Tibetan identities 3

Snap Judgment: Photographing Ethnic Groups, Sans Stereotype

No headdresses, no vacant stares: How young artists challenge the parameters of “ethnic” photography

Lobster on the left, tsampa on the right; two versions of London chef Tenzin Nyendak sit side by side in a diptych of portraits. In the one with brighter colors, he rocks a double-breasted chef’s jacket and a toothy grin, holding up the high-end crustacean on a plate; the one with more muted colors shows him in a traditional Tibetan gown with a more subdued smile, holding the highland barley that is a staple food for Tibetans.

This pair of photos is part of “Performing Tibetan Identity,” a project by Lhasa-born photographer Nyema Droma that tries to challenge how her ethnic group has been represented in a century of photography in China and abroad. The series welcomed young Tibetans living in Europe and China to pose for portraits with clothing and belongings that they felt were essential to their identity—from scratched skateboards to tattoo sleeves to a rainbow flag—alongside a more “serious” portrait in a traditional outfit of their choice. Video interviews with the subjects, in which they each talk about why they chose the elements to represent them and how they relate to their Tibetan identity, complete the project.

Nyema Droma exhibited the project at Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum in 2018 and says it resulted from a “process of self exploration…and understanding my own identity.” Her first major project on this theme, a 2014 series called “Modernizing the World’s Roof,” featured an elderly Tibetan monk drinking Coca-Cola, her uncle and a friend enjoying Budweiser beer, and a woman in a traditional outfit clutching a designer handbag under her arm.

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Snap Judgment: Photographing Ethnic Groups, Sans Stereotype is a story from our issue, “The Data Age.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Siyi Chu (褚司怡)

Siyi is the Culture Editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about arts, culture, and society, and is ever-curious about the minds, hearts, and souls inside all of these spheres. Before joining TWOC, she was a freelance writer with some additional work experience in independent filmmaking and the field of education.

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