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Focus on Bhutan

October 14, 2008

Local writer-photographer makes the most of her rare chances to train
her lens on a Himalayan country's traditions -- and its careful steps
toward change
The Reformer (Vermont, USA)
October 13, 2008

PUTNEY -- Torie Olson was not planning on being at the long-delayed
coronation of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel of Bhutan.

Olson is an international photographer and writer based out of
Putney, and she travels throughout the year.

And while she has been waiting for an announcement on when the king
was going to officially take over the throne, Olson was unsure how
the timing would work out.

So when three enlightened astrologers determined that Nov. 6 would be
the holiest day for the big event, and Olson realized that she was
scheduled to be in Thailand for the opening of a show at that time,
it became apparent she might be able to photograph the auspicious ceremony.

With the help of a friend who has connections in the Himalayan
kingdom, Olson will be one of only a handful of Westerners who will
be able to witness and document the ceremony.

Olson first went to Bhutan last year when she was doing an assignment
for Fiber Arts magazine.

She fell in love with the weavings there and with the peaceful
country that is making the transition to a democracy after years of monarchy.

"When you consider what is going on this country, Bhutan gives you
hope," Olson said this week from her home in Putney. "They are moving
toward a democracy and they are doing it slowly. They are trying to
do it right."

Bhutan is a small country, high in the Himalayas, wedged between
India, China and Tibet. The country

was largely cut off from the rest of the world until the 1960s.

Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the father of the king who is expected to be
crowned during Olson's trip, presented a constitution in 2005, and
the country held its first parliamentary elections in December 2007.

Olson has only been working as a professional photographer for a few
years. She worked locally as a publicist and then tried her hand at
fiction writing for a few years.

In 2003, the editor of Fiber Arts saw one of Olson's photographs on
the wall of a mutual friend.

She called Olson to see if she was interested in working for the
magazine, and while Olson had hesitations at first about getting into
writing again, she has since traveled all over the world taking
pictures of traditional weavings and the people who make them.

She first went to Bhutan in 2006 to document the ancient Yak herding
ceremony and to learn about natural dyeing techniques.

With its sparse population, hilly and mountainous terrain and
reliance on dairy, the country reminded her of Vermont.

She ended up meeting other journalists and was introduced to
government ministers whom Olson said talked about the country's slow
and thoughtful move toward democracy.

She had access to people and areas that are not widely photographed,
and when she returned to the United States her photos were shown in
three exhibitions, including shows in Brattleboro at The Asian
Cultural Center of Vermont.

Jay Bommer, a local textile collector who was showing some of his
pieces with Olson's photographs, had connections in Thailand, where
there is great interest in Bhutanese culture.

Bommer made some calls, and the same show that was on display in West
Brattleboro is now slated to be shown at The Bank of Thailand Museum.

For Olson, the fabrics of countries like Bhutan represent more than
an ancient craft kept alive by a threatened population. Everywhere in
the world, she said, modern clothing is threatening the traditions.

The nontraditional cloth is cheap and easier to get, and as older
artisans die, their skills can be lost forever.

She expects the coronation ceremony to be rich in gowns and textiles,
and she is looking forward to being there with her camera to show the
rest of the world the colors and textures of an ancient ceremony from
the Himalayas.

"These are more than clothes. These weavings tell a story," said
Olson. "The weavers wear their history on their backs. And it is a
huge loss when that is lost. When modern clothing replaces it, they
are not just losing their outfits, they are losing their culture."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at or
802-254-2311, ext. 279.

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