The story behind the image
I shot this picture a couple of years ago whilst on a 4 week trip through the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Bhutan can be a complicated country in which to travel since, as a visitor you are required to take a guided tour as your means of travel through the kingdom. Of course, nothing is ever set in stone and it wasn’t too long after meeting my guide and driver that we agreed to modify our pre-planned itinerary and tread a rather less travelled path through this fantastic country by visiting Bhutanese people in their own homes.
This image was one of the first photos I took in Bhutan, and still one of my favourites. On my first day in Thimpu, Bhutan’s sleepy capital city, I asked my guide to take me to visit his relatives and on the way we passed an old friend of the family slowly trudging his way up a road quietly chanting and spinning his prayer wheel. That day it was Neowney, a week long religious duty of mantra chanting and fasting that most of Thimpu’s elderly citizens were taking part in at the time. The family friend agreed for us to come with him and we followed him up to Changangkha Lhakhang temple.
As a first introduction to Bhutan, I think you would struggle to find a more atmospherically charged scene than a room full of meditating people lit only by two small doorways at the front left and right sides of the room. Needless to say, this image was one of an abundance of photographic gifts being offered at that time. Every face in the room told a different story, but it was this lady, quietly sitting at the front in deep meditation who stole the show for me. Later on in the day, outside the temple we showed her the image on my laptop. In that beautiful way that only wise old Buddhists know how, she smiled and carried on about her duties at the temple, unimpressed.
Taking a photograph like this is not hard at all. The only prerequisites are a darkish background and a suitable light source emanating from only one direction, in this case an open door. One thing you must be sure of is to remember to meter for just the highlights that you can see. This will involve shooting with your camera set to manual and adjusting your exposure accordingly, something I would advise you to get into the habit of doing at all times if you are serious about your photography. By exposing for just the highlights on the woman’s face, the rest of the dimly lit background disappears into complete darkness.
As you can see from this second frame. There was no shortage of images in the room on that day. For me though, the tight framing of the lady gives the first image a greater sense of the intimacy of a quiet moment such as meditation.