You usually work in countries at war and in conflict. What was it like to cover Bhutan?
It was much harder than covering a war, actually. I’ve spent the last seven years covering the war in Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon, and Iraq. I also go to Darfur once a year. This is one of the first long-term assignments in years where no one was trying to kill me. In a war zone there is tension, you’re functioning on adrenaline, on a passion to report what is happening. It was completely different in Bhutan. Bhutan’s whole philosophy is Gross National Happiness. It’s a country that’s very peaceful; the people are very traditional. It’s not like things are unfolding before your eyes every day. My whole drive was dictated by looking for how to convey a culture, looking for light, for beauty.
Did you enjoy the assignment?
I did enjoy it. It took me a good three weeks to figure out what was actually going on. But I was there seven weeks, and I feel like seven weeks is a good chunk of time.
This is a Buddhist country. Were the monks open to being photographed?
They’re actually very easy to photograph—they’re giggly and happy, and they’re so beautiful in their robes. The one thing that was very difficult was that I couldn’t photograph inside of monasteries. That was the hardest thing about photographing in Bhutan. Buddhism is a fundamental part of the society, and so you can’t photograph the altars.
There were no exceptions to that rule?
The government is very strict about it. They don’t care that I’m from the Geographic. They have their reasons—for years tourists and foreigners would come and photograph the altars, and they think that some of the photos would be thrown away. To throw away an image of an altar is sacrilegious and extremely offensive. I was able to photograph around the monasteries in the butter-lamp room where they light butter lamps in the morning.
Were there any other places you weren’t allowed to photograph?
When I first arrived I asked my translator to show me rituals and ceremonies, maybe a wedding or a funeral—things that in any other country I’ve worked in over the last 12 years I could get access to. But he just said, “Not possible.” For him, he couldn’t fathom bringing a photographer to a funeral. They aren’t used to people documenting their lives. Bhutanese are tough. They are very proud, and if they don’t want to do something, they won’t do it.
How about the Bhutanese people—were they open to having you photograph them?
The culture is so different from where I usually work. In the Middle East, people call you in for lunch from the street just because you’re a foreigner. Bhutan is not like that. It’s a very closed place, although the people are incredibly hospitable and warm. They wouldn’t invite me in, but I would walk up to the houses, and most people were welcoming—that was never a problem. In one house there were these two little girls—one was maybe ten and the other seven—and their mother was working out in the fields. I walked into the house and said hello, and one of the girls just stared and started crying, because she had never seen a foreigner. She was so confused. I did get to photograph them. I went back the next morning, and the mom was there. I think the dad was out shopping, which takes a few days since the nearest road was about a six-hour walk.
You must have done a lot of trekking then?
I was moving around everyday. What is hard about Bhutan is that there is basically one road that goes from east to west. You drive along the road and see a village. It looks really close, but it ends up being a three-hour walk—uphill. I went across the country with my translator and driver. Brook Larmer (the writer) and I did a five-day trek in the National Forest. We hired local villagers to carry our stuff. We did about six hours of hiking a day.
Did you have any particularly unusual experiences in Bhutan?
Bhutanese are totally liberated sexually, and I’ve spent the last seven years in the Muslim world, which is completely different. In Bhutan they are obsessed with phalluses, because they believe phalluses fight off evil spirits. They are painted on many houses in Bhutan. I went to this village for a five-day festival, where I spent a lot of time photographing this jester who was the master of ceremonies. He ran around with this long wooden phallus and poked people with it. It was all about imparting good will. When I went back to the village on my second trip, he found out I was there, so he came to the house where I was having tea and gave me a gift wrapped in newspaper. I opened it when I got back to my room. It was a giant mushroom carved into the shape of a phallus. I just sat there laughing. Then I called my sister and my mother to tell them about it. I definitely have never received one of those as a gift before!
Any other experiences stand out?
One of the last two nights I was in Bhutan, I was totally exhausted—I woke up that morning at 4 a.m. and had been shooting all day. I was in the east, which isn’t as developed as the western part of the country, and my hotel wasn’t as nice. When I get back to my hotel, I changed into shorts and tank top, and as I’m about to get into bed, out of the corner of my eye I see a cockroach about two inches long. I’m thinking, “What do I do? I’m not dressed appropriately to go out and get someone.” Then I see another one. So now there are two. Then they start flying. I just started screaming for my translator, who came running into my room. I’m standing on my bed in my shorts and T-shirt shouting for help, the cockroaches are flying, and he starts running around the room with a newspaper trying to catch them. He won’t kill them because he is Buddhist. I think it says a lot about Bhutan—that he wouldn’t even kill a cockroach.