Way of Harmony: Portraits from Bhutan
14 November 2017
I first travelled to Bhutan in 2015 – a dream assignation for any photographer. My family had had connections to the country, as my grandfather’s business partner was a great friend of Dasho Lhendup (Lenny) Dorji, who was a member of the aristocratic Dorji family and uncle to the fourth king of Bhutan. Having grown up hearing stories of the ‘land of the Thunder Dragon’, when my then-partner’s work brought her the opportunity to travel to Bhutan, we jumped at the chance.
We ended up staying in the country for a year and, during this time, I was privileged to observe the country as it juggled the weight of tradition with the onslaught of modern life. I had heard how happiness is famously prioritised and prescribed by the Bhutanese government as part of the Gross National Happiness initiative (‘GNH’), and in an attempt to understand this better and to meet the local people, I set up an outside photographic studio near the Clock Tower in Thimphu and invited the general public to be photographed.
The last decade or so has seen the Kingdom undergo a rapid transition. Transforming from a closed Buddhist Kingdom into a constitutional democracy, the country is now admired worldwide for its uncompromising pursuit of GNH. However, as Bhutan’s development accelerates, its government and people are engaged in a tireless struggle to simultaneously preserve their traditions and keep the country’s unique identity alive.
Over the course of three weekends, I ended up photographing over 150 people with subjects as varied as a 13 year old Buddhist monk, a royal bodyguard and members of a Bhutanese street dance crew. I followed up all the portraits I shot with conversations on Facebook, in which I asked each person two simple questions: what makes you happy and what makes you feel Bhutanese? Their answers reveal much about the real social landscape of modern Bhutan and they give a unique perception of this fascinating nation.
I have now published a book of the portraits entitled Way of Harmony which is a collection of these portraits, alongside the illuminating and touching conversations, which reveals their personal quests for happiness.
AJ Heath (Grafton 97)
Way of Harmony: Portraits from Bhutan by AJ Heath is available now at £30 from ajheathphotography.com and other online retailers.
AJ Heath is a British documentary photographer based in London. He has worked as a freelance photographer for the past eight years and has had work published by the Times, The Guardian and Al Jazeera, among others. In 2015 he spent the year documenting the effects globalization has had on the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. This is first solo photography book. A second book of photography, entitled In Pursuit of Happiness, will be available in 2018.