Why is Portrait Photography Different in Bhutan?


I have traveled a fair amount to remote locations in this world. It is now a regular part of my work. So, when I first came to the small Himalayan country of Bhutan, I thought I knew what to expect.

I didn’t.

It’s always a challenge to capture an authentic experience of another culture with your camera. But, it’s especially difficult to photograph people. What is captured in a portrait varies only to an extent; after all, people are people. But, how people react to the camera varies greatly from country to country.

In India, people often jump in front of your camera, smiling and posing, making it easy to take portraits but difficult to get anything authentic.

In Peru, women shield their faces out of embarrassment. In Rio de Janeiro, people stare at you, scowling and confused. In New York, if you’re lucky, people will ignore you completely. And, in Morocco, men will give you the finger.

None of these are true in Bhutan.

In Bhutan, people look right at the camera, the way they would into your eyes, usually with a disposition of curiosity or polite indifference or something in between.

There is no posturing or artifice to peel away. Instead, the portraits of Bhutanese people radiate something more honest. They manifest an elusive quality that may seem startling to most westerners; they are genuine. And I can’t help but think that my experience here is a genuine reflection of the culture.

You do not hear of tourists in Bhutan being harassed or scammed or taken advantage of — things that are, unfortunately, all too common elsewhere in the world. Instead, you hear stories of people losing things on the street, only for them to be returned by concerned strangers. Or, you hear stories of expats working in Thimphu, running out of money for their restaurant bill and getting the meal on loan. Or of volunteers coming to Bhutan, making friends with locals, and getting invited to more dinners than they can attend in a matter of days. I lost count of how many times I was invited in for tea during the two months I’ve been here. Sometimes, the invitation was a result of walking into someone’s yard in a small village, unannounced, and photographing the family. If I managed to be so bold in the United States, I don’t think I would be invited in for tea.

There are so few cultures in the world that are truly untouched by the West. Eastern Bhutan is home to one of them.

I came to Bhutan to work with the hard-working and inspired people of MyBhutan, an organization that creates social enterprises to support the philanthropic activities of the Tarayana Foundation.

MyBhutan’s tourism platform hosts all of Bhutan’s attractions, events, accommodations, restaurants, guides, and more; and help potential tourists discover places to visit and experiences they can have in Bhutan, all while streamlining the planning process.

However, MyBhutan also aims to portray the real flavor of the country through still photography, video documentary, articles, audio interviews, and other forms of journalism that will capture the country’s essence.

To make this all possible, my team has had to create content. A lot of content.

Within a couple of days of arriving, we set off on a month-long road trip through the central and eastern districts of Bhutan. It was certainly the experience of a lifetime, but I won’t pretend it was a vacation. It was a month of long, cliff-side drives on rough and windy mountain roads. Our team, determined to properly reveal Bhutan, didn’t need a shooting schedule with any downtime. Nevertheless, I would do it all over again. There are so few cultures in our globalized world that are truly untouched by the West. Eastern Bhutan is home to one of them.

It’s hard to explain just how remote Bhutan is. There is one stoplight in the entire country, and it’s not actually a stoplight. It is a man in a booth that tells people when to stop (there’s apparently only one intersection in Thimphu, the largest city in Bhutan, where this is necessary). But, even with Thimphu’s quaintness, there are still internet cafes and restaurants, somewhat modern clothing stores, and a fair number of cars on the road. This all disappears when you enter the eastern districts.

In eastern Bhutan, you are off the grid.

Children enjoying the recent snowfall in Merak village

Children enjoying the recent snowfall in Merak village

While on the road, we would refer to a herd of cattle as a “Bhutanese traffic jam,” a joke that our driver couldn’t get enough of. We would visit snowy mountain villages where people wore a combination of yak fur and whatever factory made clothes they could get.

In other villages, children draped in locally woven clothing practiced archery with hand-carved bows. We visited farm houses with turnip leaves hung to dry in the living room above metal pots of red rice cooking on a wood-burning stove. And outside, wild horses ran through the farm.

In most of our destinations, I encountered almost no tourists at all.

And many locals, in districts like Trashiyangtse, meet only a handful of tourists a year. The result of this untouched landscape meant that, while taking photographs, children and monks and farmers would study or even approach me with the same curiosity I had for them.

I was often asked by kids: “Where is your home village?”.

At first, I tried to explain that I don’t live in a village (to no avail) until “Lower East Side, Manhattan” became my standard reply, which was apparently an acceptable answer. I also quickly learned how much joy people received from seeing the picture I took on the screen of my camera — no matter what age. If there was a group of children present, they would immediately crowd around in amazement.

In every district we visited, we were offered meals of rice and ema datsi (chili peppers with cheese, the most popular dish in Bhutan), various dishes with locally grown vegetables, and more tea and aura (a home made wine made from wheat or maize) than we could possibly consume. Their hospitality came easily, with a kindness and confidence usually reserved for friends, and unmatched by any place I’ve been.

I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Bhutan. Its culture and landscape are much like the people: encompassing a range of such genuine interest and care as to be equally startling and inspirational. But, all-in-all, I think there is something to be said for Gross National Happiness


StoryMichael Marquand