Defining which images may have been taken by Sir Charles Bell and which by Rabden Lepcha

In so far as preferences for particular plate-types may be discerned, the photographs from Lhasa that can with some certainty be attributed to Bell himself (because Bell identifies that he himself took them in his Diary) rather than his assistant Rabden, seem to have been taken using Q-sized negative plates (excluding images of the 13th Dalai Lama – see below). However, this should not be considered a completely prescriptive mode of classification. It may yet be shown that subject-type dictated the size of plate used (panoramas and landscapes, images of ethnographic ‘types’ and group portraits being taken usually with H-plates; street scenes and ‘miscellanea’ being taken with Q-plates, exceptions being the landscapes taken on Bell’s August-September 1921 journey to Reting Monastery and the region north of Lhasa, for which there are unique performances in both H- and Q-sized plates possibly because Rabden accompanied Bell on this journey). Further research would be needed to make more definitive statements on these issues, and it may well indeed ultimately prove impossible to determine integrity between plate size and image ‘type’ in the manner hypothesised.

Bell’s comment that Rabden was taking over his photographic work but that he had by 1920 only “to some extent learnt from me how to use my cameras” (1928 ibid.; see above) implies that by this time was still a training relationship. One further implication of this statement, therefore, is that it might be presumptive to assume that Rabden had a major role in taking photographs for Bell over the full 18 years of their working relationship (which seems, therefore, to have begun in 1903). One key to a possible resolution of this issue probably rests, again, with a re-evaluation of the chronology by which Bell collated his images. The critical period was 1918-1920, when Bell seems to have set about actively to collate a composite visual reference for the text of his books. These manuscripts were by the time of the Lhasa Mission already at a high degree of completion (although later amended by editorial intervention). Bell was apparently suffering repeatedly from ill-health at this time and it may be that it was during 1918-1920 that Rabden took on a more significant role photographically.

Circumstantial evidence that Rabden may have been relatively recently trained as a photographer may be suggested by also by the rather formulaic nature of many of Bell’s Lhasa photographs, there being little apparent awareness of how to manipulate the aesthetic of the image through composition etc., as well as the difficulties that the photographer seems to have had with the technical manipulation of the camera that was used with the H-sized plates. If one uses the zoom function on many of the H-plate images on the website, it is evident that many are relatively badly focused or have compositional or other flaws. There is frequently a shortening of the image on the right-hand side in landscape format, or at the top in portrait format. This can be seen on many of Bell’s H-plate images throughout the whole of his collection, possibly reflecting a flaw with the camera, but seems to recur repeatedly in the Lhasa images. In some cases this shortening is also used as a compositional convention. The portraits of ethnographic ‘types’, which seem clearly to have been taken by Rabden, employ a shortening at the top of the portrait apparently to centre the figure in the frame [see previous slide of ‘Troptup Lama’]. The spatial boundaries of the photographer and the subject/object are thus also replicated very precisely with this technique between one setting and another and the technique may have been effected by socio-spatial etiquette.

The unusual circumstances surrounding the Bell Mission undoubtedly created a complex set of circumstances in which photography could function as a mode of encounter. Heightened sensitivities and diplomatic etiquette would have proscribed Bell’s freedom to take photographs to a considerable extent. Beyond this general statement, however, other strategies are necessary to make more explicit photographic attributions among the Lhasa images to those that were taken either ‘by Bell’ or ‘by Rabden’. The following comments may begin to help delineate a possible model of encounter within which the photographers operated.

The constraints on Bell’s movements and activities, in addition to his own well-developed and well-informed diplomatic sensitivities, would undoubtedly have delimited the range of social contacts that he would have been able to make. This is turn would have affected the range of photographs that he himself would have been able to take. Street scenes, for example, seem problematic in this context, and Bell refers typically to riding rather than walking through the city. There is some evidence to suggest that Lt Col Kennedy had greater liberty to move about the city than did Bell (and such liberty may also have prompted Bell’s contention later that it was paramount that a Medical Officer should be placed in Lhasa as soon as possible). Nonetheless, there are a number of images that suggest that this interpretation should not be applied too prescriptively: some of the photographs of convicts at Lhasa jail, for example, seem to have been taken personally by Bell. In his Diary of 26th July 1921 Bell states:
"I visited the Sho Le-Kung today (photo quarter plate). The courtroom resembled in the main that of the Mi-pon. ... Down below in another place close to, is a verandah in which those accused of the more heinous offences are tried. Here are kept the whips and finger-crushing implements of the same kind as those used by the Mi-pons. Near by is the prison with two separate rooms, both of which one sees from above. One, for those convicted of lighter offences, was photoed by me some months ago.”

