Friday, February 06, 2015

Newsweek’s Photo Fact-Check Fail

This is not, we repeat, NOT, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Discovering a major news magazine’s huge mistake ought to be an opportunity for gloating. In this case none of that gloating would be mine, since the whole idea and the research involved here comes not from me but from R.K., who is now going to build a major reputation for his initials, since that’s all he wanted to put here. The problem is a photograph that has sometimes been used in stories about His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who yesterday enjoyed a Prayer Breakfast in Washington with The President of the United States of America Barack Obama, and had a long time before that received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, etc. etc. Honestly, I assume everybody in the known universe knows to whom it is that we refer.

In the Newsweek story in today’s February 6, 2015 issue — Peter Popham’s “Relentless: The Dalai Lama's Heart of Steel” — the photo appears as above in our frontispiece, but labeled with the following caption:
“Young Dalai Lama at Usersky-Danzan temple in Mongolia in 1939, aged three. 
Since the present Dalai Lama — or, if you prefer, Jampel Ngawang Lozang Tendzin Gyatso, འཇམ་དཔལ་ངག་དབང་བློ་བཟང་བསྟན་འཛིན་རྒྱ་མཚོ་ — was born on July 7, 1935, and Tibetan ‘age’ is always calculated up one year, that would make the photo date from around 1937, right? Wrong.

To see just how wrong this is, have a look at the front page of this newspaper. Do not fail to make a note of the date you see there.

"The Great White Lama:
Notice His Cunning Little Toes"
published Monday, June 3, 1929
Our conclusion is very simple and indisputable. Since this photo was published in 1929 (and it seems it had already been published in England a year earlier*), it simply cannot be His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Newsweek must fix their error in dating it to 1939, ten years later. It is really beside the point if others made this or similar mistakes before them.** It might be interesting to trace the genealogy of this particular error in some detail someday, in some doctoral dissertation or whatever, but an error it most surely is.
(*This website [go there and search for the number "10215921"] says it took the photograph from The Illustrated London News of 22nd Dec 1928.)
(**Just do an “image search” on the internet, and you will find it has been used a number of times as if it were a photo of the His Holiness.  Of course there is yet another mistake in the Newsweek picture caption, since His Holiness as a child never set foot in Mongolia.) 
It has to be a photograph of someone else, and the question remains, Who? The newspaper story places it inside Tibet, but it is not always the case that the earliest version of the story is the truest therefore. If the photo was taken at a place called “Usersky-Dazan,” it would not have been in “Thibet,” but rather in Mongolia, Buriatia, or Kalmuckia somewhere.* So if you know or can find out anything at all about this little Lama with his dextrous toes, drop us a comment, let us reason together and seek out the truth even while we are sifting out the errors.
(*That Slavic genitive ending kind of gives it away, and the “Dazan” is a foreign and very likely Mongolian spelling for Tibetan Datsang, or གྲྭ་ཚང་  Mongolian always replaces the Tibetan final ‘ng’ sound with final ‘n’.  For a curious picture said to be from Usersky-dazan, have a look at this commercial site.  I also found in a newspaper archive a story published in the San Antonio Light for April 10, 1932, an article entitled “Why the Obscure Mongolian Baby Born at the Proper Minute is Worshipped as a God,” but seeing it involved filling out a long form and paying ten U.S. dollars, I decided to let it be.  I did manage to find a clue that this Dazan ought to be located 20 miles from the ever-moving and ever-growing town of Urga. Urga is regarded as the old name for Ulan Bator.)
Here is the larger version of the photo I promised you earlier on. Take a very close look at it. If you detect signs it could be a collage of two different photographs, you may not be entirely alone. You can see that somebody's bad touchup job turned the beautiful double-Vajra design on the hanging cloth into a kind of crude looking cross.

For this Getty image, look here.

Addendum (February 7, 2015):

I am happy to report that the identification problem is largely solved, and I can tell you, Newsweek is going to feel even sillier than expected with cake all over his face. Again, I don’t get any gloating rights.  All the credit goes elsewhere.  Well, yesterday, as I was putting up the blog I did have the presence of mind to send an email to someone I was sure would be able to answer a few Mongol-ological questions, about where the monastery might be, in particular. But I have to admit that Agata Bareja-Starzynska of Warsaw surprised me with her brief and directly to the point information. In yesterday's first email she identified the “Usersky-Dazan” monastery as Gusino-ozersky (or Gusino-ozerskii Datsan) in Buryatia. And already last night she told me that the boy in the photo was most probably the one playing a lama in the Pudovkin movie “A Storm over Asia.” And this morning, I received the following email sent late last night. Seeing this evidence throws a very different light on the identity of the toe-crossing child Lama. To put it mildly, it was not the  solution I was expecting, not at all.

