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The photographer Tobi Wilkinson has been working side by side with Gyuto monks for nine years now. The outcome is so much more than just a small excerpt of life in a monastery: with respectful, calm, yet powerful images, her Gyuto project reveals a complete philosophy of life.

LFI: How did your project come about?
Tobi Wilkinson: My husband and I had a chance meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2008, and the monks were performing ceremonies at one of his teachings in Sydney. My husband subsequently worked with the Dalai Lama for eight years, and I was an official photographer on one of his visits to Sydney. Shortly after that teaching, the monks came to Bondi Beach to run a two week workshop. We live at Bondi, and after the workshop they had a few weeks with no engagements, so we offered to house them for that period. It was a magical time as the house was full with six monks chanting every morning, making Tibetan food and playing with our kids. It felt like a slice of Tibet had come to our house, and after that we became their residence in Sydney every time they passed through.   

It is said that the monks in general are rather reserved, and yet you must have got very close to them in order to take such personal images. How did you manage to connect with them?
Although they appear quite stoic, they are in fact very open and playful and they have a wicked sense of humour. They laugh readily and instantly connect with kids. The tricky bit is to connect with them beyond this initial level. They are so used to being photographed and being touched (the Tibetans love holding hands), and they pose readily for happy snaps.

To get deeper, to connect to the person beyond the robes, takes time. Hence the eight years. I spent many months at the monastery and I felt that I needed to live according to their timetable, for them to see that I wasn’t just another photographer wanting to take a simple shot of rows of bowed heads. I wanted to understand their ceremonies, all the details and why their rituals mattered to them. I got up at 3am every day to sit with them while they chanted, I was in their kitchens, their classrooms, I was with them while they made their tormas and religious objects. In short, I tried to step into their shoes and see the world as they do. It wasn’t easy.

What was the most challenging aspect from the photographic viewpoint?
The light was very difficult to work with. Their ceremonies can start very early in the morning or go late into the evening. Most of the time you have many different light sources at play, which for black and white is no problem – but for colour it is. The other challenge was to distil a moment of clarity amongst the very ornate imagery that goes with Tibetan Buddhism. There is so much going on, so much imagery, the colours so rich, that it's easy to shoot a sweeping panorama of 500 shaven heads in a sea of maroon robes. But that doesn’t tell you anything about them, about who they are and their own personal journeys.

Interview: Danilo Rößger
All images on this page © Tobi Wilkinson
Equipment: Leica M10 with Apo-Summicron-M 50 f/2 and Apo-Summicron-M 90 f/2
© Ralph Gibson

Tobi Wilkinson

Tobi Wilkinson is a Sydney-based, fine art photographer. In 2012, she completed a Ralph Gibson Course with the master photographer himself, which led to a body of work featuring the female nude, and an exhibition titled Source. Tobi has been engaged in a study of the Gyuto Monks of Tibet since 2008, photographing them in their monastery in Dharamsala, on location around Australia, and in her studio in Surry Hills.

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