Lee Sungsoo

Let Me Be


When I fleetingly saw a picture of the Larung Gar monastery, I felt compelled to know more about the place. It quickly became a place I yearned to go to, especially because I felt a connection to them. After all, my homeland Korea had been under Japan?s rule before. Further research told me that the place was still being observed by the Chinese government, and that I might not be able to get into the monastery even if I went to Tibet. However, I had to go there to see the lives of these people, no matter what.



Living at an altitude of 13,000 feet, the people of the Larung Gar buddhist monastery of Tibet Autonomous ( Sertha , Kham , China) have a simple way of living. Religion is the center of their lives, and monks and nuns devote 15 years entirely into their religious education. As much as religion is important to Tibetans, this monastery up in the clouds is considered sacred. However, though it is religious, it is turning into a secretive, political symbol because of the dispute between China and Tibet. 13,000 feet above, here is truly a place that demonstrates the devotion and determination of the Tibetans.




I have never received an education about photography, nor have I worked at a photography-related job. As I majored in statistics, worked with cloth, and worked as a chef at a cake company, I could not let go of my passion for photography. I decided that I would live the life of a professional photographer while I was in India (April 2013), taking pictures, and started living my dream once I moved into the US (July 2013). For my first project, I visited Tibet.

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Lee Sungsoo



23 thoughts on “Lee Sungsoo – Let Me Be”

  1. Some photo’s differ in quality but in a series that is not a bad thing , most have a certain beauty ,also maybe because this world is far from me in many ways .
    I am still an outsider though , I apreciate the fact that not every pic has the smell of incense but I am left wondering a little what is it this people do all day other then walking up and down .
    I do like the mood , the harsh feel translated in black and white ánd I think you made the right choise to be a photographer .

  2. I don’t know how I missed this one but I did. 010 pretty much encapsulates my feelings as well. The photos are beautiful, hints from the outside that something intense must go on inside, but hesitant to take us inside. One thing I really do wonder… where is the joy? Whatever the condition and circumstance of their lives, these folks must experience joy. Although the images of the creator of Burn are full of joy and zest for live, so many of the essayists whose work appears here, however brilliant and sensitive, seem to think their work can only be truly brilliant if they remove all the joy from life.

  3. Hah , well that answers all my questions , Imants !
    Also something that Frostfrog mentioned , where is the joy , maybe not entirely fair because it is winter and I have no idea what is underneath those robes but even so .
    It is many times the small joys in life we can relate to even if a culture is so different from ours .
    However this is the photographers choise and to enter such closed off and in a way overwhelming community needs more time to settle in and connect and the cold can influence also the state of mind .

  4. 010 There is certainly joy in Imants photo. You are right about choice but it is a choice that cuts off a very real dimension of the people depicted – as Imants’s photo shows. As for cold, it does not take the joy away. Trust me on this.

  5. Oh, it’s a different kind of cold at 13,000 feet. And studying religion all day for 15 years? Yikes.

    Or it could just be that they see someone taking pictures and fear they might be published in an international magazine along with some pro-Tibet text and bring the Chinese down on them even harder?

    Or possibly they didn’t like the ending of Breaking Bad? Who knows?

    It is unfortunate, however, that this is not a color essay. Jeebus; yellow or red monks’ robes, colorful clothing and decorations, dark, crackling skin, lamp and candleligh, old stone walls and snowy bleak vistas. What might have been?

  6. MW – you forget – I live in and come from mountainous country and I’ve been up there when its cold and I know first hand at least -63 ambient, not to mention wind chill, and periods exceeding two months when the sun does not rise above the horizon – and always there is humor and even joy among those experiencing it – pride, too, at being who they are where they are in the circumstance they are yet enduring and carrying on with life. Your point on fear of retribution is a good one, but from my experience with people I would bet you anything that humor is one of the tools used here to bear any oppression experienced and threats posed.

    But, in fairness to Lee Sungsoo, I must admit it is a pet peeve of mine to see so many essays shot where the photographer seems to feel that to be taken seriously and to produce meaningful work, s/he must show no sign of the joy and humor that has kept the human race going through hardship from the beginning of time. An abundance of critics seem to feel this way too, and who am I to dispute them?

