Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality


Joe Mickey, Tibetan Photo Project

March 11, 2011

Because the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender draws from the real-world culture of Tibet, and because of the controversy surrounding the Groupon Super Bowl commercial, which parodied the plight of the Tibetan people, Racebending.com contributor Gabriel Canada contacted the founders of the Tibetan Photo Project through email for an interview. They shared their thoughts on media representation of the Tibetan community, the Groupon commercial, and their own projects.


Photo by Jam Yang Norbu from Drepung Monastery in Southern India. From the Tibetan Photo Project, Used with Permission. 

The Tibet Photo Project is a first-of-its kind project founded by Joe Mickey and Sazzy Varga, but operated by members of the Tibetan community worldwide. The goal of the organization is to provide documentary feature length films about Tibet and the Tibetan people, in their own voice. Founded in 1999, the project has since created four feature length films–all written, directed, and shot by native Tibetans with help from donations collected by the Tibet Photo Project.

The first film, Voices in Exile, was produced on what Joe and it’s film maker Tenzin Wangden Andrugstang called a “begging bowl budget.” It began as simple snapshots of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, India with donated disposable cameras and eventually became the first documentary feature produced by a Tibetan about the Tibetan community.

The success generated by Voices in Exile encouraged new film makers to get behind the lens for the first time and tackle different subjects within the Tibetan community, perhaps best stated in Visually and Respectfully Yours, a film which tells the story of the Tibetan Photo Project as well as the daily life of the average Tibetan.

Today, the Tibetan Photo Project’s goal is to create permanent media education centers where Tibetans can learn how to film and edit their own stories.

NOTE: The opinions espoused by the interviewees represent their viewpoints alone, and do not necessarily represent the views held by the staff of racebending.com

RACEBENDING.COM: The issue of cultural exploitation of Tibet arose recently with the Groupon advertisement during the Super Bowl. What have you heard from the Tibetan community here and abroad on this issue?

JOE MICKEY: The response we heard was mixed… some were offended and some saw it as bringing Tibet into public view. I don’t think it was any different than the general response of Tibet supporters.

RACEBENDING.COM: How important is media representation to the preservation of Tibetan culture? How many programs are actually broadcast in the native Tibetan language today?

JOE MICKEY: I have no idea on the total number of programs in the Tibetan language. VOA [Voice of America] and others do broadcast. Phayul.com connects to programs. If there is a weakness in the Tibetan effort, it is that so much of the support is done in splinters and there are not enough cross connections and linkages.

As for media representation, we feel its very important, as awareness drives support. Tibetans have a very strong internal effort to preserve their culture, but, that said, it takes money to maintain it.

RACEBENDING.COM: Many Americans have become acquainted with Tibet through film. In media such as The Golden Child (1986), Kundun (1997), or even Avatar: The Last Airbender, where Tibetan philosophy or culture plays an active role or serves as inspiration for the stories, do you feel first casting preference should be given to Native Tibetans or people within the Tibetan American communities?

JOE MICKEY: What you have listed here are Hollywood visions of Tibet. Some have had Tibetan consultants. I think that accuracy would be important. It would be great if Tibetan actors could gain the voice of celebrity from a major project, but… it’s Hollywood. Look at Slumdog Millionaire, the lead was played by an English kid of Indian descent who had never traveled to India before. It was effective in its message, and yet none of it was authentic–and yet it held a truth about poverty in India.


From “Portraits in Exile” by Tenzin Wangden Andrugtsang.From the Tibetan Photo Project, Used with Permission. 

RACEBENDING.COM: Can you give our readers a general background of what it is that the Tibetan Photo Project hopes to achieve and how they could choose to become involved?

JOE MICKEY: The Tibetan Photo Project is working to grow a voice through the films and photos by Tibetans. We offer DVDs, screenings, lectures and exhibits. (Visit our events and presentations page and media coverage page at our website to see how this creates a voice from their work.)

The Tibetan Photo Project is in its 11th year. For the most part, we are self funded, so donations via the website, Tibetan Photo Project.com, or purchase of our films on Amazon.com is help that actually helps. We do get a lot of good wishes, but they don’t help much. Working with organizations, colleges, or schools, we can offer exhibits or other programs.

Our films Our films at Amazon are:
Visually and Respectfully Yours – The Story of The Tibetan Photo Project
Voices in Exile by Tenzin Wangden Andrugtsang
Save Tibet… Why?

We also have the film India 101 in editing, and Human Beings in Development.


Photo by Jam Yang Norbu from Drepung Monastery in Southern India. From the Tibetan Photo Project, Used with Permission. 

RACEBENDING.COM: How does the Hollywood vision of Tibet differ from what native Tibetans would want to see on screen? Do these romanticized or imagined images from Hollywood impact how people outside of America view Tibet?

JOE MICKEY: Hollywood has generally been respectful, pretty and well lit. If you look at Kundun or Seven Years in Tibet, they’re condensed because it has to be. It has to be a story, so detail and daily life are lost.

The biggest mistake is that people in America do not have any significant knowlege of Tibet. They have a general idea, but its not something Americans keep up to date on. As for the rest of the world, well, generally Tibetans seem to have the sympathy of the West and I suppose some credit for that would go to the Hollywood image.

