The best-ever photograph I didn't take

by John Wilson December. 12, 2019 415 views

This is the story of a photograph I would love to have taken, but didn't. I'll try to explain and paint the scene in words instead.

Prayer wheel outside the small temple where morning prayers are observed by novice monks, Lamayuru Monastery, Ladakh.

Prayer wheel outside the small temple where morning prayers are observed by novice monks, Lamayuru Monastery, Ladakh.

I think this story is something most photographers will relate to. Great photographs that, for some reason, they didn't take or that otherwise didn't work out.

For me, it occurred quite unexpectedly in a remote corner of the world.

Recently, my wife and I travelled to Ladakh, a fascinating, barren, high-altitude area in north-western India.

Tibetan Buddhism is very strongly observed by a large proportion of the Ladakhi people and there are several very interesting monasteries to visit. I have even heard that Ladakh is `more Tibet than Tibet' (though to be fair there are also very significant Muslim and Hindu populations).

One monastery we visited was Lamayuru, in rugged and remote mountain country over a hundred kilometres from the main centre of Leh. It is one of Ladakh's older monasteries, with a history dating back to the 11th century.

Snapped through the windscreen a few kilometres from Lamayuru.

Snapped through the windscreen a few kilometres from Lamayuru.

Due to its remoteness Lamayuru is not such a frequently visited monastery as some others. However, we had been told that observing the morning prayers involving novice monks at Lamayuru was an experience not to be missed.

We were advised to arrive early and to make sure we had our cameras with us as it is such a wonderful visual scene.

We were picked up pre-dawn from our mountain accommodation in order to reach Lamayuru in time for the morning prayers. After a 45 minute drive we reached an intriguing place that reminded me a little of Meteora in Greece - temples perched high in the mountains on rock outcrops.

Lamayuru Monastery at dawn.

Lamayuru Monastery at dawn.

Our driver dropped us as close to the complex as he could and we made our own way through the grounds looking for the location of the morning prayers.

On the way, the clouds gave way briefly to gorgeous high-altitude light and I just had to take a few shots.

Unfortunately, we then managed to get a little lost - Lamayuru is a substantial place with many buildings - and we ended up in the wrong temple, where a different ceremony was under way. It took us some time to realise we were in the wrong place.

By then it was well past dawn and we thought we had missed the morning prayers - so disappointing.

Early morning light at Lamayuru Monastery.

Early morning light at Lamayuru Monastery.

Just as we were giving up, our driver, who had spent several years in a monastery himself and had provided us with some wonderful insights into the life of a Tibetan Buddhist monk, turned up and came to the rescue. He helped us locate the entrance of another, smaller temple.

A curtain concealed a low doorway. Outside the temple were pairs of colourful slip-on shoes belonging to the novice monks. We could hear their beautiful chants coming through the curtain.

We were in the right place at last and, most fortunately, it wasn't too late.

Young Tibetan Buddhist monks' slip-on shoes lined up outside the entrance to the temple. Inside they recited morning prayers.

Young Tibetan Buddhist monks' slip-on shoes lined up outside the entrance to the temple. Inside they recited morning prayers.

With slight apprehension we removed our shoes, pulled the brown curtain at the doorway aside, stooped low and entered. (Incidentally, we didn't do this without checking first - we had been assured that visitors are welcome to observe the morning prayers.)

We had just entered a time machine. In an instant we were transported back several centuries.

Inside, around fourteen or fifteen children in red robes were sitting cross-legged on benches. Most of them were very young. The benches were on each side of the entrance, with a shrine in the centre rear as the focal point. The rows of the young monks faced each other across a small empty space in the middle as they chanted, reading from old prayer books.

Closest to the entrance on the right was a middle-aged monk, also seated cross-legged on one of the benches with the boys. He was clearly responsible for leading and guiding the young monks through the ceremony.

In the background semi-darkness were shelves containing old manuscripts and other paraphernalia.

The perfect light was the first thing that struck me. It's all the years of video and photography - I always notice the light and I tend to view scenes as though they are in a frame.

