Photographing the Land of the Thunder Dragon

By Justina Han Back to


I began photographing in Asia about ten years ago. I started doing documentary photography in New York when I was studying photography, and moving on from there I photographed in Vietnam, Cambodia and, of course, Korea, where I was born and raised. In the past four years, I have photographed very extensively in Bhutan, the last Buddhist kingdom of the Himalayas, and that work has resulted in two gallery exhibitions and a book, called Simply Bhutan—Land of the Thunder Dragon.

I think all my Asia work is similar in theme. I like to photograph people in their everyday lives, not posed.

I don’t do landscapes or architecture or abstracts. I want to show how people live, and their emotions and experiences. I find that it’s harder and harder to get pure images like that, even in places like Cambodia and Vietnam. People pose for you, and they want money in exchange for being photographed. It’s not like that in Bhutan. They are very open and curious about you, and their way of life is more pure, simple and happy, at least as I see it.

I learned about Bhutan after reading a novel by Isabel Allende, called Kingdom of the Golden Dragon. The book is set in a fictional land, but I loved its description of a utopian kingdom where the people live for happiness, not competition and materialism, and the King rules for the benefit of the people. When I learned that the novel’s setting is based on Bhutan, I became curious about the country and eventually made up my mind to go there. I fell in love with Bhutan and its people almost immediately. Almost everyone I met there was happy and honest—not naive, but good people.

Justina Han, photo mag, photo technique
Gangtey, Bhutan

I am always telling people that I feel like my photographs of Bhutan were meant to be. I live in the Netherlands, and completely by luck I met the Netherlands Honorary Consul to Bhutan on the plane flight home from my first visit there. She and I became good friends, and it was her idea to have an exhibition of my photographs in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. She also arranged for Her Majesty Tshering Pem Wangchuck, who was then the Queen of the 4th King of Bhutan, to see my images. The Queen liked them very much. (Her Majesty is now the Queen Mother of the 5th King of Bhutan.) The Queen is the president of the Bhutan Youth Development Fund, and my husband, Roel, and I became very involved with the Fund. We started the Druk Yul Foundation to benefit the Bhutan Youth Development Fund. All the proceeds from the print exhibition in Thimpu and from sales of my book go to the Bhutan Youth Development Fund. And I am very pleased and humbled that the Queen wrote a foreword for my book and later came to the Netherlands for an exhibition of my photographs from her beautiful country. This was the first visit to Holland by the Bhutanese royal family.

I have always shot most of my work with a Leica M6 camera and a 21mm Leica lens. If you do documentary style photography with a 21mm lens, many of your images will be of groups of people, and you also see the environment around them. I like this view. You get more of a sense of how people are interacting with each other and what they are doing. But also, if you can get close enough to your subject, I think even with the 21mm you can get a real sense of intimacy with one or two people as your subject, but you still see the environment around them. I like this dual sense of the person and the world they live in, all in the same image. One of the reasons I love to photograph in Bhutan is that it is much easier to get close to subjects there because the Bhutanese are so open and not suspicious.

For my documentary work, I almost always shoot B&W film. I use Fuji Neopan in ISO 100, 400 and 1600. Like everyone else, I use a digital camera for family snapshots, and I’ve made some color documentary photographs, but mainly I am a B&W film photographer. I print my own work in a traditional wet darkroom on Ilford paper.

Justina Han, photo mag, photo technique
Paro, Bhutan

I work in B&W because I want to see the image itself, not the color. What I mean by that is things like the lines, shapes, the expressions on peoples faces, maybe a sense of movement. When you shoot in color, the color is often the element that dominates the picture; for these photographs I didn’t want that. I want to see those other elements. Also, many photographers use color when they photograph in these locations, so I have seen that kind of look before. I would like to create something different. Especially in Bhutan, the landscape is so beautiful, its very tempting to photo- graph in color, but I wanted to show a different view of the country.

I dont usually approach my subjects and ask if I can photograph them.This is because I’m looking for natural behavior—normal everyday life. I move quickly and shoot quickly, and I try to be inconspicuous. And children, of course, often like to make a game out of it; they will play in front of your camera without any direction from you at all. Once in Vietnam, a mentally disturbed woman tried to attack me (even though I was not photographing her), and the police had to be called. But, overall, I have had very few problems. I try to be open and friendly—this actually comes naturally to me. And I have found that many times people who will not let you photograph them at first will lose their suspicion if you talk with them for awhile.

I love children and I love to photograph them. I’ve made many of my best images of children. Im not sure why they like to play in front of my camera so much, but I dont try to analyze it. We don’t need to talk to each other. There is a natural communication without words and somehow, together, we create magical moments. This has been true for me nearly everywhere I have photographed.

Beijing, China

I never use a flash or artificial light, and I love to photograph at night. So this means that many times I’m shooting with a very slow shutter speed. But I love the images this produces. I love especially the sense of movement, and I like the look, like a painting, that comes from the streaks of light and the blurriness. So for me, this is part of my style. It is just a different way of seeing. Some photographers look for perfect sharpness, and they make very beautiful pictures that way, but this is not what I’m looking for.

The primary end goal for my work is gallery exhibitions and print sales. When I have a large enough body of work on a subject or a theme, or if there is a request from a publisher—or in one case for me it was a request from a company—its very nice to collect it into a book. I like the impact of large prints and gallery exhibitions, but exhibits are temporary. A book, of course, is more permanent and can reach more people. For the future, I want to continue photographing in Asia. As an Asian myself, I feel a kinship with the people and the cultures of so many of the places in Asia, not just Korea where I am from. I want to show people the beauty of this part of the world and of the people who live there.

Product Resources: Camera: Leica M6; Lens: Leica 21mm; Film: Fuji Neopan; Paper: Ilford.

About the Author

Justina Han
Justina Han was born in Busan, South Korea in 1964 where she lived until her family moved to Seoul in her teens. In 1985, she moved to the U.S. to study communications design at UCLA. After a few years, she redirected her studies to fashion design at Otis Parsons (L.A.), eventually moving to New York and graduating from Parsons in 1996 with a BFA in Photography. She interned with Chester Higgins Jr. of the New York Times. Han has traveled and photographed extensively in Europe, the Americas and especially, Asia. She is now based in New York and The Netherlands.