The biggest mistake is that people in America do not have any significant knowlege of Tibet. They have a general idea, but its not something Americans keep up to date on.


Photo by Lobsang Topgyal. From the Tibetan Photo Project, Used with Permission. 

RACEBENDING.COM: What has been more important for the Tibet Photo Project: Expanding the cultural awareness of Tibet for those outside of the community through more accurate portrayals of the culture, or providing those accurate portrayals to Tibetans across the world?

JOE MICKEY: The Dalai Lama is the face of Tibet to most people in the world. Monasteries have touring monks that give performances and do sand mandalas in order to support the Monasteries.

But to address your question, I have this belief in the power of photography to speak beyond language. We are seeing it today in news from the Middle East, we see it come from wars. Always, pictures influence and potentially change minds.

“I have this belief in the power of photography to speak beyond language. We are seeing it today in news from the Middle East, we see it come from wars. Always, pictures influence and potentially change minds.”

Tibetans do not have a huge photo trove or an extensive video file, and because of that, when we exhibit or show the press takes notice and that is the real voice of their photos and films. When an article reports to thousands of readers based on the vehicle of an event from The Tibetan Photo Project, then we expand that voice beyond the usual support media. We have had articles in event publications, or on statewide television in Louisiana. The project had four pages in a local real estate magazine, and it reached 16 million readers via Parade magazine in 2004 in a small article.

The photos expand the voice. As for what is portrayed? Tibetan culture is evolving just as most cultures are. All we hope for is for Tibetans to be heard or seen in their own voice and view.



RACEBENDING.COM: What drove you to create the Tibetan Photo Project?

JOE MICKEY: I am just a photograher. Sazzy [Varga, co-founder] has been a model and she does a lot of great web work. We both understand the potential of photography–whether it be frivolous fashion, or glamor, or serious journalistic work. I am not a Buddhist, just a photographer and the entire Tibetan cause seems like a good place to promote a voice from the inside. I think you don’t have to become a Buddhist to find you can learn a lot about humanity and how to deal with each other via Tibetan culture.


From “Tibetan’s Childres Village School turns 45” by Tenzin Wangden Andrugtsang. From the Tibetan Photo Project, Used with Permission. 

RACEBENDING.COM: Racebending.com was started as a reaction to the casting of The Last Airbender live action movie. The animated series draws its name, “Avatar,” from Tibetan concepts as well as liberally borrowing the names of the Aibenders from the titles of current Dali Lama. Can you explain to the readers at Racebending.com how important reincarnation or the concept of an avatar is to the Tibetan tradition?

JOE MICKEY: I would be surprised if most movie goers would realize there is any Tibetan influence in either. They are however good films with a good message. As for the Dalai Lama, I think if Tibetan Buddhism is a religion, it’s more an effort to be in control of one’s own mind and then see yourself as part of a larger community or planet. The most refreshing thing is that it questions truth rather than relies on Dogma. Its pragmatic, and yet very complex.

The Dalai Lama himself has said there will only be a Dalai Lama as long as Tibetans feel they need one, and if the modern world says the Dalai Lama is no longer needed, he is perfectly okay with that. The best thing about Tibetan tradition is its ability to look at itself and that it is allowed to adjust to the larger society. If there is a core tradition, its to be of benefit to other living beings. The rest on how to do that in the world as it is, today…is evolving.


A little Tibetan boy in Dharamsala, India, photographed by Tenzin Wangden. From the Tibetan Photo Project, Used with Permission. 

Racebending.com would like to thank Joe Mickey and Sazzy Varga for this interview!

Categories: blog, Featured, Interviews

About the Author

Gabriel Canada is a contributing writer to Racebending.com. Gabe Canada is from Indianapolis, Indiana where he is currently studying Journalism at Indiana University. He joined Racebending as a fan of the original Airbender series. Outside of school he runs a local anime meetup group and is the cofounder of a production company, Kind of Epic Films.

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  • We want to thank Gabriel Canada and Racebending.com for the effort and patience he had in putting together this article. If anyone would like to contact us, we would love to hear from you. Thetibetanphotoproject@yahoo.com
    Visually, Sazzy Varga and Joe Mickey

  • Tibet is a beautiful, if cold, land.

    I would assume Hollywood’s version is different, and that not all Tibetans are monks who happen to favor the creator’s personal New Age viewpoint. That Tibet plays such a central role in Theosophy, the granddaddy of New Age movements, doesn’t help.

    I generally assume people coming from the dominant culture have more, ah, odd ideas about indigenous people. Over on alt.native, we’ve got one guy, David Dalton, who is a blatant example. (Admittedly, he’s mentally ill, but even if he weren’t, he’d have the exact same psychosis about indigenous people.)

  • Prinny

    Actually the concept of an “Avatar” is not exclusivley Tibetan, it shows up in many Indian epics and religious texts as well.

  • Anonymous

    It’s really sad that a respected blog in the social/racial justice community like “Racebending.com”  resort to the same tactics that White run blogs/news outlets do: they look for the closest White “Tibet Expert” to talk about the Tibet issue.  Y’all know that there numerous Tibetan scholars, activists and community leaders that could have easily spoken on this issue, right? In the future I’d challenge y’all to reach out to the community you are writing about instead of relegating that to a white person that you Googled.