October 13th, 2009

With the Dalai Lama, Part Two

* Thanks for all the lurvely comments yesterday. The Part One post generated a bit of de-friending, due, I'm guessing, to the length and the flagrant avoidance of a cut, or perhaps the lack of roswell pix. I respect your friends pages and try to be very conscious of what goes in front of a cut. It's a balancing act to try and figure if more people would rather not have to scroll past or not have to click to open. Personally I find that my own LJ reading habits are such that I will rarely click on a cut and tend to just scroll past. If you have a strong preference one way or the other, let me know in the comments and i'll adjust tomorrow's final installment accordingly.

Twenty-Four Hours Earlier

Barring a somewhat pointless airplane ride, there are three ways to get to New York from Philadelphia without driving. The fastest and most expensive is the Amtrak train service. There are several busses, the hippest and most convenient is the Bolt which has free wireless going for it, but it sells out days in advance. Greyhound and several Chinatown companies run services too. Of all the modes of transport, the New Jersey Transit train is probably the least elegant, as it involves taking a Septa train to Trenton, New Jersey and then switching to a NJ Transit train bound for New York. Sometimes the departing train leaves within seconds of the arriving train, close enough to regularly miss the transfer, or forty-five minutes afterwards, there seems to be little rhyme nor reason, but this is where Trillian and I found ourselves. Headed to New York with forty pounds of camera gear. The train has the advantage of being more comfortable than the bus and, if you're lucky, you can ride in the top half of a double decker between Trenton and NYC and get to look out the window and see the world as an 18 foot giant might see it if he were running along at 70 miles per hour in a straight South/North line.

I find Penn Station, deep within the bowels of Madison Square Garden, to be a confusing labyrinth. There's an East track and a West track, one's crowded, the other isn't, but finding one from the other seems to be based on the luck of ever-shifting tunnels and doors which sometimes exist and other times do not. When you're leaving though, it's like escaping from a funnel, all you do is go up and up and up and eventually you are disgorged like a school of anchovies from this great, squat building into a sea of tourists who, like you, are surprised to look up and suddenly see the Empire State building right there looking down at them. You navigate through the cell phone cameras, snapping a photo or two of your own along the way.

Taken with my iPhone & I'm proud of it

At five thirty Trillian and I met up with the photo-team in the lobby of the ever-so-swank Waldorf Astoria, our home for the next three days, and from there to the living room of our suite. On the 27th floor.

Given his druthers, I'm not sure the Dalai Lama would have chosen so posh a hotel – it's said that when he's at home in Daramsalah, he lives on ten dollars a day. “We want to treat him like a king,” one of the organizers confides in me, “because he's like a king to us, he really is.” And, for want of a better translation, it's probably an accurate word. Tibet did at one time have a king, but since 1720 the Dalai Lama's have ruled unassisted. We all check in and enjoy the view.

I'm here in New York photographing for three days at the invitation of the Vietnamese Buddhist community, who invited the Dalai Lama. The three other photographers, Chris, Tina, Emanuel and one of the organizers, Phong, stay up late with me on Saturday. We go to the Manhattan center and check on the progress of the stage building (very slow), we visit the Dalai Lama's hotel room to see what kind of flash settings we should be using for the later private meetings with various people. The schedule's in a constant state of flux. Meetings move from one day to another, groups that were supposed to be three turn into fifteen, front doors become back doors. All you can do is carry around a lot of gear and be prepared for everything.

I'd photographed a very similar event in 2005 so I was ready for a lot of it. One of the most amazing things is the interaction with his followers who are devoted in a way that I don't think translates into the west – perhaps like Beatlemania, but with grownups. It's not uncommon for someone to throw themselves prostrate on the floor in front of him. He spends a lot of time waving his hands and saying “No! No! Get up! Please! Get up!”

Emanuel and Chris and I, confident that we've done all we can do to prepare wander off in search of a bottle of scotch. Phong is nervous, he's put years into this day. Chris is a wedding photographer who is so used to all this none of the possible disasters Phong brings up raise an eyebrow on him. After all, this is just like a gigantic wedding – lots of preparation, lots of variables, and in the end, you just tuck in, stay fluid, and go where the winds push the day, when plans change, you change with them.

As the proverb goes: "The tree that does not bend with the wind will be broken by the wind."

We walk into a liquor store on Lexington and right in the middle of a Laphroag tasting. It seems the fates have decided. We are, after all, Leica owners.