Found it via Internet!
see a scene at 1:04:13 till 1:06
the Lama boy is there playing with his toes.

For myself, the scene started closer to 1:03. I recommend starting several minutes earlier, since there are scenes to be seen of Cham dancing that are quite impressive. I admit I have still never seen this movie (apart from this scene of course). I only now learned how to make “screen shots” on my Mac, so I’ll put some examples down below for the convenience of blog readers too lazy to watch movies.

Oh the movie! I forgot to say something about the movie. I found out that it’s a famous full-lengthed silent film, supposed to have been a landmark in cinematographic history when it was made in 1928. The director was Vsevolod Pudovkin, and the English-language version is called “Storm over Asia.” The original title means “The Heir to Genghis Khan.” If you want to know what it’s about, have a look for yourself. But before you go, just let me get in one last jibe, smear a bit of that cake around on Newsweek’s face. The photo Newsweek innocently believed to be an image of His Holiness the Dalai Lama took on an aura of reality in two distinct historical phases: [1] an early Soviet period movie and [2] a newspaper story concocted out of the same for the bemusement of English and American readers who would not have known any better. Or were the journalists themselves the ones who knew no better?

Screen shots from the movie

§   §   §

Another Addendum (February 8, 2015):

I was thinking there was still an area of mystery that ought to be explored if possible, namely, ‘Can anything more be known about the actual child who played the part of the infant Lama?’ Somebody told me he would be the best person to find out about anything that happened in Buryatia, so I wrote to Nikolay Tsyrempilov, who works at the Buryat State University in Ulan Ude. I was delighted by his fast response, and will, with his kind permission, pass on two passages from his emails, the first dated yesterday and the second dated today.

The first quote:
“As for your question, I have nothing new to add to what you already know. That’s absolutely true that Usersky Dazan is Gusinoozersky Datsan, the main Buddhist monastery of Buryatia until 1940s. Pudovkin made some important episodes of his movie at that monastery. I think that the boy was just a simple boy who was selected in the process of casting. I don’t believe that he was a real tulku. My opinion is based on the fact that in 1928 it was not safe for high foreign Lamas to stay in Buryatia. A year earlier the Soviet authorities launched repressions against the Lamas, and if you watch the movie carefully, you’ll see how anxious the lamas’ faces are. A couple of years before some Tibetan tulkus, e.g. Tangring Rinpoche, had stressful experiences  staying in Buryatia. In 1928 the situation was even worse. If you look at the boy you can see that his attire is not typical for small tulkus. They just put a piece of yellow (I believe it is yellow) cloth on him. Probably, that was the reason he was called the white lama.”
The second is in answer to a question I had about the throne, and not just the child seated on it.  I was thinking that the cloth that hangs down in front is a real throne cloth, featuring a large double-Vajra design, as we often see on Rinpoche thrones. But I was also thinking that the throne was far too low and close to the pavement to be a real Rinpoche throne.  So here is Prof. Tsyrempilov's response:
“As for the throne, I think it’s a fake. It looks like a real one, but I believe this one was hastily constructed specially for the movie. Yes, it seems rather too low. The boy is not an ethnic Russian, he is a typical Buryat.”

§   §   §

A wrinkle (Valentines Day, 2015):

If we were thinking there would be a smooth path to identifying the real young man in the photo and in the movie before the photo, a new and interesting wrinkle has come up along the way. I also wrote to Andrey Terentyev of St. Petersburg, author of some excellent books on Tibetan art and so on that I may blog about sometime soon. The surprising new news is that the temple in which the little lama was sitting was not in Buryatia as we had thought. I mean, it would be only natural to assume that he was filmed there, in the same place as all Cham dancing scenes that came before. But it now appears that this, like so many other things, is an illusion. Andrey says he immediately recognized the temple and its main image (or images) as the ones that were, in around the mid-1930's, at least, in the Buddhist temple that Agwan Dorjiev founded in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Just below is a photo from that time that he sent me. I could locate a similar photo in a published book that dates it to the early 1930's, so at least we are in the right general time frame here. The temple still stands in Petersburg, I once visited it myself, and I can tell you that the large main image that is there now is not the one you would have seen in the 1930's (the one that appears in our photos).  Andrey also sent a nice photo of the main image that you can see further down.