Morning light, Lamayuru.

Morning light, Lamayuru.

The whole central scene was lit by a large shaft of sunlight from windows above, highlighting the curls of smoke from burning incense. There was just enough smoke in the room to soften and diffuse the shaft of light and give the centre of the room an other-worldly feel, perfectly highlighting every one of the young monks' faces in a transcendent glow.

Meanwhile, behind the benches, the light from above dissipated until the walls of the temple were nearly in complete darkness.

It was as though a lighting expert had been engaged for hours beforehand setting up the scene, highlighting the centre stage for the performance. (Indeed, that is probably exactly what happened, but centuries ago. The glorious lighting surely wasn't accidental.)

Some of the young monks had musical instruments - horns that played a little like clarinets, bells and circular, upright drums. The instruments looked very old.

In its totality, it was pretty much the most perfectly photogenic scene I had ever witnessed. The deep red robes, the manuscripts with their worn pages, the shaft of sunlight softened by the smoke, the contrast with the darkness beyond, the ancient shrine, the instruments, the glowing faces ... We were transfixed. Could this be real?

Stupas at Lamayuru, near the temple where the morning prayers were held.

Stupas at Lamayuru, near the temple where the morning prayers were held.

We sat on the floor in the semi-darkness to the left of the entrance. No other tourists were there. At first I wondered if we were intruding, but we somehow ascertained that we were welcome to observe, even though there was no direct eye contact with the adult monk, who was fully immersed in the ceremony.

The young monks chanted in unison in a semi-melodic manner. They sang/chanted lengthy passages from their books while the adult monk recited from memory, although he too had a book, a much larger manuscript, to refer to from time to time.

There were long periods of repetition, but then at certain points in the recitations, every fifteen minutes or so, the words were punctuated by very loud bursts of music played by four or five of the boys. The reed instruments were played enthusiastically at a high pitch, the bells shimmered, then the drums were beaten vigorously. This repeated a few times, then with a slight nod from the adult monk the music stopped and the next round of recitations commenced.

The ceremony was long for young children. It had been going for some time before we arrived and we were there for the best part of an hour. You could see their attention flagging at times, but with some gentle guidance from the older monk they would snap back into the recitations with renewed energy.

The only modern touch was the presence of vacuum flasks at the rear, though even they looked quite old. At a couple of points a young monk used them to serve tea to the others while the chanting continued.

We sat silently in the background, completely absorbed in this extraordinary, dreamlike scene.

Prayer wheels, Lamayuru.

Prayer wheels, Lamayuru.

Now, about photography. This is a photo blog site after all. So, where is the shot of this scene I'm describing?

Of course, I would have loved to take some photos. I had my camera with me and even the right lens on it - wide angle, quite bright, very sharp - and it would have done the job for sure.

Although signs specifically asked you to refrain from flash photography, the monastery did not seem to discourage photography in general.

Complicating things a little more for me, I had been told by a local person before coming to Lamayuru that the monks are happy with photos being taken at morning prayers. I did wonder about this, but I suppose I could have convinced myself that there was some kind of tacit permission to photograph, albeit pretty vague.

However, just because you can doesn't always mean you should.

I simply couldn't do it. I believed it would be unfair to those children, their parents, the monks, the whole establishment. Even to take a photo for my own travel memory and not to publish it - still I wasn't comfortable. It felt way too intrusive.

In addition, even if I were extremely careful about it, the camera clicks and my movements surely would have disturbed the ceremony. It was a compact area and every movement would be noticed. I didn't want to do anything at all to take away from the beauty of the moment.

I was really torn and I won't pretend I didn't waver. I truly wanted to take that shot. In fact I was aching to take it. The scene was utter perfection. But no. The camera stayed in my lap.

I was a little rueful about it I have to admit, because photography is important to me. I was quite convinced that sitting right there in front of me, willing me on, was one of the best shots of my life. If not the very best. Seize the moment! Just one quick snap! But in my heart I knew it was the right call.

So, for the next 30 minutes we sat completely still, mesmerised by the scene.

