“I went to Bhutan with a preconceived notion that Bhutan was the ‘Happiest Country in the World’ and that it was the ‘last Shangdi-la’, which I think if I’d only been there on a two week photo assignment, I would have left believing,” documentary photographer AJ Heath tells What We Seee. “Being there for a year really allowed me to get under the skin of the country and I was extremely fortunate to visit most districts and spoke to a huge number of people. I believe this gave me a very informed opinion of the current state of the country and the problems it faces.” And the understanding of Bhutan shines through in his latest book, Way of Harmony: Portraits from Bhutan. The book consists of stunning, evocative portraits of the people of Bhutan, often paired with Facebook message exchanges they had with Heath. Together, they give a lively, compelling insight into a country going through huge changes and adapting to the onslaught of globalization.
The book showcases these changes, notably through the way it separates the generations. “One of the most notable tensions was in family life,” Heath explains. “The generational gap between parents and their children, is similar to the generational gap between myself and my grandparents, if not my great grandparents and this had led to a huge amount of misunderstanding and family break down. Parents grew up in an isolated country in a deeply conservative buddhist society, with virtually no outside influences and dissent and criticism were rare. TV and Internet were only introduced in 1999 and so now the younger generations have a visual access to the outside world and are now heavily influenced by South Korean, Japanese and American culture… In order to continue their secondary school education, children must leave their rural villages for the cities and major towns and this in turn exposes them to new lifestyles. After leaving school, very few return to their village and instead seek out office jobs which has lead to a huge youth unemployment problem in Bhutan.” The country, traditionally dependent on hard labour and agriculture, is seeing young people with a whole new set of needs and wants.
A Desire To Document
Beyond the photographs— which are stunning— you get a sense of Heath’s dedication to this piece and to the people of Bhutan. Not only did he spend a huge amount of time there, he faced the huge challenge of a government wary of his presence. Though there were problems on and off throughout the year, the greatest impediment came at the end of the trip, after being denied entry to a wildlife conservation it had taken him weeks and weeks to get permits for. “To this day its unclear what actually happened but my partner and I were accused of various offenses and we were put under ‘city arrest’ and told the only time we could leave the capital was to fly out of the country,” Heath explains. “We sadly left Bhutan three days later.”
But despite setbacks like this, his commitment to the project is clear. He is dedicated to subjects that he finds not only engaging, but also that haven’t been given the representation they deserve. “Primarily I look for stories or causes I’m passionate about,” Heath says. “Some of these projects take over a year or two from initial concept to photographing and publishing, so fundamentally you need to be interested in the subject matter. I then fully research the subject and get as much info on the surrounding topic as possible. Ideally they are stories which have not been documented / photographed before, if they have I have to find a different angel to tell the story. Most of the projects I shoot are human based stories, so I then see how accessible the subject is.”
And these subjects are definitely accessible. Themes of globalisation, generational divide, and aspirations that often seem just out of reach are themes we can all relate to and empathize with. That’s why the Facebook conversations on the book are so cleverly placed. They take a portrait, which sometimes feel overly formal, and give us a glimpse into their thinking, their speaking, their attitudes. It grounds and de-mystifies the subject. It brings them to life.
Worries And Responsibility
“There are always concerns and worries when producing a new body of work,” Heath says. “As a documentary photographer, I have a responsibility to show the reality of what is happening, and honesty and trust are key factors. With the longer term projects you form a connection with your subjects and I am always conscious of giving my subjects due consideration, as there is a fine line between that and exploitation. There is also the worry of how the body of work will be received and openly critiqued by both the industry and the general public but that’s part and parcel of working in a creative industry.”
With this project, you can see how impassioned he is about the people of Bhutan. And he’s not done with the topic yet. “I am currently looking for a publisher to collaborate with on a second body of work from Bhutan,” Heath says. “This next book elaborates on several of the themes touched on in Way of Harmony, particularly the impacts of globalisation on the Kingdom of Bhutan.”
It’s a beautiful work and a stunning book, with portrayals that feel both authentic and arresting. We’ll be keeping an eye on what comes next from AJ Heath, from his time in Bhutan and with other subjects.
Way of Harmony: Portraits from Bhutan by AJ Heath is available now at £30 from http://www.ajheathphotography.com/wayofharmony and other online retailers.