grappled with his motivation and engagement with his practice, we can see how he committed to a region and a people and worked photographically to connect further with those he met. When I first looked through the book I was overwhelmed and struggled to grasp the work, yet when Arimoto recounts his story of realisation and owns his youthful errors, the entire work and every single image changes – just as the photographer had to re-work his approach to the medium, readers are offered a chance to re-work their view of the book.

…just as the photographer had to re-work his approach to the medium, readers are offered a chance to re-work their view of the book.

Tibets several hundred pages consist almost entirely of portrait after portrait after portrait: of children, of families, of people playing pool, of people travelling, of people playing music, of ritual. Predominantly square format, entirely black and white, superbly printed on a heavy stock, the work appears to be straightforward. And yet there’s so much under the surface: much more than what may, at first, seem like a ‘best of’ his portraits from those 14 years of travel.  

One way this book exceeds being merely a book of portraits is the work’s relationship to Arimoto himself. This is not just a work about Tibet, nor is it just about the people Arimoto met and photographed. It is also about how photography can function as a way of engaging with place, with people,  and with one’s own intentions. Arimoto deepened his connection to Tibet, learning the language, returning and travelling the region as a way of trying to develop more thoughtful and connected photographs. And we can see this aspect of his intention vitally present in many of the portraits. The desire for kindness and nearness is especially present in his photographs of children. There’s such a closeness, a warmth and a shared good humour in them.  Nothing seems staged or cold or distant, but present and playful. These photographs have a clarity and presence that really speaks to the ways Arimoto was able to succeed in his intention: to spend more time and make more genuine connections, to be present in people’s lives and to act with care, rather than with haste. More than anything, the photos of children stand as a testament to the success he had moving from callous to considered.

However, his photographs of adults are much less straightforward and reveal an interesting tension and awareness in the work. Looking at the portraits of adults, a question is lurking: can one move from being an outsider to an insider? Arimoto has an unusually long and dedicated commitment to the region and the people – visiting for most of his 20s – that  is reflected in many of the portraits showing a vulnerable interior life: a woman preparing for a special event (marriage?), portraits of individuals so physically close, adults looking back with what I read as acknowledgement and awareness. And yet, alongside all these there are many images showing distance: adults peering back with confusion, perhaps even suspicion. Arimoto plays with many elements of the frame in these images, often employing a tent opening to show us some, but not all of a person and their life. I read this complexity as a self-awareness of Arimoto’s: despite his repeated trips and effort, only so much is knowable, only so many connections are reached. 

Tibet, then, demonstrates Arimoto’s failures as much as his successes. As someone who returned year after year to renew a connection to people and place, there are times where he just was not able to, where the distance between himself and the subjects he photographed was just too great. As photographers, it’s important to acknowledge where our work is limited and where certain attempts reach only some of their hoped-for success. The tension in his photographs of adults may initially seem a bit jarring, a bit out of place, maybe even second best. But this is not a book of greatest hits, it’s a record of how Arimoto tried, and where he succeeded and where he didn’t. Including these awkward photos demonstrates Arimoto’s honesty and courage – he knows there are times he didn’t live up to his hope of connecting with Tibetans and includes these photos to acknowledge that reality. For this inclusion, the work is much more complex and reflects a more nuanced understanding of travel and photography: even when we work hard to get it right there will always be some distance between a tourist and the place they visit. Even fourteen years of visiting cannot erase that distance completely. 

…but this is not a book of greatest hits, it’s a record of how Arimoto tried, and where he succeeded and where he didn’t.

Only rarely does Arimoto show readers the life of Tibetans. There are very few, perhaps less than a dozen, images of people ‘living’. Most of these are travelling (people in a car, or shepherds), a scattered two indicate the gathering of food and there are several photos alluding to religion. When I first looked through the book, I wondered why there were so few photographs of the landscape. When I looked at it a second time I wondered why there were so few photos of people doing things – most of the portraits are simply people looking back at the camera without further context. Thinking about these questions now, it occurs to me that this is an extension of Arimoto’s desire  to represent what he knows and what motivates him: the experience of being seen and genuinely connecting with Tibetan people. The necessity of living, the complexity of existence, these are things Arimoto, as an outsider, perhaps cannot know and, therefore wisely I think, he has chosen to focus on what is present and immediate and true – his experience with people.

Sometimes, when I see a book, I wonder ‘why is this so good?’ When I ask myself that question about this book, I think that trust and mercy are a huge part of Arimoto’s experience. Hitchhiking around areas closed (formally) to tourists, spending time working in temples and learning Tibetan, returning again and again and again. In Arimoto’s work there is the dogged persistence so many photographers mention when talking about making work: there is a commitment to the material. Alongside that, there is this vulnerability and trust. Arimoto placed himself at the mercy of fate and the kindness of strangers. In this way the book achieves its aim: it celebrates the hospitality, warmth and connection of the Tibetan people, it affirms Arimoto’s intention to collapse the distance between himself and those he photographed, and it calls for readers to share in that experience and celebrate it as well. But equally, the book demonstrates Arimoto’s limits. Including images where this connection fails is a reminder that even the most heartfelt efforts are, ultimately, only going to succeed sometimes. 

Shinya Arimoto
Zen Foto Gallery

All Rights Reserved: text © Matt Dunne; images © Shinya Arimoto & Zen Foto Gallery unless otherwise noted.