Previous projects undertaken through the Endangered Archives Programme discovered a surprisingly large and varied body of Theravada Buddhist photographs taken and collected by the monks of Luang Prabang/Laos, from ca. 1880 up to the present.
Coming from more than 20 distinct monastery collections, this unique view from inside documents 120 years of monastic life and ritual, pilgrimage, monks portraits, history and social life. Important historic and political events of an agitated century in Laos at the same time appear as in a mirror: French colonialism, the Royal court, civil war, the Indochina and Vietnam wars, revolution and socialist rule. Quantity and quality of the material are as surprising as is the fact that it was produced in a city as isolated as Luang Prabang. It seems that there has been a particular inclination towards photography, which had been introduced very early by the French, was practised by the Royal court where young princes would learn about it, and take it with them when they were ordained as monks and became abbots of the various monasteries (there are 64 in town).
A particular cultural understanding of the sacredness of the image coming from Indian traditions (darshan) gave photographs of monks and ceremonies importance and power that goes beyond western categories (historic, aesthetic) and could explain why some monks so courageously protected these images in the revolution, when their possession could put them in serious trouble, especially in the first ten years of socialist rule. This protection was so efficient that, in the 1990s, when the country opened to the West, very few people knew about the existence of these collections. Many of the great monk collectors or photographers had died. Their belongings were either dispersed (which meant that their photographs collections were destroyed) or kept in sealed rooms (with the Sangha's permission, the EAP team opened several of these sealed rooms for the first time). A senior monk, Phra Khamchan Virachittathera, for over 70 years had established the largest collection. Upon suggestion by photographer Hans Georg Berger, he opened it for EAP research and agreed with a Major Research Project shortly before his death in July 2007. One by one, other monasteries followed his example. With growing trust in the work of the small EAP team of monks and former monks, an absolutely surprising amount of photographs in about 20 monastery collections was discovered. The collections vary in content and size, and in preservation status.
15,000 photographs have been treated so far in EAP research (digitisation, identification). 17,500 photographs, among them 7,500 negatives, will be preserved in this second EAP Major Research Project. The aim is to fully digitize and secure all Buddhist photographs of Luang Prabang. Digital copies will be with the British Library and the National Library of Laos in the capital Vientiane. All originals remain in Luang Prabang, property of the monasteries. This will make the full body of Buddhist photographs of Luang Prabang accessible for future research, inside and outside the country. The National Library of Laos has an ongoing commitment of making such source material available to Lao students.
For future safe storage of the originals, it is intended to establish an Archive of Photography of the Sangha of Luang Prabang at Sala Thammaviharn, at Vat Khili, Luang Prabang where the EAP work space is at present. The Sangha has agreed to dedicate the space for this purpose.
At the conclusion of the project, EAP will have significantly enhanced the ability of the Sangha to preserve and manage this heritage in the future. The EAP projects comes at a time of revival of Buddhism in Laos, and especially in Luang Prabang, where numerous young people study in Buddhist schools and live in the monasteries. The government's awareness of the importance of cultural heritage is growing since Luang Prabang was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995. EAP research will empower local government, the Sangha and local people to acknowledge, treasure and protect Buddhist heritage, and their immaterial culture.
The unique body of Theravada Buddhist Photographs taken and collected by the monks of Luang Prabang for over 120 years, which at the start of the EAP projects was found to be in high danger of destruction and dispersion, has been fully digitised and identified. Identification information is in Lao; a very large part of it has been translated into English; due to limited research time, priority has been given to identification, not to translation into English which can be completed and corrected at a later time.
Work started in 2007 with Pilot Project EAP086 and Major Research Project EAP177 – since then 33,933 photographs have been discovered in 21 monasteries of Luang Prabang and have been digitised, identified and safely stored. Most of the original photographs (prints and negatives) are now stored in specially designed wooden archive cabinets at the Sala Thammiviharn, Vat Khili, Luang Prabang - an historic monastic building in one of the monasteries, now entirely used by the Archive. Some minor collections have been restituted to their respective owners.
Together with the 15,000 photographs treated in Major Research Project EAP177, the additional 18,933 photographs of this second project constitute the largest collection of historic photographs in Laos, and certainly the one that has been most thoroughly researched.
Awareness of the importance of the collection has been raised through the publication of two volumes in Lao and English. These two publications, funded outside of EAP, were nevertheless made possible through the findings of EAP research.
These originals are accessible for research after authorisation by the Buddhist Sangha, following the presentation of a written request containing an outline of the research, and possible publication plans, addressed to the Buddhist Archive of Photography, Luang Prabang.
Digital copies of the material have been deposited at The National Library of Laos, Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Project, Vientiane Capital, Lao P.D.R. and the British Library, London, United Kingdom.
The National Library of Laos, as well as other institutions of the government of the Lao P.D.R., has acknowledged the existence of this important collection of photographs established by the monks of Luang Prabang. A workshop held at Vat Khili, Luang Prabang, in August 2011, at the conclusion of EAP326, presented the project’s findings to the public in the presence of Lao and foreign researchers, officials of the Ministry of Information and Culture and of the Provincial government, the Governor of Luang Prabang, the Director General of the National Library of Laos, as well as leading monks and abbots of more than 30 monasteries.
A team of young Lao people has been trained in handling, identification, preservation and conservation of photographs. Most likely, the EAP staff are now the only people in the country with such advanced skills in photograph handling, digitisation and preservation.
Watch a short film on the Buddhist Archive of Photography made by French film maker Herve LeGoff, who specialises in short films about the atmosphere of spaces dedicated to photography.
Read about the continuity and sustainability of the work at the Buddhist Archive, with a research project of the Asia-Africa Institute at Hamburg University, entitled The Lao Sangha and Modernity - part of a major research network on the Dynamics of Religion in South-East Asia.