Lobsang Wangyal Photography: How the journey began

Lobsang Wangyal has covered and documented almost all events in McLeod Ganj, the heart of the Tibetans-in-exile, for 27 years from 1994 to 2021 through his photography. Initially with film, and with digital from 2005.

Lobsang was introduced to photography by his father in the mid-80s with a point-and-shoot Yashica camera. As his enthusiasm grew, he fiddled around with a compact Premier camera at school, trying to photograph friends and students. But the cost made the adventure short-lived.

During his college years, and as luck would have it, Lobsang got to play with a professional camera — the Olympus OM 1 The OM-1 is an all-mechanical SLR. He had three lenses — a normal 50mm, wide 28mm, and a tele 135mm. His father had bought the camera from someone nicknamed Japan Babu (this name presumably for his years of living in that country) during his tenure as an accountant at the Tibetan Handicraft Centre in McLeod Ganj.

As he practiced more with the camera, it became like part of him, and his father let him own it in exchange for the little amount of money that came through his scholarship. In this way the Olympus OM-1 became his first camera. The little pocket money Lobsang got during college didn’t go far in practicing this expensive hobby. This taught him to be wise in using what he had, and being creative with what little was available. With more fiddling and practice, and all the possible clicking, clicking, clicking, he improved his skills.

After college, Lobsang moved to McLeod Ganj, the capital of the Tibetans-in-exile, in 1994, looking for a job. He was employed right away as a reporter and photographer at the then only independent Tibetan newspaper Mang-tso (Democracy), a fortnightly in Tibetan published by Amnye Machen Institute. This became his first job.

However, Lobsang ended up losing the Olympus OM-1 during a house party at a friend’s place, leaving him with only the wide-angle 28mm lens.

Good luck would have it for this happy-go-lucky guy, not long after losing the Olympus, someone dropped a Nikon F-301 on his bed where he was living with a friend. Accompanying the camera were a normal (50mm) and a zoom lens. A good set, happening just out of the blue, really. No idea who did that even to this day. F-301 is Nikon’s first SLR that was without the film advance lever. It had to have four AAA batteries afixed on a plate that goes in a slot at the bottom of the body. A few years later, the battery system stopped cooperating, and the camera stopped working.

Lobsang gathered some money and bought a second-hand Canon AE-1 with an all-in-one zoom lens that had a maximum aperture opening of ƒ/3.5. This camera parted from him in a burglary at his home in McLeod Ganj, losing the AE-1, and also a friend’s point-and-shoot camera, and a rare David White Stereo Realist Type 1041 camera, gifted by John McLeod from New Mexico.

The out-of-order F-301 and an Argus Super Seventy-Five, gifted by a well-wisher Tsetan Norbu from Nepal, a former Member of Tibetan Parliament-in-exile, didn’t go in the burglary as they were sitting at the bottom of the shelf that the burglar might have missed. He then had hands-on experiences with borrowed Pentax K-1000 and a Minolta X-700.

Getting lucky again, and when photography was undergoing a major transformation from film to digital, Lobsang got his first digital camera in 2005 — a Nikon D70, along with two zoom lenses and a fish eye lens, a SB 700 flash, and a Targus backpack donated by Ellie Drew from Phoenix, Arizona. Then in 2013, a friend Tenzin Dhundup from Japan donated a Nikon D600 along with a Nikkon zoom lens 28 to 70 with ƒ/2.8. He used this until he left photography as his profession in December 2021.

He now has a big archive of photos of the exile Tibetan community from the period 1994 to 2021. They need to be catalogued — the films and the photos need scanning to digitise them — a project for which he is looking for funders.