So we sit up for a while, catching up – it's been a while since we've seen one another. Tina thinks we've met once, in Boston years ago, yet I remain skeptical. We did work together, years back, over the Internet raising money for an orphanage in Romania. She spends much of her time in South America, photographing for non-profits and it was an obvious collaboration, but I think I'd remember if we'd met before. Chris had hosted Trillian and me the summer before when I had a gallery show in New Orleans – and we'd once been thrown out of a swamp together, which is always good conversation. Emanuel is from Canada and has spent years in the arctic photographing the Inuit. I'd only met him once before, in 2005 during the last visit of the Dalai Lama we photographed. He's eminently likeable and so very openly emotional, profoundly moved by the experiences, so very human.

The next morning we get up early, collect our gear and sit around. Waiting for the phone. It rings at 8:30. Tina's being sent to the airport to meet the Dalai Lama's plane, which is arriving from Canada, Chris to the Manhattan center to photograph the setup and the people waiting in line. Me … I hang around the hotel sticking to Phong like glue, which basically means sitting around in a room filled with DSS agents. The Diplomatic Security Service is a branch of the State Department, among lots of other things, they protect visiting political figures.

Kevin, who's running the security at the hotel's back door, where the entourage arrives, is a friendly guy in his early 30's who looks an awful lot like Jake Gyllenhaal.

“You probably have all these hotels mapped out already,” I say, remarking at how well they have everything covered.

“Most of them, the ones were these people stay. If it was a the Motel Six we might need to do a bit more research first.”

The street out front is filling with people, barricades go up and agents are posted by the door. I walk through the lobby and photograph groups of monks who are snapping photos of one another in front of the famous clock. Bill Murray, the actor, is milling around the lobby too. I suppose this sort of thing happens all the time at this hotel.

We get a call from Tina that they're nearby, I head back down to the entrance where 200 or so people have gathered. I duck inside and wait. The motorcade pulls up. DSS agents surround it, looking into the crowd for threats, then a secret knock on a window, another agent gets out of the front seat and opens the back door. I can see yellow and maroon, the traditional Tibetan monk's habit. The Dalai Lama shakes hands and waves to well wishers then comes in the hotel where the organizers greet him. He shakes hands with Trillian, chats briefly with bellhops, blesses the faithful. Finally he retires to his room with a couple of the organizers. It's still several hours before the event at the Manhattan center is scheduled to start.

The Dalai Lama has lunch, Chris and Trillian and I decide to head over to the venue. The place is already packed, people started showing up just after dawn and the door open a good two hours before the event. The stage is resplendent with gold and orange tapestries and a hundred monks and nuns sitting cross legged, fifty to a side.

Chris and I photograph monks for a while, something which I particularly enjoy – I find them charismatic and eminently visual. A bunch of them give me their email addresses. Chris takes a bunch of photos of monks with their cameras – it's really just like any other photo event.

Finally Chris and I go out back to wait with the DSS for the motorcade. Emanuel and Tina stay inside, getting more coverage.

The streets are filled with people, waiting behind barricades. The DSS guys are a bit stern, but a bit jolly too. We have a good time talking to them. Phong sees a woman in a wheel chair waiting on the other side of the street, hoping to get a glimpse of the Dalai Lama. He talks to a couple of the other organizers and they decide to bring her over. Phong walks over and I see her face erupt with joy when he explains to her what's happening. She applauds as her wheelchair is pushed over to our side of the street.

The motorcade arrives, DSS agents surround it, His Holiness emerges, the crowd goes crazy. He waves, DSS ushers him to the door. He pauses to talk to the woman in the wheel chair, to greet a woman with cancer, he stands on the steps, turns, and waves to the crowd – a look of sincere happiness on his face and I'm struck that here is a person who gets up every morning trying to be kind, trying to be humble, to excise malice, ill will, to divest himself from non-productive emotions really, trying to be the best human being he can be and I'm overwhelmed by it. We go inside, he heads right up to the stage, Chris and I join Tina and Emanuel out front.

A young girl runs up to the stage shouting “Lama! Lama!” and offering a gift of incense. Some of the monks smile, some look reproachful. The Dalai Lama smiles, bows, takes the gift and passes it off to an attendant.

The teaching begins – or maybe it began long ago. I have to think about this.

I photograph with a 200mm and a 300mm from about ten yards back, then move through the crowd picking out faces, looking for composition, people, groups, details. I'm always sure that everybody else is getting better stuff than me and I'm never quite sure what I'm doing. I trust that the magic will happen. Sometimes it does.

Chris has already shown me that I've been picking the wrong lenses from my camera bag. His main lens is one that, while I own it, I seldom use, having been lured to other things by what I now realize are insubstantial advantages. I suddenly begin to doubt everything I've packed, but I realize this is normal. I move ahead.

A joke about snakes. People open their texts, the hall becomes silent.

Part Three Tomorrow

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