ANDY ROMANOFF - MAY 26, 2020
Don Farber is a photographer deeply influenced by his understanding of Buddhist practice. In March, Throckmorton Fine Art opened a show of his Buddhist pictures in New York and Don was heading there to be part of it when his plans were disrupted by Covid 19. The show stayed up but few got to see it and that’s a shame because these are pictures worth seeing. The good news is you can view them here today and also learn something of how they came to be in this interview.
Hi Don, Let’s start here. How did you start taking pictures?
When I was a kid, I had a few Brownie cameras and a Polaroid camera, too, but my main connection to photography then was spending hours poring over the great photography magazines including Life, Look, Vogue, and National Geographic and the books, The Family of Man and the 1950’s Year annuals of picture history. My parents were both artists and graphic designers and we lived in Laurel Canyon. I used to ride the school bus which would stop at a corner where there was a wall with the words “LET UNDERSTANDING GUIDE” hand painted across it. Those words were seared in my mind. This was mainly a community of artists, musicians, and all sorts of creative, left-leaning people - kind of a utopia.
The Vietnam War was raging and there was no way I was going to fight in that war. I had a friend who told me that he was going to Australia and that if you registered for the draft before your 18th birthday outside of the Western Hemisphere, you wouldn’t be drafted. So, I planned to do this by going to Europe and registering for the draft in England.
In the summer of 1968 when I was 16, I took a class with photographer Seymour Rosen who brought us to see an exhibition of Dorothea Lange's photography at LACMA. I was so inspired by her work that I decided right then to become a photographer. I flew to Europe and hitch-hiked around with my back-pack, guitar, and cameras - photographing the beauty I found myself in. I was a young hippie and I was introduced to Yoga philosophy and vegetarianism by some Western yogi’s I met in the south of France. I always wanted to see a bull fight, and while photographing one in Madrid, very high on weed, I witnessed a bull being killed by a matador seeing it through the magnification of a telephoto lens. This was a major catalyst for me to become a vegetarian (I’ve been a vegetarian ever since).
In my senior year at Hollywood High School, I got into a work-study program to apprentice with Seymour and I worked with him every day after school to learn camera and darkroom technique. He inspired me to know the work of many great photographers and I began collecting photography books starting with the work of Henry Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, and Edward Weston.
When I was 17 and had just graduated high school, I returned to Europe to avoid the draft and study at Manchester College of Art and Design. At the school, I was introduced to the photography of many European photographers less known in America and I received a solid technical understanding of photography, plus I got a lot of support to explore photography artistically.
After about ten months, I was too homesick to stay any longer, so I returned to LA. I would take my chance with the draft with the hope that I could keep a student deferment or get out of the draft through the lottery. It was the summer of 1970. My mother designed a calendar datebook for the anti-war group, Another Mother for Peace. I volunteered to do the photography for the datebook by photographing mothers and their children around Los Angeles. Then in the fall, I began studying as a photography major at the San Francisco Art Institute. Among the teachers I studied with was Richard Conrat who had been Dorothea Lange’s assistant, John Collier, Jr. who was Lange’s colleague as a photographer in the Farm Security Administration, and the historian of photography, Margery Mann. One day, I had a giant sigh of relief when I received news that I wouldn’t be drafted to fight in Vietnam because I had gotten a high lottery number.
For my last year at the Art Institute, I did an independent studies project, spending 9 months photo-graphing organic farming in North San Diego County, where I lived and worked on a communal farm. A woman I met on the farm kind of woke me up, basically saying there’s more to life than being cool. There’s the spiritual life for you to discover. Someone else I met on the farm introduced me to the Vedanta Temple in Hollywood and I began attending talks and services there. While I had been listening to Alan Watts on the radio and read some of his books on Zen, going to the Vedanta temple in 1973 was my first direct experience with Eastern spiritual practices. I would listen to the talks given by the swamis and when they finished, they would chant, with their eyes closed, shanti, shanti, shanti, peace, peace, peace. As they did this, I could clearly see their auras radiating out around them, which blew me away. I moved back to LA and got a job as a staff photographer for public relations at Santa Monica Hospital. It was the beginning of my career as a freelance professional photographer.
During the 70’s, I was also photographing demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the Anti-Nuclear movement of the late 70’s. I became active with a group called the Alliance for Survival, designing their logo and photographing demonstrations and concerts we organized at the Hollywood Bowl. I also volunteered by doing graphic design and photography for political campaigns by Democratic candidates. While I believed and still do believe that these movements are critically important, I also found that more than a few of the people I worked with in these movements seemed to be afflicted by emotional problems and I began to think, if we are going to build lasting peace in society, we need to address the psychological and spiritual conditions of society. In the tradition of documentary photographers who were committed to making social change through photography, including those who photographed wars, famines, and all the ills humanity faces, I wanted to focus on spirituality as a path towards lasting peace.
As an extension of the Hippie movement, something of a spiritual renaissance blossomed in the 70s as people shifted from psychedelics to meditation. Seminars of the human potential movement were booming. I found great benefit from some of these seminars and attending talks given by teachers from the East including Krishnamurti, Swami Satchidananda, Swami Muktananda, and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. My first project to photograph spiritual life was documenting the rehearsals and performance of the Cosmic Mass, which was directed by the Sufi master Pir Vilayat Khan. People representing many faiths came together recognizing the underlying unity of the world’s religions.
