The Hotel is a series of photographs taken by Tenzing Dakpa in a hotel in Gangtok, Sikkim. While a hotel is a transient space, where people stay for a period of time and then leave, this particular structure is also Dakpa’s childhood home.
Dakpa, who is the only member of his family who does not live in and run the hotel, returned after spending many years living in other places. During an extended spring trip back home, he began rediscovering his childhood surroundings with a fresh curiosity through the quiet movements of a new member of the family—his parents’ recently adopted kitten. Through images of his cat’s meanderings, his parents’ and brother’s daily labor, and the building’s structure and furnishings, Dakpa explores a “diasporic perception of home”—one that simultaneously invokes a sense of familiarity and detachment with the space.
In this interview for LensCulture, Dakpa speaks with Lodoe-Laura Haines-Wangda about his series, his image-making process, and what it was like to return to his family home to make these photographs.
Lodoe-Laura Haines-Wangda: I wanted to start by talking about how The Hotel came to be. How did this series start, and what did the first images look like?
Tenzing Dakpa: In the spring of 2014, before I moved to Rhode Island for my MFA at RISD, I was visiting my parents in Gangtok, Sikkim. My parents had just adopted a new kitten, and they called him Dungkhar, so there was this new member of the family when I arrived.
I moved away from Sikkim in 2004. I don’t have much to do when I return home, and due to our preoccupations over the years, the interests between myself and my friends evolved to be very different. So during this trip, being indoors all day, Dungkhar was good company for me—he offset my idleness. I would just observe, follow and photograph him around the premises of the hotel, which is a five-storey building. Up until this point, I always found it difficult—and was not interested in—photographing in Gangtok or my home. I always considered Gangtok to be a place of rest and inactivity.
At the end of the year, when I was back working in my studio in Rhode Island, my dad called me up to tell me that Dungkhar had passed away for unknown reasons. I went back to the images that I made of the cat, and one of the things that I immediately realized was how Dunghkhar had, by proxy, taught me how to photograph my home, and my boredom in the process. There was something about the way the cat would scour the premises, hunting and finding a good spot of sun to bask in.
Around the same time in my studio in Providence, I was going through photographs that I made across Tibetan settlements in India, New York and Boston, thinking about the realities of diaspora settlements and the politics of displacement and identity among young Tibetans. The deeper I delved into the nuances, the more I felt that a stake in survival was far more immediate than analyzing power structures.
The winter of 2015–16 was the first trip I made to Gangtok to begin working on the series, although I consider the photographs of Dungkhar to be the first images in the project, because they established that certain sense of intimacy and detachment at the same time.
LLHW: Tell me more about that sense of intimacy and detachment. One of the things that I find really compelling about the work is that it is about a hotel—a place where people stay for a while, temporarily. But it is also your family home. It is both things simultaneously, and there is a tension in that.
TD: Within the context of The Hotel pictures, the sense of intimacy and detachment operates on many different levels. It’s in the prodigal nature that I projected onto Dungkhar, who comes and goes at his own will—even though you don’t really know what he is thinking about besides food, shelter and his own preoccupations—does not participate in the labor that goes into the hotel, but is a witness to it all.
It is also present in my own privilege, as an educated son and an artist, which is very different from the kid who grew up washing dishes and helping his mother in the kitchen for the guests who came to the hotel. In order to describe what that tension looks like, there is a photograph in the series where we see my father polishing my shoe, and I remember struggling to make that picture, because there was a pillar right in front of him and I was trying to compose the frame. But after making that photograph, I realized its significance: it was my father polishing my shoe so that I could step out into the world, and the act of photographing that gesture provided me with closure. It implicated my own privilege and brought me closer to their labor.
LLHW: It strikes me that the self-reflexive act of photographing is, itself, part of the work. The choice to make pictures in black and white, the harsh flash, and the framing you use are all choices that heighten the viewer’s awareness that these are photographs. Can you tell us more about these choices?
TD: Part of the process in making The Hotel pictures over an extended period of time involved trying to make new kinds of pictures. A certain inventiveness creeps in where I project my idiosyncrasies onto the thing that I choose to photograph. It’s also kind of like a breaking point, where you are here to make pictures and then you slip into yourself, forgetting what you were here for altogether. That’s when the good stuff kicks in.
For instance, there is a picture of my dad on the rooftop garden, and he is standing behind a flower pot that is suspended with wires. From where I was standing, I was hoping that he would move. But he wouldn’t, and I finally gave in to making that picture. The flash distorts the foreground-background distinction as separate planes, which also makes it look like he and the pot are one with stuff growing out of them, waiting for spring.
