Matthieu Ricard, the French scientist turned Buddhist monk, currently has an exhibition of 100 photographs in Monaco, entitled Un demi-siécle dans l'Hymalaya: un hymne à la beauté (half a century in the Himalayas: a hymn to beauty). The collection includes images of the people, traditions and landscapes of the region around Nepal and the Shechen Monastery where he has lived since 1972.
Serene faces of young and old populate Ricard's portraits. These "visages de paix" feature well-cared-for monks and age-ravaged, dentally-challenged lay people. In Tibet, we are told, the elderly spend most of the day in prayer, as does one female nomad captured sitting in a meadow, surrounded by flowers, holding her prayer wheel and raising her wrinkled hand as if blessing the photographer.
Some of the images raise questions. A 5-year-old boy is depicted wearing monk's robes, in a pose that reflects the subject of another portrait, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the Tibetan Buddhist master who died in 1991. The youth is said to be the reincarnation of this dead spiritual leader.
Although Buddhists do not believe in a God, Ricard's photographs depict traditions that are not dissimilar to rites practised by followers of theistic religions. Prayers rise up from a forest of flags crowding the bank of the Kathok lake, rather than from votive candles in a church. A temple in the Shechen Monastery is richly decorated and contains giant Buddhas, while at the Larung Gar monastery thousands of monks and nuns live in sprawling, shed-like houses. At festivals, sacred dancers jump for joy and whirl like dervishes.
Images of mountains, hills and rivers form the highlight of the exhibition: a golden monastery rising from the mist, Mount Everest's immovable peak surrounded by churning clouds, and a group of five bareback riders astride their horses, entering the river Za Qu in Eastern Tibet. Steely water and washed-out peaks beneath a lowering sky give the impression of freezing temperatures. Ricard admits to retouching his images to recreate the feelings, colours and light that he perceived when taking them, and this is a sterling example.
Contemplating these glossy, colourful images offers a glimpse of Buddhism and Buddhists through the lens of beauty.
Exhibition from 11 October to 9 November 2017, free entry, Tue-Sun, 13:00-19:00, closed Mondays.
- Salle d'Exposition du Quai Antoine 1er
4 Quai Antoine 1er, 1st floor
In addition to his photography, Ricard also writes books and gives talks. He donates all his earnings to the charity he founded, Karuna Shechen, which runs projects in education, health and social services in Nepal, India and Tibet. Visit Mattieu Ricard's website to find out more about Karuna Shechen charity and to see examples of his photographs.