    Lee Sungsoo’s excellent and moody photos do fit his theme of “let me be.” “Let me be” is what they seem to be asking the photographer to do. I do admire his talent and his will and determination to go and shoot where he went and shot. If he made some friendships in the process, as I suspect he must have, he might continue with this essay and see if he can build some broader trust and get a little closer to his subjects to where they open up a little more – as Imants certainly appears to have done.

  7. “I must admit it is a pet peeve of mine to see so many essays shot where the photographer seems to feel that to be taken seriously and to produce meaningful work, s/he must show no sign of the joy and humor that has kept the human race going through hardship from the beginning of time.”


    And as is my wont, in my previous comment, I surrounded my real point with jokes. I was serious about the color, also. To your point, was B&W an editorial decision to reinforce the author’s grim view? Or was it what I usually suspect that color is difficult and to get a decent looking essay it had to be done in B&W? Probably something else entirely. eh?

    And yes, the people I’ve encountered living in dire poverty and political oppression above 10,000 feet were not anywhere as bleak as their situation. Though in the Andes, they serve a local moonshine in some kind of hot herbal concoction that takes care of the cold and much else that ails ya, at least temporarily. Do they have that sort of thing in Tibet?

  8. -but it is a choice that cuts off a very real dimension of the people depicted-
    Frostfrog , I am not talking about 7 years in Tibet joy , I guess neither are you but what I mean is that I don’t think they have more or less joy in their lives than any of us , we don’t see a wide range of emotions in this essay but I can understand that and I think so can you .

    So you want color , well buy a holidaymagazine and you have the colored flags high at the mountains , the orange robes and whatever color . Why does it have to be such cliché aproach ?
    And black and white is not easier , how did you figure that out , you still need to deal with color | tones , light , compo , lines and whatever , it’s not a push on some key in photoshop and voila we have a cohesive black and white essay …
    And just to get more facts straight , it is not a religion .

  9. Maybe we as an audience have had enough of essays, they seem to have lost their relevence. a single image and dialogue seem to have greater impact

  10. Wow, it’s been awhile since someone got angry over these conversations. Sure, I’ll buy a Holiday Magazine. Great idea. Thanks. But I’m with Bill on the clichéd take being more the joyless folk toiling in a harsh, black and white world. It may be aesthetically appealing for many, but it’s not real. Color and joy exist in that world. Depicting it with none is no more honest than your Holiday world of happy monks and colorful flags on the mountains where no one toils or is persecuted.

    And I guess one could argue either way about black and white photography being a religion, if that’s what you are talking about, but Buddhism? I don’t see how. Sure, there is what you might call the lesser path, but the great majority of Buddhists follow Mahayana and it’s got a passel of supernatural beings just like any other religion.

    And I appreciate the anti-essay kick Imants has been on for awhile now, and maybe he’s right, but I respectfully disagree. Most of what are presented as essays are just a series of photographs. I don’t think we really see all that many real essays. But just like literary essays, although they may go in and out of style, they will always be with us, and genuinely good ones will be appreciated.

  11. There are a heap of photographers going around presenting workshops which are more like ancient history with a splatter of modernity.The slide show is the ancient history part……..time to move on I am going back to etching

  12. mw

    Sorry if I come across angry , that was not my intention , to show it at least ..
    I think in what we want | expect |hope to see and what is presented by the photographer can be a huge gap inbetween.
    But I do think it is an honest essay and that we expierence what this guy met there and how , and that we see this community through his eyes .He was an outsider but still managed to create a mood .

    I really liked the snowpics btw .


    I do like the essays but many times it is not a finnished product , more like a potential , depending on time , money and personal developing . And I can accept that .

  13. We started by telling each other stories and sketching pictures on rock walls and in dirt. I wasn’t around at the time and if there is documentation I can’t think of it, but it wouldn’t surprise me that if when books began to be commonly printed, many said that was the end of such story telling. In time, radio came along and then movies and plenty of people thought books were outdated and then some were pretty sure TV made radio – and movie theaters, too – obsolete and then the internet eliminated the need for all these things. Yet, people still sit around and tell stories, books continue to be printed and read, people watch tv, go to the movies and roam the net. The different forms of communication wiggle and juggle around, shifts their positions a bit and survive. The photo essay will survive. As long as humans live so too will the photo essay, however much it may wiggle around and adjust itself to whatever changes in technology and story delivery come along.