Yet, even these apparently ‘social’ images help us to outline a possible model of photographic contact. The photographs of public space that Bell seems most likely to have taken himself seem to have been taken in relatively closed environments such as this.

Possibly the greatest delimiting factor for Bell personally as photographer, aside from the conventions of diplomatic etiquette, was the extremely sensitive situation in Lhasa amongst the monks of the major monasteries at the time. The presence of the Mission itself was apparently provocative enough to create the potential for violent disturbances, and Bell comments in his Diary for August 1921 that he suspected his tour to Reting was to provide the Government with breathing space with which to deal with the monasteries.

Aside from these circumstantial hypotheses, it has also been possible to identify a number of images for which it would have been physically or socially impossible for Bell to take the photographs. In some cases this is because Bell can be seen in the image (sometimes only under magnification) in others because he describes in his Diaries being seated in a closed environment away from the site of the photographer. Bell paid precise attention to the spatial relationships that were constructed at formal ceremonies and which delineated his social position in relation to the Dalai Lama (as a real or symbolic presence), and various officials (as present or historic representatives). Bell’s Diaries go into considerable detail about these spatial/hierarchical arrangements. In most cases it seems reasonable to assert that Bell would not contravene the social etiquette of these spatial boundaries by moving within or towards a gathered crowd, for example, to take photographs.

All of these features suggest that the majority of photographs, where not explicitly attributable to Bell, should be considered as having possibly (in many cases probably) been taken by Rabden. However, the nature of the relationship meant that there was an uncontested principle that ownership and copyright of the images lay with Bell. Furthermore, the very systematic approach both to informational and visual collation intended to feed into publications projects indicates that the visual coherence of the Lhasa images would probably have been determined by Bell. One avenue for exploring this would be a closer scrutiny of the information that Bell cites in his Diaries. He is meticulous in detailing conversations (a meticulousness heightened by his insistence on encasing all reported conversations in quotation marks) and stating the name of his informant. These cover issues such as Sky Burials (which he clearly did not see himself given the lack of personalisation in the reporting), the Status of Women, Beggars etc. Clearly some, possibly many, photographs from the Lhasa Mission seem to have been initiated by these conversations and visualise elements of them. The conversations were then lifted almost word for word from his Diaries into his texts.

The nature of the relationship also meant that Bell does not refer to Rabden as photographer in his List of Illustrations, which is the main document in the first instance used for identifying whether a photograph has been acquired from another source. However, as stated, it seems fairly certain that Rabden took most of the photographs of ethnographic ‘types’, both of individuals and groups, who had come to Lhasa during the Prayer Festival on pilgrimage and to trade. In a number of key cases Bell attributes these images directly to Rabden in his Diaries [for example: 1998.285.312; Bell’s Diary entry for 2nd April 1921, Vol. IX p.77]. Significantly, too, there does not appear to be a particular social hierarchical constraint on the range of images that Rabden may have taken (except, perhaps, in the case of the 13th Dalai Lama, where Rabden’s contribution is stated but not detailed). Bell himself does not seem to have been particularly concerned with reserving certain photographs for himself alone to take. For example, Rabden was permitted to take over the photographic ‘capture’ of Dor-je Pa-mo in November 1920, en route to Lhasa. This was, according to Bell, the first occasion on which she had received or met ‘white men’ (Bell 1928:166). However, Bell does state that she had previously been photographed by ‘One of the Dalai Lama’s men’ (ibid p.168) and it may have been that Bell was so conscious of the minute interpretation of every single act he performed during his stay that he preferred not to set up photography as a criterion by which social status or relationships could be implicated inappropriately. His desire to retain any status dignity that he was accorded as well as a desire to be non-provocative in relation to the Tibetan hierarchy may have led to his inclination to be personally non-involved as a photographer in many instances.

In addition to reconstructing models of social constraint around the settings of certain images, readings of other images where a response to the photographer is visible may also help to define those that may have been taken by Rabden or by Bell. For example, there are some photographs of groups of officials in which the photographer is clearly having difficulties engaging and maintaining the attention of the sitters [c.f.: 1998.285.175]. It could be argued that such a situation would be more likely to emerge around the figure of Rabden than Bell. Unpacking and delimiting this problematic, however, will require more detailed research than is possible in the time-constraints of the Enhancement Project but the project has made significant efforts to make re-attributions in a considered and cautious way. Where there is no persuasive evidence or circumstance to identify the image has having been taken by one or the other, the attribution has been given as ‘Photographer – Sir Charles Bell or Rabden Lepcha’.

Dr Mandy Sadan, Project Manager/Researcher, 2006