Heinrich Harrer’s Tibet

As 65th Anniversary of the Communist Takeover of China approaches, Iconic Photos is looking back at the world it changed.


In April 1944, Heinrich Harrer escaped a British internment camp in India to begin his 21-month journey across the Himalayas, across 65 mountain passes. Only in January 1946 — long after the war that forced the British authorities to detain Austria-born mountaineer (and as it later transpired, a member of the Nazi party) Harrer – he walked into the Tibetan capital at Lhasa, like a starving beggar.

Harrer was to spend seven years in Tibet, later recounted as the eponymous book and movie (above); under the Potala Palace, he built a skating rink, which brought him to the attention of the palace’s inhabitant, the 12-year old Dalai Lama. For the priest king, Harrer built a cinema, running the projector off an old Jeep engine. Later, he was Dalai Lama’s tutor in maths, geography, science, and history.

Harrer was an avid photographer too. He didn’t have a camera with him when he escaped, but later managed to barter a 35mm Leica from a local noble who bought it in India. He cut and re appropriated negatives left by a pre-war expedition and scavenged for chemicals to develop photos. As Court Photographer, he had taken over 2,000 negatives, of which a selection was published in 1991 in the album Lost Lhasa. His book was an unparalleled and sole account of nomadic, feudal, and monastic life as lived by the Tibetans well into the 1940s and 50s — a time capsule of rituals and festivals which had been banned for last five decades.


This life, including the pilgrims’ circuit of Lhasa he documented, was soon to be wiped out by a series of Chinese invasions. Both factions in the Chinese civil war, the Communists and the Kuomintang, had maintained that Tibet was a part of China. At the end of the civil war, the victorious Communists were ready to incorporate Tibet by force.

Two months after the Communist takeover of China, Mao Zedong ordered his army to march into Tibet. Feudal Tibetan theocracy was ill-prepared for a fight and months of frenetic negotiations failed to deliver results. On 23rd May 1951, the Tibetan representatives were forced to sign an agreement which in exchange for nominal self-governance, Tibet agreed to be part of China.

A decade of localized hostilities against the Communist followed; in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet as the Communists reneged on self-governance promises.


(More photos here and here).

Deportation of Tibetan Prisoners


Above 9 May 1959 file photo currently in Bettman-Corbis archives showed Tibetan rebels filing out of the Potala Palace to surrender. The Tibetan Uprising against the Chinese authorities in 1959 was one of few undocumented conflicts during the 20th century. The above photo, which contained no information as to how it was taken and by whom, is thus extremely rare.

The photo was thought to be a Chinese propaganda piece. The deportation of the prisoners appears organized and orderly. The column was led by a man bearing a pole to which white scarves are tied as a symbol of surrender and one red flag; to the right stands a Chinese, carrying a photocamera. The photo creates the impression of a peaceful, carefully planned operation with Lhasa’s main attraction in the background, as if this were a postcard. However, the ‘harmless’ impression conveyed by this photo was contradicted by all other reports of the massacre in Lhasa, after which there were ‘piles and plies of bodies reaching up to the branches of the trees’. No corpses, no wounded, no signs of violence–the photograph shows none of the atrocities that accompanied these deportations.