LLHW: What were your influences for this project? What other photographers’ work were you thinking about when shaping the images?
TD: Following past projects, learning and interaction with Tibetan diasporic communities in New York State, Boston and India, I was thinking about migration and labor a lot when I initially set out to make this project. After my first trip to Sikkim to pursue the series, I was drawn towards photographers who focused on domestic spaces and their own families. To set a precedent for myself and contextualize my position within the tradition of photographing family and domestic spaces, I was inspired by Allan Sekula’s Aerospace Folktales, Chauncey Hare’s Interior America, Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home, and all their writings on photography. I was also inspired by Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh and Daniel Seymour’s A Loud Song.
LLHW: The images in The Hotel are mostly of your father, your mother and your elder brother caught in mundane moments around the home. What was the collaboration like when making the photographs, and what were their reactions to the images you made?
TD: It began with a certain awkwardness. In the first week of photographing, my father directly verbalized his concern with why and what I was photographing. I didn’t have a straight answer, but I responded by saying, “I don’t know who you really are.” I wanted to make these pictures to explore a diasporic perception of home. Migration and spaces of comfort—as a repository for dialogues of alienation—were recurring themes in my work. They settled into the fact that I was there to make pictures, and I followed them around. It was the first time that I was following them around with a camera, and I think I actually became non-existent. They were supportive of what I was doing, and there were instances where they would perform for the camera—especially my brother.
They flew to Providence for my thesis show. My parents couldn’t stop laughing at each other, commenting on how they look in the photographs. It’s mostly because they are so aware of their roles, how they operate, and the demands of the labor that goes into the hotel.
LLHW: Do you think making pictures helped you connect to your family and the hotel? I’m thinking about what you said to your dad—about not really knowing who he is. Did you learn anything about your family as you took pictures?
TD: In retrospect, what I said to my father was more like a proxy for me to enter into a photographic realm, where their gestures and my proximity and vantage point operated simultaneously to create a larger whole. It had to be done through photographs, so the intent was not to understand them, but to meet them halfway in order to get a sense of the stuff we live with, organizing it through a sequence of photographs.
In the series, there is a photograph of a poster hanging on the wall with a window to its right and a frame of the Potala Palace to its left. The poster depicts a caricature of a man squatting, squeezing his head through his thighs to face his butt crack. The text below it reads: “Get to know yourself.” I grew up looking at the poster, and I found myself and my family making this work with that humor. Having said that, I have found myself to be more rooted in my upbringing after making the hotel work.
LLHW: These images have a snapshot aesthetic. Can you talk a bit about the ways you shot, and the type of camera you chose to make the series?
TD: I think it was Garry Winogrand and John Szarkowski who said that snapshot images are perhaps the most carefully crafted images, and that is so true. No one should be cropped out, the horizon line should be straight, and the event of the picture is so momentous. Perhaps that was what snapshot images ultimately meant, and how family pictures operated.
Playing off of this, the pictures in The Hotel have a snapshot aesthetic in the sense that I did not want to stage any of them, and the process of making the images was rife with anticipation and guided by intuition. The pictures in the series were all made on a Nikon D800e with a pop-up flash and a wide-angle lens. Since my parents were moving around most of the time, the wide-angle framing and the flash allowed me to respond and move faster as well. I consciously chose to shoot in black and white because I wanted to focus more on the gestures, subverting information related to class and economics within the frame.
LLHW: It’s interesting that you mention family pictures. The last time we spoke, you showed me some old black and white photographs from your family albums. Can you talk a little bit about how you were thinking about these in relation to this series?
TD: When I am in conversation with my parents about their history, there are prominent gaps in their migration story—information that they chose to leave out, mostly due to their contested citizenship, which competed with their hopes of bringing up a family. The photographs in the family album are sparse, and switch between Bhutan, Kalimpong and Sikkim, taken whenever an opportunity arose with someone who had a camera.
Very little is articulated in a working class family of two generations. For me, these photographs serve as marker, because they add the complexity of a political climate that my family had to deal with, which existed outside of the frame. The deliberate decision to photograph my parents at work was to insert this idea of survival, where in the repetition of ritual and the introspection of history is disjointed. I wanted them to operate through a certain agency that exists in their work, and which they have invested their lives in. I don’t see them as subjects that seek analysis or empathy. For me, The Hotel photographs operate within those prominent gaps, where solace is found through work and their relationship with the space and each other.
Editor’s Note: Tenzing Dakpa’s dummy for The Hotel recently won the Photobook Open Call Award at the Singapore International Photography Festival, and will be published by Steidl in 2020. An exhibition of Dakpa’s work is currently on view at indigo+madder in London until June 22, 2019.