Samuel Zuder’s book, Face to Faith, is a stunning documentary photobook about one of the most fascinating places on earth – the sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet. Bridie Riley sat down with Zuder to talk about the eight-year project.
In a previous interview you have spoken of your fascination with the people who “choose this remote place in the middle of nowhere for the centre of their life”, but what was it about the area and its temporary inhabitants that drew you to photograph it?
From the first time I heard about the Kailash, I was drawn to this place. Hindus believe that their Gods – and they have plenty of them – live on the peak of this mountain. For Buddhists, the Mount Kailash is simply the start of everything – the origin of the universe. Even the poorest of them try to worship this mountain at least once in a lifetime by circling around on a 54 km long path called the kora. Some of them are travelling thousands of kilometres, despite the risk of being questioned or threatened by the Chinese military. The faith of these people is more powerful than any military violence of the world. I’m very fascinated about sites like this: places that feel inhabitable to human beings, yet are settled in them anyway, for reasons we may never understand.
It’s really interesting that you chose to use film rather than digital, despite your extensive use of digital tools within your commercial photography. You explained one of the primary reasons was because of the lack of power supply in the area you were shooting in. How did you feel the presence of this traditional piece of equipment changed your relationships with your subjects?
I was photographing the project with an analogue Linhof 4″ x 5″ camera from a tripod. I chose this way of slow photography because it was very important for me not to disturb the pilgrims on their ritual walk nor the atmosphere of this sacred place. Also, I wanted to act at the same pace as the people worshipping this place.
The fact that I could offer them a Polaroid from this holy place was very helpful and most were very happy about this gift, showing them next to their praised holy mountain, Kailash. After a while the pilgrims were lining up at my little mobile outdoor photo studio, to get their photo taken.
The project must have been very immersive, spending extended periods of time alone with just your camera. How do you think this project changed you as a person? Has it changed your perspective on photography?
I believe that every photo project changes you as a person and as a photographer. Photography is a very effective tool to learn about what’s going on in the world first-hand. There is no way to hide from the people you meet. You have to be open-minded and open-hearted to be accepted by strangers and get an insight into their world and life. Every photo project increases understanding for other ways of living. This project helped me to understand that we shouldn’t always regard ourselves as the centre of the world and shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.The project hasn’t changed my perspective on photography; I’ve always preferred a kind of “exact photography” like August Sander used to call it. My approach to both the landscapes and the portraits could be best compared to his methodological approach. It was not my intention to make a thrilling feature about this extraordinary place but portraits in large, silent photos, observed from a certain distance without staged intervention. I tried to create a contemporary portrait of the Kailash pilgrims and this sacred place to visualise the dialog and interaction between human beings and location. That’s why I didn’t take a difference photographic approach between portraits and landscapes.
The project took you eight years to complete, how did you know when you were getting close to finishing it?
Actually, I only believed I was being close to finishing the project when saw the first printed sheets of the book at the printer.
Did you stay in touch with any of the subjects you photographed?
I only had a brief conversation with the pilgrims while taking the photos. My translator took their personal information like names, age, where they are coming from and how many times they surrounded the Kailash. As Tibet is one of the poorest areas of the world most of them didn’t have email or even a phone to stay in touch.
How did you feel photographing in such a sacred place, and did you ever come up against any opposition?
Worshipping the Kailash doesn’t mean that you have to restrain your normal daily behaviour. It is not like visiting a church where you have to be quiet and concentrate on the prayers. When I walked the kora I saw many groups and families who really seemed to have a lot of fun worshipping the Kailash. They were picnicking, cooking traditional food and sharing it with other pilgrims who came along, they were singing, laughing, smoking cigarettes. Several times my crew was invited to join in and we all enjoyed these moments even though we didn’t really understand each other. I always felt like being very welcome to this place. Nobody treated me like an unwelcome stranger or tourist.
There is an interesting relationship between scale in your images. The human figures become tiny ants dwarfed by the towering, powerful landscapes. Despite this seemingly untouchable environment do you feel the area is at risk of being damaged or commercialised?
Pilgrimage and tourism is increasing at the Kailash. Pilgrims from India are worshipping the Kailash in large groups, travelling with their own cooks and mobile kitchens. They rent porters and yaks to carry all their equipment around Kailash. As a result pollution of this area is becoming an increasing problem; the village of Darchen, the only settlement at the foot of the mountain is also growing rapidly. I’m pretty sure that the kora around the Kailash will remain like it is though as there are efforts being made to protect the region as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site.
Do you feel that this project could become more a process of preserving a landscape and documenting a way of life that is at risk of being lost to ‘modern’ progress?
Hopefully this region will not be sacrificed to the unstoppable progress of western life and hopefully the faith of the people worshipping Mount Kailash is strong enough to conserve this place for the future and protect it against any politics driven influences. My photobook shows the pure beauty of the people and the environment of Mount Kailash; there is nothing to improve. This is the message of my photographs and it would be wonderful if this project could help in its preservation.
What do you hope readers of the book will take away?
It would be great if my photobook “Face to Faith | Mount Kailash | Tibet” could show the special power and beauty of this remote place and the unique people there to all of those who might believe that Facebook, Apple, Google, and their own smartphones are the centre of the world.
Face to Faith | Mount Kailash | Tibet by Samuel Zuder is available to buy now here