Beginning in 1989, Lu Nan spent fifteen years completing his trilogy: Part One: The Forgotten People—The Condition of China’s Psychiatric Patients; Part Two: On the Road—The Catholic Faith in China; Part Three: Four Seasons—Everyday Life of Tibetan Peasants.
In this opus magnum of epic photography works, Lu Nan affirms a richly human way of seeing. Each photograph in the trilogy stands on its own, yet belonging inalienably to the whole. Each is a crystalline node that amplifies and extends the other; every individual moment is at the same time an empirical part of all other moments. The trilogy focuses on the human condition in three realms. Particles of substances are caught up in a web of light and shade, suggesting a state of moral elevation and ultimately guiding the viewer’s gaze towards a secluded inner spiritual world in all of us.
The Chinese version of Trilogy is published by China National Photographic Art Publishing House, while the English version is published by GOST Books in 2018.
Lu Nan, as the only photographer of Magnum Photos from mainland China, accepted the interview by Magnum in 2019. The full dialogue can be found as follows：
1, You have said that this project ‘chose you’, can you elaborate on that?
In my Trilogy, the final photograph in The Forgotten People was taken in a church, showing a priest as he gave a blessing to a mentally ill church member. The moment I took that photo, I realized that my second project would be Catholicism, and that my third one would be Tibet. If I say that I deliberately chose the project on mental illness, then the following projects on Catholicism and Tibet chose me. That’s because only those three projects would constitute an extended work with inner connection and coherence.
The Forgotten People is about suffering and adversity; On the Road is about purification; Four Seasons is about a blessed, serene and peaceful state (According to the Buddhist view, heaven is not an abstract idea, it is a concrete reality: when a person’s inner being is in a state of serenity and peace, then that person is living in heaven and existing in blessedness).
The three component works of the Trilogy present three states of the life-phenomenon. In our life course, we all experience these three life-states to a greater or lesser extent. The soul’s paramount and ultimate wish is to be out of sufferings and, through purification, reach a blessed state of peace-at-heart. This wish is what connects the three parts together.
2, How does this project connect to Buddhist beliefs ? Why do you believe the Tibetan peasants are “existing in blessedness”?
In rural Tibet, the vast majority of the peasants believe in Buddhism, but their religious faith has no fixed ceremony and they hardly hold religious activities. Most families aperiodically invite monks or someone knowledgeable of the sutras to chant at home. Their religious belief is deeply integrated into their daily life, which embodies more in their attitude towards the Nature, divinities, other living beings, as well as towards birth, aging, sickness, death, etc. Four Seasons presents the daily life of peasants as well as their religious beliefs beyond rituals. For buddhists, happiness has nothing to do with rich or not, but with peace of mind in the present moment. In their peaceful inner state, Tibetan peasants live and work leisurely and at ease without being trapped by the past or disturbed by the future.
This is the state of happiness according to Buddhism, which resonates with the blessedness sought by Epicureanism, Stoicism and Spinozism.
3, Though the peasants work in harsh conditions, it seems like they live a fulfilled and happy life. Would you say that’s true?
Faced with the harsh living conditions, scarcity of materials and various kinds of hardships they suffer, the Tibetan peasants still maintain an optimistic and peaceful attitude that cannot be destroyed. This is the reality that anyone who has gone to Tibet could see and feel.
By the end of the work of Four Seasons, every grain that the Tibetan peasants harvested from the land belongs to themselves. The gap between the rich and the poor among peasant families was very small. The only difference between the rich and the poor in most families was that one family has dozens of more sheep than the other, or several more pots or thermos bottles. The few relatively wealthy families were polygamous. The custom of sharing a wife among peasants in Tibet is a countermeasure adopted by the families with many children to avoid the dispersal of family property due to sons’ marriages and living apart. This social environment with little difference between the rich and the poor also created conditions for them to maintain an optimistic and peaceful life.
4, How do men and women’s role differ ?
Men sew and women weave. In other jobs, both men and women are involved in different degrees. It is the man who makes the decisions in the family.
5, You document the rituals of farm-life but also the rituals of their customs and culture — can you talk more about that side of their life? + what they like to do when they’re not working?
All the year round, the peasants have endless work to do from morning till night. In addition to the regular work like spring sowing and autumn harvest, sewing and weaving, the work they do the most is twisting wool into yarn.
6, How important is family and friendship within this culture?
Tibetans are the nationality who cares and values the relationships a lot, especially their relationships among family members is very deep. When you visit one family, if only the children are at home, you can’t ask them where their parents go, because of the harsh environment, poverty and lack of medical care, one of their parents may have died. The children may immediately begin to weep by being asked so. Therefore, when you go to one family, you should ask first how many people there are in the family, who are there, and then you know whether the children’s parents are still alive. The friendships among the peasants reflect a lot in the way of mutual assistance. For example, when one family builds a house, every family in the village will send one person to help unconditionally.
7, As is revealed in the title, the seasons are integral to the Tibetan peasants’ way of life. Can you describe the shifts that occurred with each change in season ? (How did the landscape change / How did their workload change etc.?)
Spring and autumn in Tibet are very short. The most obvious seasons are summer and winter. Sowing in spring and harvesting in autumn are determined by the seasons. In addition, the peasants shear wool before the summer then twist it into yarns to be used for weaving daily necessities such as clothes and quilts. This work is repeated and goes on year after year.
8, The project took 7 years to complete. Can you talk me through how you approached it logistically? (i.e. How long did you stay for each trip? How did you decide where to visit?)
From 1996 to 2004 I made nine trips to Tibet and stayed three to four months each time. On my last two trips, between August 2002 and May 2004, I worked in Tibet for fifteen months—six months for the first time and nine months for the second. During the work for Four Seasons, I photographed the entire spring sowing twice and the entire autumn harvest four times.
My way of choosing location is simple, as long as there are people in a place. I usually lodged at the township government. I would lay a ruler over the map to calculate the distance. Anywhere within 2.5 hour walking distance and had no fewer than six villages is where I would go. I walked at a speed of no less than 7.5 kilometers per hour.
9，How did you adapt to their way of life during the time you spent there? What did you learn from them?
In Tibet, life is fully respected. Peasants do not use pesticides, even when they are provided free by the government, because the pesticides will kill insects. After their death, through celestial and water burials, the peasants use their bodies to nourish those who fly in the sky and those who swim in the water. Four Seasons is paying a tribute to Tibetan peasants.
10, How did the works of Goethe and Eichmann influence this body of work?
Goethe’s belief in the infinite value of living in the present and his overall vision of everything determines the level of Four Seasons.
During the seven years of photographing Four Seasons, no matter how familiar I was with the peasants’ lifestyle and their customs, I always prepared to leave empty-handed before I went to Tibet, because the fascination of life also lies in its impermanence, which is also the inspiration and solace of life for me.