    Newspapers, however, are truly in a great struggle to survive.

  14. Frostfrog and Imants

    Whatever your expatations of some essay may be , a story is told here , a dream , a drive and being there , expierence cold and being an outsider , trying to come in . And it came inside me through black and white , through the looks of the people he photographed , the distance ,the vissuals so in a way I met this person and shared some of his emotions .
    And yes I did not meet the Tibet monks like in an essay , is that really important ?
    I met the photographer through his work and that is what this story is about .

  15. Watch with skepticism and see, Imants. The photo essay as a true essay will survive. One art form and one method of story telling does not replace and destroy another. It just adds to the options.

    I don’t argue with any of that, 010.

  16. “true essay” now that is a radical idea next you are going to tell me that you are god well at least a court…. the truth the whole truth nothing but the truth and take the photo in black and white even though most of us see colour ….etc etc

  17. Regarding 010’s having met the photographer but not so much the monks he photographed: This is not an uncommon story. A person with no education or training decides to become a photographer and travels halfway around the world to a remote place to live the life of a professional photojournalist. The positive thing about that phenomenon is that he or she will sometimes bring back pictures of interesting places and people we may not see otherwise, as is the case with these pictures.

    A quality photojournalism education, however, isn’t what most people would expect. There’s not all that much time spent on how to use the tools of the trade. And although composition is important, it’s all about composition in the service of visual storytelling. And journalistic ethics are a constant part of the conversation.

    That’s the place where my discomfort with this work comes from. Photojournalism should not be about getting to know the photographer at the expense of the subject. You can call it an art form or note that work telling more about the teller than subject of the story is a narrative strategy with a long and very successful tradition, which is true, and fine if you are doing flowers or landscapes or people who stand no chance of being harmed or persecuted by the photographic intention.

    But when the photographer goes into conflict areas or repressive locales and his or her work could possibly negatively impact the lives of the subjects, then it better be about something more than getting to know the photographer or simply showing what surface life looks like in those faraway (one hopes and too often kids oneself) places. A lesser, though entirely valid concern, is that one doesn’t want to mess a situation up for other journalists either.

    I’m not saying that this work is definitely going to have negative consequences on the people at that remote temple, but from everything I read about Chinese repression of journalists and free speech and its policies concerning Tibet, it’s quite possible that it might. And stories like this published in a well-known international magazine could result in access to the place being cut off for other journalists and travelers.

    There’s a line in an old song by The Waitresses that goes “I don’t want to be just a part of some rich kid’s learning experience.” That always comes back to me when I contemplate using people in stories. If their lives may be negatively affected by them being a part of other people’s learning experience, it needs to be a very important learning experience and far more often than not, there should be buy-in from the subjects.

    My point isn’t that one shouldn’t do this kind of journalism, or that I think this piece in particular will have dire consequences; it’s that one has to tread very carefully and very seriously consider the ethical implications of one’s actions from every possible angle. All that is at the core of a photojournalist education.

  18. mw

    I part do agree with you but again I say it is about expectation of the viewer in how s|he receive this story .

    This story is in a way about rejection and yes , about the photographer and almost every picture is build around that , in mood etc .
    And having read the story first , knowing the conflicting situation , I expected something completely different that what was presented so at first it was a let down .

    Till I realised that it did not meet MY expectation and then I looked again , what is this story really about ?
    And the story is about a personal journey ín a conflicting area and not about journalism , it is confusing and probably also for the photographer himself cause he set out to the unknown with basicly only a picture of some monastry in his head .

    I don’t think he had a narative and when you read his story again, it shows, in a way naive , but a story did come and probably even a different story than maybe the photographer himself hoped or expected .
    And that story is consistent , build up right in the eddit, good choise to do the black and white to enforce what he met .

    Now is it wise to enter such conflicting area or did he harm people , I honestly can’t say , because for me it is pointless to aproach this in some macroversion in all what can go wrong when a non educated photographer enters some conflict , when I only can deal with this one story .

    So to me still it is a story of a personal journey , with this monastry and all what it stands for as background and not as subject .

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