I’d helped him with a reference letter for a scholarship for his studies at the College of Natural Resources (CNR). Sonam Phuntsho was a student of one of our research collaborators at the college. We soon found out that he had received the scholarship and since then, we had kept in touch over facebook messenger. It was one regular work day when Sonam sent me a photograph. It was a lady carrying a pile of leaves to use as bedding for her cattle. I had written a paper on the practice of using a plot of forest for this practice called Sokshing, and he thought I would be interested. It was an exquisite photo. Perfect for the RIHN photo contest, I thought, if only somebody at RIHN had taken it.
It was only until about a week before the deadline for the RIHN photo contest submission that I found out that the submission of the photo was indeed possible. Anybody associated with a RIHN project is eligible. I showed Steven (FEAST project leader) the photo. He was quick to encourage me to submit it. Once we got the thumbs up from the contest organizers that I could submit it on behalf of Sonam, we proceeded to translate all the forms necessary to get permission to submit the material and for RIHN to use the image. The fact that RIHN did not have the necessary forms in English suggests that this was the first of its case. After carefully explaining the consequences of submitting the photo to RIHN, Sonam gladly agreed.
Two months later, at the end of the year party, the winner was announced. Although I was expecting some prize, I was not expecting the top prize. When my name was called and I ran forward to receive the prize, I felt guilty for being the one receiving the praise as though I was the photographer. When I got the mic to give a remark, I carefully explained the whole story. “I am receiving this on behalf of Sonam Phuntso. When I go to Bhutan, I will be sure to give him his certificate of honor.” After the party, I quickly messaged Sonam to tell him that he had won. The consequences of which is that his photo will be on the cover of the RIHN prospectus. I then became concerned about getting the permission of the lady in the photograph. We did not even know her name. Luckily she is not very far from the college, so I asked Sonam if he could please go and tell her what happened and if she could also give us her verbal consent. Sonam called her immediately to tell her the news. I was relieved to find that we were able to get a positive response. Sonam offered to take me to her when I come to Bhutan. Her name is Kinley, and I told him it would be an honor to meet her and help her collect some leaf litter.
After I arrive in Bhutan on January 5th, Sonam and I coordinated our schedules and made a plan to visit the farmer on January 20th, one of the few days we both were free. In the morning, I met him with his teacher and gave him his award. A certificate, some RIHN trinkets, a large A3 size print out of the photo and some prize money. Sonam was very happy to get the prize and donated the large print out of the photo to CNR through his teacher. We then set off to the village.
It was a few hours ride up the mountain to Shari Village. The moment we arrived at the farm house, I recognized the lady’s face. It must have been strange for her to meet a stranger who was so excited to see her in person. She looked exactly as she did in the photo to me, and the lady who was in the background in the photo was there as well. She did not talk much, but her whole family was home for the annual ritual called Puja that they had just had the day before. Her mother, her sister, her brother who works in Thimphu and his family. Her brother was very comfortable talking in English so he asked me question about the photo. It is good you came, he said. Many take photo of people around the world, and end up exploiting their image without the person’s consent. His sister, he said, cannot read, so she just trusted Sonam’s word when he explained about the usage of the photo and said it is for a good cause.
May the work we do at the institute be worthy of her trust.
Sonam later told me that he gave all the prize money to the family.