Photographing Happiness In The Land of Thunder Dragon
Pennsylvania-based photographer Frank T. Smith commemorates his intriguing travels to Bhutan
By John D. Adams
Poland. Germany. Haiti. South Sudan. Atacama. India. Photojournalist and Olympus Trailblazer Frank T. Smith’s passport collection must resemble an international card game of “choose your own adventure.” Only his adventures are all about real-life, and lifelong, passion. Armed primarily with a camera and a wide, open smile, Smith has photographed a planet-full of locales and the people who reside in them. Here, Smith shares his excursion to the mysterious Kingdom of Bhutan.
The real Shangri-La?
Crouching between the monumental slopes of the Himalayas, The Kingdom of Bhutan could rightfully be considered the shy brother of his more well-known siblings: China, India and Nepal. Remote by any standard, in all of its centuries Bhutan has never been colonized by another country. So perhaps one could be forgiven for romanticizing Bhutan as the fabled land of Shangri-La popularized by James Hilton’s 1933 novel, “The Lost Horizon.” The two lands bear a number of striking similarities. Most notably, an unusually high “Gross National Happiness” quotient. A concept created by the country itself, to the point of being included in Bhutan’s 2008 constitution.
A dedicated trailblazer
After journeying literally thousands of miles crisscrossing the globe on assignment for Olympus, on trips for pleasure, or lending his talents as a philanthropic photojournalist, Frank Smith’s enthusiasm never seems to wane. “Olympus Visionaries are established, award-winning professional photographers who travel the world with Olympus products to capture life’s beauty and splendor,” remarked Smith. “And as a philanthropic photojournalist, I’ve been fortunate to work for a lot of international non-profit organizations. That has certainly helped me get to a lot of crazy parts of the world that I would not have otherwise gotten to.”
Today, Smith’s enthusiasm, talent, and dedication to his craft helped him become an Olympus Trailblazer. He is one of just 12 photographers in the Northern Hemisphere that the venerable camera company has asked to test, critique, workshop, and discuss photographic equipment. The elite members of the program include several Pulitzer Prize–winning photographers, as well as artists whose careers have included assignments around the globe.
Beautiful Bhutan and beyond
Arguably one of Smith’s most far-flung adventures led him, along with seven photographer friends, to visit the remote country of Bhutan. “We went to Bhutan from Calcutta, which was tricky because they allow a limited number of people into the country.” Smith’s images depict a serene, vibrant country peopled with open faces and generous spirits. “I wanted to show things that I felt were representative of the country and that would try to give a good depiction of the diversity and types of people we encountered.”
One of Smith’s greatest challenges was trying to photograph some of the country’s teeming population of Buddhist monks. No. Not for any theological reason. Remarkably, Smith couldn’t seem to capture a moment when the monks weren’t using their cell phones! Even in a country as isolated as Bhutan, 21st century situations still exist. “It was crazy! But fortunately the more remote we ventured into the country the less technology we encountered.
“The colors in Bhutan were absolutely unbelievable. Just a vibrant, colorful country,” reflected Smith. When asked about his ability to share in some of the people’s most intimate rituals, Smith offered: “I try to be very friendly. The international sign is a big smile; I have a great attitude, which has literally opened many doors for me. A lot of my photographs from Bhutan were people who invited me into their homes when they were doing prayers with family and friends and playing various instruments. I’d politely ask if I could photograph them and in every case they all said ‘yes.’ It was an amazing experience to have that chance to not only photograph, but be a part of these very intimate rituals. If I hadn’t been a photographer, I never would have had these opportunities.”
See more of Frank T. Smith’s work at: www.franksmithphotos.com