The Photographer and the Master

By Matthieu Ricard

No matter what one may think, photography – and particularly portrait photography – is a form of intrusion. And, while His Holiness the Dalai Lama may appear perfectly simple, he naturally inspires immense respect, which makes it impossible for any photographer to treat him like an ordinary subject. In order to capture the likeness of his “presence”, therefore, one should ideally be invisible and completely inaudible. One would then be able to photograph with nothing more than one’s eyes – and do a perfect job. But how would one share such images? There’s nothing for it, therefore, but to use a camera, as discretely as possible, having first silently asked permission to violate the intimate space of this venerable being. We must learn to render homage without sullying the Dalai Lama’s beauty. We must share the inspiring power of the moment without once exploiting it to steal his image.

I have seen Manuel work under the most difficult and intimidating conditions, and I respect his ability to marry discretion and humility with an alert and lively capacity for observation. Manuel knows how to efface himself when he needs to, and how to be present when the magic moment arrives, never to be repeated. It’s no mean feat. Manuel has had to remain flexible in the face of the challenges posed by such things as the threats to His Holiness’s life (he is, after all, the symbol of the Tibetan cause), the rigours of his working schedule, his incessant travel as well as the serenity of his moments of privacy, which no one would wish to disturb. I have been photographing my own spiritual masters for more than thirty years now, so I know the cost of taking a picture rather than simply living the fullness of the here and now. But the wish to share the richness of one’s experience wins out on occasion over the desire to prolong such serenity for a few more precious instants.

Photographers must possess the qualities one typically expects of a disciple if they intend to take pictures of a spiritual master. Like a swan swimming on a lake without disturbing the lotus flowers on its surface, they must go about their business without getting in the master’s way, and must sacrifice an image rather than intrude too far. They must be like a bridge which supports all comers, good or bad: they must be able to bear every external condition, the pleasant and the uncomfortable. They must be like a boat, sailing ceaselessly on all the oceans of the world.

Like a disciple, such a photographer must cultivate the six perfections, or paramitas: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, concentration and self-control. Manuel is a model of generosity: he offers us all unforgettably moving images of His Holiness. And he is certainly disciplined. He knows his limits as a photographer, and he knows not to overstep them. He is patient – so patient! – during the hours of waiting, without ever missing his cue, no matter how unexpected, to enter a sudden train of events over which he has no control. He knows how to wait for days, for months if need be, to take the pictures he has been dreaming of. He rises diligently before dawn, and is on the run all day long. He can concentrate on his work under extremely turbulent or difficult technical circumstances, and he knows how to remain controlled, to maintain his serenity, to enjoy himself without getting hung up, to detach himself from any egocentric concerns and to share the benefits of his work with others. Such a photographer must be able to seize the moment with the delicacy of one picking a poppy without destroying its petals; with the ecstasy of one listening to the resonance of a crystal goblet without stifling its ring. Such a photographer must be able to stand in the front row without being conspicuous, to be in tune with the master while intuitively grasping the limits of this personal incursion. The final criterion is also without a doubt the most delicate: such a photographer must be able to share with the master moments of humour, joy and gravity.

Years of perseverance and the privileged access granted him by His Holiness and his entourage have enabled Manuel to offer the world these powerful images, at once inspiring and moving, and to do so artfully, with feeling and with humour. He has painted a unique and irreplaceable portrait of one of the most remarkable figures in human history, for which we owe him our thanks.