• JH

How I made the shot. 1/10: Potala Palace floodlit during a lightning storm, Lhasa, Tibet

Potala Palace floodlit during a lightning storm, Lhasa, Tibet, 2007. Nikon D2X, 17-55mm f2.8 zoom at 48mm, 9 sec at f6.3, ISO 100, 8.32pm.

Before Ever since my travel companion and I were slung out of Tibet on New Year’s Eve in 1987, after trying to sneak in over the mountains, Lhasa held the fascination of forbidden fruit for me. Our escapade in 1987 took place right after the uprising in Lhasa, so visas were not available; we were young and naive, but adventurous. The reward for our efforts was a day inside Tibet, scrambling down a mountainside, before being arrested and deported along with a lorry load of monks. As we didn’t have re-entry visas for Nepal, we spent the night in no-man’s land in a shack over a glacial torrent.

I wouldn’t manage to visit the Tibetan capital itself until 1999, some 12 years later. By then the Chinese influence on the city was depressingly established. I was drawn to Lhasa by what was Tibetan about it, not what was Chinese; by what made it unique, and not like the many other Chinese cities. Yet somehow the soul of the city was reluctant to reveal itself; the Tibetans had lost their joy through oppression and cultural displacement. I was only there for a few days and captured a few shots, but the visit felt anticlimactic and I knew I would return one day to delve deeper. Directly in the line of view between my hotel and that extraordinary building was another building with a rooftop similar to the one of my hotel. I went to explore and discovered it was a Chinese restaurant on two floors, with a roof where tea towels and overalls were left out to dry. The staff seemed relaxed as I gestured upwards to the roof, so I went to do a recce. I took some decent shots with my tripod of the Potala floodlit against a black night sky.

Potala Palace floodlit, Lhasa, Tibet, 2007. This was taken from the roof of the Chinese restaurant. Nikon D2X, F8 17-55mm f2.8 zoom at 31mm, 5 sec at f8, ISO 100, 5.53pm.

During The next evening I retired to my room after dinner then went up onto the roof for the view and some fresh air. A gusty wind was gathering pace and I could sense that a storm was coming in. I went back to my room to read, thinking that my photography was over for the day. However, the sound of thunder prompted me back onto the roof, partly as I was curious to see what time the floodlights were turned off at the Potala. A storm was approaching from the west and I could see lightning bolts advancing through screens of rain. As I watched, the thunder became louder and the lightning bolts slowly brighter. It suddenly occurred to me that if I could run across to the other rooftop above the restaurant, I might have a chance of capturing some lightning above the floodlit Potala Palace. After I wasn’t sure I had got the shot I wanted until at last I sat, completely drenched, inside the protection of the restaurant’s staircase. I remember that this was a sweet moment – I enlarged an image that contained a lightning streak coinciding with a moment when the foreground was relatively free of rain, and I could see the exposure was pin-sharp. While I was shooting I had to keep guessing, frantically experimenting. I had just grabbed as many shots as possible, but upon reflection I realised that the storm had cooperated beautifully, passing diagonally in front of me right across the Potala, leaving a cloudless gap in the foreground for just enough time. It had come down to split seconds and a good deal of luck – indeed the next day I saw that the Potala had been covered in bamboo scaffolding! A senior editor at one of the world’s leading magazines described the selected image as one of the two most important images he had seen of the Potala, along with Galen Rowell’s image with the rainbow. That was very gratifying, to hear this from such a respected editor. Normally I think l push myself that bit further when I am on an assignment, but I had done it this time out of an obligation to myself and my history of reaching Lhasa. The image was used to advertise Epson papers, and will now finally be published in my forthcoming book on the spread of Buddhism. It is also one of the very few images that I have on my own walls. A few people have asked me if the image was ‘photoshopped’, to which I think I’ve replied ‘Where would the fun in that be?’

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