Lamayuru.

Lamayuru.

Then, out of the blue, the older monk turned, looked us in the eye and beckoned us to join the group.

In hindsight, it wasn't even an invitation. The hand motion was very clear. We were being told, not asked, to join in.

So I sat cross-legged (a little uncomfortable for my ageing knees and hips to be honest, but that was all part of the experience) on the bench next to the older monk, while my wife joined the boys opposite.

The boys were clearly intrigued by her western appearance, perhaps her blonde hair, and were sneaking looks at her. I think the older monk pretended not to notice their brief lapses of concentration.

We're not Buddhists, and if I'm to be completely frank, through the lens of my culture I had mixed feelings about these children's regulated lives away from their families - but we were truly honoured by the generous invitation to share that special, solemn, atmospheric, intensely spiritual moment with the young monks.

District view from Lamayuru Monastery.

District view from Lamayuru Monastery.

As we left I did wonder - if I had taken photographs during the ceremony, would we still have been asked to join in? I can't say for sure, but I did sense we were somehow being rewarded for showing respect and interest.

Across a lifetime of great travel experiences, that hour was a true highlight and privilege. I can clearly picture those faces, the short cropped hair, the earnest striving of the young boys to maintain attention, their occasional stifled yawns, the intensity of the music and the long repetitions, the beautiful old instruments, the wafting smoke, the purity, simplicity and piety of a scene hidden away in a small room in a remote corner of the planet.

With that perfect, ethereal light pouring down.

So, I don't have that fantastic photograph to share, but it doesn't matter. The image still has a life.

Lamayuru.

Lamayuru.

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There are 10 comments , add yours!
Camellia Staab 1 year, 1 month ago

Really enjoyed reading your post. I do feel your pain, not taking a photo of that perfect scene but at the same time, I believe you did the right thing. The image, no doubt is imprinted in your head and when you look at these beautiful captures you have posted here, the memory of that scene comes forth vividly in your mind. You were not able to share that scene with us, except through words ( which by the way, you did very nicely) but you still hold the memory of that scene and that's what counts the most. Thanks for sharing this post and photos with us smile

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
John Wilson Replied to Camellia Staab 1 year, 1 month ago

Thank you so much Camellia! I really appreciate the feedback.

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Heike 1 year, 1 month ago

Great post, John! In my opinion it was the right decision not to take a photo of the scene you described. I'm not religious, but I would never take a photo of believers who are currently practicing their faith, neither in a church nor a temple or wherever. Showing respect and empathie is more important than a good pic. For eternal memories, photos are not necessary!

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
John Wilson Replied to Heike 1 year, 1 month ago

I agree Heike. I think there's a whole interesting discussion to be had on Photoblog about when it is and isn't ok to take photos of people. As you can see from my posts I'm generally pretty conservative about it, on the principle `would I want people to take my photo in this way?'

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Heike Replied to John Wilson 1 year, 1 month ago

I wouldn't call this attitude conservative, John. I wish more people would think twice before they click - and upload without permission...In Germany you can take legal action against it and I welcome that.

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
John Wilson Replied to Heike 1 year, 1 month ago

It's an interesting issue for sure Heike and lots of nuances. Such as how recognisable people are in the shot, whether they're incidental to the shot as part of a crowd and so on. And different approaches in different countries. How do street photographers get their permissions? I'd love to know. Maybe I'll do a post on this sometime and see how other photographers approach it. Anyway, I generally stick to wildlife and scenery!

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Russell Smith 1 year, 1 month ago

The series of images you took were great and the scene you painted and did not take sounded amazing. Even though you did not take the image you have the photo of the scene etched into your memory and you have such a great experience to remember.

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
John Wilson Replied to Russell Smith 1 year, 1 month ago

Thanks Russell, yes the memory will stay with me for sure!

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Nancy Andrea D 1 year, 1 month ago

Thanks for the share. I'd really enjoyed reading your adventure.

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
John Wilson Replied to Nancy Andrea D 1 year, 1 month ago

Much appreciated Nancy!

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
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