Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Forbidden Memory: Photographs of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet by Tsering Dorje

In a time when concerns for free expression and human rights are ever present, we can be inspired by the individuals who bravely take action. Individuals like photographer Tsering Dorje who, in the 1960s, captured and preserved haunting images of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet—a period that has been erased from the Chinese government’s official historical records. The stunning exhibit Forbidden Memory makes these photographs physically present to an American audience for the first time. The exhibit will be on display at New Haven’s City Gallery from October 3 through October 27, with an Opening Reception on Thursday, October 3, from 5 to 7 PM.

For the past two years, William Frucht, a City Gallery artist, has been working with Tsering Dorje’s daughter Tsering Woeser; Susan Chen, translator of the book Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution; and Tibet scholar Robert Barnett to bring these important and shocking photographs to an American audience. As Frucht explains, “Tsering Dorje’s photographs are important for everyone who cares about free expression and human rights. They are amazing, beautiful images that speak the truth about a time that has been kept a state secret. I want people to have the opportunity to see them in person.”

Tsering Dorje was just 13 when the Chinese army invaded his country in 1950. He was pressed into service, remained a soldier, and was a mid-level officer when his supervisors made him one of the army’s official photographers, sometime during the 1960s. This was the time of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when the Chinese government, which had already driven the Dalai Lama into exile, began destroying temples and monasteries, forcing religious leaders to undergo re-education, and trying to eliminate all traces of culture or religion. Dorje photographed political rallies, military parades, “revolutionary actions,” and what are called “struggle sessions,” in which religious and cultural leaders, shopkeepers and landlords were forced into the streets and publicly humiliated.

Dorje was just one of many official photographers, but he did something none of the others did. He bought extra rolls of film on the black market, and rather than give everything he shot to the authorities, he kept some rolls for himself.

After his death in 1991, his daughter Tsering Woeser organized her father’s collection of photographs and published them as a book, Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution, through a Taiwanese publisher in 2006. To understand the sensation it caused, you must understand how secretive the Chinese government has been about this period of Tibetan history. Almost nothing about the Cultural Revolution in Tibet has been allowed to appear. Films, books, and dramas don’t mention it; the resumes of officials who served there are either blank for that period or else contain carefully constructed fictions. Official histories start in 1979, as if everything that happened before that date had been erased; schoolbooks mention the “ten bad years” but otherwise say nothing. Photographs are especially rare. All of the work of the other official photographers in Tibet at that time is hidden in secret archives, if it still exists.

The City Gallery exhibit Forbidden Memory is your chance to see Tsering Dorje’s images and the story they tell of a time of politically inspired madness and destruction.

The exhibit is free and open to the public. City Gallery is located at 994 State Street, New Haven, CT 06511. Gallery hours are Thursday - Sunday, 12 noon - 4pm. For further information please contact City Gallery,,