Capturing the Dalai Lama's spirit

Manuel Bauer

It did not take Swiss photographer Manuel Bauer long to discover the playful side of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader and international icon.

This content was published on July 21, 2005 - 17:09

His Holiness was opening a photographic exhibition at the University of Zurich in 1990 when he was interrupted by a security alert. The pair were ushered to the emergency exit, which was locked.

"Everybody was really concerned, but in my young, naïve way I made a joke out of it and said to the Dalai Lama that as a living god he should be able to fly out of the open window like a bird," Bauer tells swissinfo.

"He loved that idea and in the middle of the crisis he started dancing about, flapping his arms like he was a bird. It showed me what a remarkably humorous and open person he is. He cuts through political protocol with that humour and with his charismatic and beautiful personality."

The Winterthur-based photojournalist was not to know it then, but his first encounters with the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama led to a close friendship and the opportunity to chronicle in photographs the daily life of the Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

In 2001 Bauer was invited to spend four years in the company of the Dalai Lama as he travelled around the world teaching Buddhist scripture and fighting for Tibet’s independence from China.

The long journey across Asia, Europe and the USA, with unprecedented and privileged access, resulted in a book published this year entitled Journey for Peace: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

Bigger cause

"It was the most demanding thing that I have ever done," Bauer says. "I was not in control of when events took place and what the light was like and I needed the stamina of a marathon runner."

"I nearly gave up at one point, but I realised that the importance of his life and work was far bigger than me."

Bauer’s association with Tibet began in 1990 when he became disillusioned with his career as an advertising photographer and embarked on a journalism assignment to document the plight of the Tibetan people under the control of China.

In 1995 he travelled with a six-year-old girl and her father on a hazardous trip across the Himalayas to escape from Tibet. During those three weeks they went days without food and water and were at the mercy of the elements.

"Had there been a snow storm up there we would have all died, but I was ready to give my life for a bigger cause," Bauer says.


"I had read so much about the cruel, mean and ugly things being done to Tibetans that I decided I had to do something to show this to the world. It was their struggle that counted, not a Swiss photographer who decided to climb up a mountain."

Bauer was given permission this summer to continue as the Dalai Lama’s official photographer and he has no idea how long that assignment will last. But he does understand just how important their friendship has become.

"Manuel Bauer is more than simply a professional: he is a close friend of mine," the Dalai Lama wrote in Journey for Peace.

It is a friendship that Bauer values. "The most important thing he taught me was compassion and really feeling someone else’s suffering. My wife and I have a handicapped child and that made life very demanding, particularly when I started this project," he says.

"Once in a while he would take time to ask how things were going and helped both me and my family deal with these things."

Tibet’s struggle

Tibet has been under Chinese control since troops invaded in 1950 and forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India nine years later.

Bauer sadly fears the old Tibet may have died.

"Tibetan culture may survive in some pockets in much the same way that traditional Swiss life still exists in Appenzell," he says.

"But I fear that the young Tibetans in Tibet will just be swallowed up by the Chinese way of life, particularly in the cities."

swissinfo, Matthew Allen

Key facts

Manuel Bauer spent four years photographing the Dalai Lama, making 30 trips during a project he originally thought would last one year and involve four journeys away from home.
The Dalai Lama is visiting Switzerland to deliver Buddhist teachings from August 5-12 at Zurich’s Hallenstadion.
Chinese troops invaded Tibet in 1950, forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India nine years later.

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