Curious about Balloons of Bhutan? See a slideshow of Jonathan Harris’s work here.
Imagine a country where happiness is the guiding principal of government. Imagine a people who see all life as sacred and the source of their happiness, a place with an abundance of clean and renewable energy, a nation committed to preserving its culture. Imagine a Kingdom where the King lives in a simple wooden cottage and judges his progress by the country’s ‘Gross National Happiness.’ Where is this Shangri-La? Bhutan.
So goes the synopsis of the Emmy-winning documentary Bhutan: Taking the Path to Middle Happiness. The romantic hyperbole is consistent with popular characterizations of the isolated nation in the Himalayas. Outsiders are particularly fascinated by the king of Bhutan’s 1972 decision to reject tracking Gross Domestic Product in favor of the concept of Gross National Happiness, a prosperity metric which weighs cultural and environmental preservation as well as economic development.
This quirky focus has fueled an outpouring of writing about Bhutan, from a chapter in the bestselling book The Geography of Bliss that follows “one grump’s search for happiest places” to a cross-country expedition and travel blogging project that kicked off last week, led by a team of “athletes and entrepreneurs.” Last month, multimedia artist Jonathan Harris unveiled the latest contribution to the investigation of GNH with his art project “Ballons of Bhutan,” a website and photo gallery he describes as “a portrait of happiness in the last Himalayan kingdom.”
But by focusing entirely on the Bhutanese people’s happiness, Harris ignores the government’s mass resettlement program that kicked out one-sixth of the nation’s population in the name of ethnic purity. In doing so, he does a disservice to the refugees, as well as to viewers of his project who believe it to be a fair representation of life in Bhutan.
Harris, who’s known for blending art, storytelling, and computer science, spent two weeks in Bhutan asking 117 people the same five questions about their favorite memory, one wish, and what they’d do if they were king. Subjects were asked to rank their happiness on a scale from one to 10 and inflate the corresponding number of balloons. (The average response is 6.9 balloons). Harris paired each question’s response with a portrait of the subject, showing the palms of his hands or a goofy expression. “I thought it would be fun to do something a little more silly,” Harris says in the project’s introduction. “Because it’s happiness, after all. It’s supposed to be somewhat silly.”
The digital art project is impressive in its execution: The site moves effortlessly from one interviewee to the next. The pictures are crisp and colorful and capture a diverse slice of life in Bhutan, including interview subjects from monks to a meteorologist. Yet Harris’ interviews barely scratch the surface of people’s identities—he deliberately avoids politics, focusing on the mundane, on cuteness over controversy. He asks one man what he likes to do when he hangs out with his friends, interrupting to suggest maybe he likes playing pool. He asks several people why they like the color blue. (“That’s the color of the sky,” they respond). You can hear little self-aware smiles in Harris’s affirmative “a-ha’s” that prod his subjects to keep talking when their replies are lost in translation, as they often are.
The only time his questioning approaches critique is when he asks people what they’d like to change about Bhutan. But even then, the responses are overwhelmingly positive. Birdy Namgay, who imports fashionable clothing to a store in Thimpu, the capital, is hanging out at her city’s trendiest after-hours spot, a bowling alley, at the time of her interview. “Not really. Nothing. I’m happy,” she responds.
Of course, not all Bhutanese people feel that way. In the early 1990s, the Bhutanese government began expelling Lhotshampas, an ethnic minority of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese who live in the south of the country. The regime’s justification was to preserve Bhutanese culture from any foreign influence, a policy of “One Nation One People.” By the mid-1990s, 107,000 refugees lived among seven U.N. camps in southeastern Nepal, about one-sixth of Bhutan’s total population. After talks between Nepal and Bhutan failed to produce a resettlement agreement—Bhutan didn’t want the Lhotshampas back—Western countries agreed to take on the refugees.
So began what the U.N. has called one of the world’s largest resettlement efforts. The United States welcomed 60,000 refugees starting in 2008. Khem*, who was kicked out of Bhutan when he was 13, was one of them. After 17 years in a refugee camp, he now lives in Oakland, California, where he’s active in the refugee community. “Now we are very happy,” says Khem. “We can say that we are refugees from Bhutan… Now the government we see [in Bhutan] says there’s gross national happiness when one-sixth of people are away from the country.”
Many Bhutanese aren’t told the truth about what happened to the Lhotshampas and believe the government’s false claim that only several thousand were expelled, but Khem says technology-savvy, educated people are aware of the problem. Khem questions the ability of Bhutanese people to truly speak their mind, to the press or to an outsider. “They don’t have freedom of speech there,” he says. “They say they are happy, but democracy is not there.”
Needless to say, ethnic cleansing was not a topic raised in Harris’ interviews, an omission that led one commenter on Brain Pickings, which featured the project, to write, “Seriously, this is obscene. Like a Nazi documentary about how happy Germany is without jews.” Even without the Holocaust comparison, this raises an important, largely overlooked conversation: Is it appropriate to focus on a nation’s overall happiness when a huge percentage of that country’s population is prohibited from sharing in that happiness? If artists like Harris—who did not respond to an email asking him to comment on Bhutan’s refugees—want to help us better understand isolated places that most of us will never visit, they have a responsibility to paint a complete picture. The “sad” story of Nepali-Bhutanese refugees is as much a part of the story of modern-day Bhutan as the “happy” story of the many people who live there. Where are the balloons for the Lhotshampas?
Bhutan’s holy mountain pass of Dochula towers in the clouds at 10,000 feet. At the end of his stay in Bhutan, Harris ascended the peak bearing 117 balloons, one for each of his interviewees’ wishes. At sunset, Harris reinflated the balloons and hung them among the prayer flags. In a TED Talk released after he got back from Bhutan, he encouraged people to go visit the site, where the balloons continued to hang. He didn’t mention the thousands of Bhutanese people who would never have the opportunity to experience something so beautiful in their homeland.
*Name changed to protect his identity.
Photos courtesy of Jonathan Harris.