In 1975, I met the Vietnamese Zen master Dr. Thich Thien-An, who had founded the International Buddhist Meditation Center in LA near downtown Los Angeles. He told me that when the Vietnamese refugees arrived in California after the Fall of Saigon, he met them at Camp Pendleton and brought many of them to stay at the meditation center. Soon after, he bought an old apartment building to serve as the first Vietnamese Buddhist temple in North America. Then in 1977, I had an assignment from a learning resource center to produce educational materials for the Vietnamese refugee children, so I met with Dr. Thien-An and asked him if I could photograph at the temple for this project and he welcomed me.
When I entered the courtyard of the temple, I saw an old Vietnamese barber giving haircuts, children in uniforms playing, and upstairs, elders, monks and nuns were chanting prayers and prostrating. It was about 1½ years since the war ended and it was as if a small village from Vietnam had been transplanted or airlifted into LA intact. I was so moved, especially by the elderly women who welcomed me there that I decided that day to make a book about life at the temple. I became a disciple of Dr. Thien-An and I decided that Buddhism would be my path. I would go every Sunday for ten years to photograph, participate in the religious practices, and interview members of the temple. It was also a chance for me to heal from all the years of sadness I felt for the senseless death and destruction of the Vietnam War. This is where I developed my understanding of how to serve as a photographer in a Buddhist community. I learned to work as unobtrusively as possible and stay mindful of the sacredness of the moment while looking through the camera and carefully exposing the film.
How did you get into photographing Buddhist life internationally?
It started with photographing Buddhist life in Los Angeles. Dr. Thien-An invited Buddhist teachers from many Buddhist traditions to give teachings at the International Buddhist Meditation Center. I photographed many of the teachers who came there including the 16th Karmapa and His Holiness the Dalai Lama during his first visit to the US. Also, in those years going to the Vietnamese temple, I was photographing other Buddhist traditions including at Tibetan, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Thai temples. After Dr. Thien-An passed away in 1980, I spent a few years practicing and photographing at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, which was founded by the Japanese Zen master Maezumi Roshi.
In 1988, after my book, Taking Refuge in LA: Life in a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple was published and I had made two trips to Asia, I decided to move from photographing Buddhist life in microcosm in LA to photographing Buddhist life in macrocosm with the goal to photograph Buddhist life in all the traditionally Buddhist countries in Asia as well as Buddhism in the West. I took a leap of faith and gave up much of my freelance photography business and started traveling.
I had photographed the great Tibetan Buddhist master, Kalu Rinpoche, when he came to the US in 1988 and the following year, I went to India to photograph the last ten days of his 49-day funeral. Right after that, I rushed back to LA to photograph the Dalai Lama. Geshe Gyaltsen had invited the Dalai Lama to give the Kalachakra teachings in Santa Monica over a period of two weeks and he allowed me to serve as the official photographer.
After that, I began living in Japan part time. My teacher, Dr. Thien-An, had received a Ph.D in Buddhist studies in Japan, so through his friends who were fellow Buddhist priests in Tokyo, I was able to connect with people and organizations in Japan who believed in the work I was doing and they sponsored me. Tokyo became my base and from there, I would travel to photograph in many Buddhist countries.
In 1997, I received a Fulbright Scholarship to spend a year photographing and researching Tibetan Buddhist life in India and Nepal. With my wife Yeshi who is Tibetan and our daughter Palmo who was then two years old, we went to live in my wife’s village, the Tibetan refugee settlement of Bir in Himachal Pradesh. I traveled to many parts of India, as well as Nepal, to carry out the work. I’ve concentrated my photography mainly on Tibetan Buddhist life since then, including making portraits of more than 100 Tibetan Buddhist masters and my photography of the Dalai Lama spans nearly 40 years.
What made you want to focus on photographing Buddhist life?
I found great benefit from my experiences with Sufism, Taoism, Vedanta, and really from many of the world’s religions, including Judaism, which I was born into. I grew up in a secular Jewish family, but my parents were atheists, so I had little contact with my religion except from family Passover dinners at the home of my mother's cousin and her husband who were Holocaust survivors, which was deeply meaningful and precious. I came into life with a clean slate where I could freely find my own spiritual path. I mentioned the wall in Laurel Canyon with the words, Let Understanding Guide. As I journeyed through the various spiritual paths, somehow, I connected with Buddhism and its emphasis on direct experience. The Buddha taught not to blindly accept his teachings, but to check them out oneself through meditation and contemplation and applying the
teachings in one's own life and seeing if it's true or not. Then we have true understanding. Actually, I feel very connected with Sufism and its broad universal view embracing many faiths, but I’ve specialized in Buddhism. Swami Muktananda said, choose one faith as though it’s like being on a magic carpet and I chose Buddhism. I gravitate toward Buddhist life because I find it endlessly inspiring to be a part of and I believe this way of life, which emphasizes loving-kindness, compassion, wisdom, and non-violence, can have a critical role to play in the survival of the planet.