Interior of Dorjiev's Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg, early-to-mid 1930's

Compare what you see here to the first in the set of four screen-shots from the 1928 movie that I’ve posted above. Look closely and decide for yourself if what you see is the same place or not.

Main central images in the Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg, early-to-mid 1930's
I’m not one hundred percent, but I think that the smaller Buddha you see in front is the silver Gautama Buddha donated by the King of Siam especially for the consecration of the temple.* Its building began in 1909, with the permission of Czar Nicholas, and that story is a fascinating one we can’t go into right now. Needless to say, not everyone was in favor of its building, and Dorjiev reports in his memoirs that he received a number of death threats. Still, after the building was finished, the monks seem to have gotten on well with their neighbors.
(*Now, February 15, 2015, Andrey informs me that the Gautama was in fact copper, not silver, so my authority on this is  certainly misleading. Thanks to Andrey for fixing still more of my mistakes.)

An email communication, dated February 15, from Andrey:

Dear Dan,
It’s true about looting the temple and fixing main image afterwards. But that image was made of alabaster and later was changed by Dorjiev for a metal one which you see on our photos.
One friend of mine, who was the main Snelling’s informant didn’t speak good English, so I suspect that Snelling mixed info on Siamese Buddha with another story concerning the famous Sandalwood Buddha statue made during Buddha’s lifetime and kept in Russia since 1900.
The Siamese statue was made of copper or brass. It was kept in the Museum of History of Religions and Atheism where I worked for 13 years.a

I should add a few clarifications: The alabaster, being either white or lightish golden colored, was at least partly gilded over.  The 1916 photo is different from all the others, since the Buddha's curls appear white (probably because the alabaster was not gilded there), the eyes are quite glowingly white, and the throne backing is very different.  The sandalwood Buddha Andrey mentioned is something he knows about, since he wrote a book on exactly that subject:  

The Sandalwood Buddha of the King Udayana. St.-Petersburg: A.Terentyev, 2010
Parallel Russian and English text
ISBN 978-5-901941-25-6

I noticed one detail that confirms or even clinches the fact that the scene of the little Rinpoche was shot in the St. Petersburg temple. I wish I had a copy of it to upload, but if you have the book at hand, turn to John Snelling's book Buddhism in Russia (Element 1993), photo no. 16 in the middle of the book. There you see a photo labelled "Danzan Norboyev, sixth incarnation of Ganzhirva-Gegen, on the high lama's throne in the Leningrad Temple." Now get out a magnifying glass and examine the fabric covering the backrest part of the throne (the part behind the back of the Lama).  Now look at the fabric covering the backrest in the scene from the 1928 movie.  The floral fabric pattern is the same. And Danzan Norboyev (1887-1935) would have arrived in St. Petersburg in around 1929, so the dates are close enough we can be fairly sure it is the same piece of cloth. A minor detail, I suppose, yet telling.

So, let’s see where we stand right now...  Far from being a photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the photo Newsweek published as being of Him was passed down from English & American newspapers of 1929 to 1932 that, without admitting doing so, took it from a Russian movie released in 1928. Now we know that the shots of the young reincarnate in that movie were actually taken in St. Petersburg, in a temple built for the use of the many Kalmucks and Buryats staying in St. Petersburg in those days. No reason why the child could not have been a Buryat as N.T. says he was, no reason at all. If I had a hammer handy I would want to pound on each letter as if it were a nail piercing the conscience of Newsweek, but I guess bold print will do well enough:  His Holiness was not in St. Petersburg in the 1920's, and the child filmed there was not Him, not Him at all.

Can you believe that "Getty Images" still has it up on their site among its Dalai Lama photos? And with what is, in any case, a very mistaken caption: 
"Un des enfants designes par les pretres de la Cite interdite comme pouvant eventuellement succeder au Dalai-Lama defunt, il n'en fut pas le cas, a Lhassa, Tibet, Chine, le 21 decembre 1933."

§   §   §


P.S. (Not intending to let Newsweek off the hook, but...)

  • Of course, to His Holiness this kind of identity problem will bring no grief at all. 

  • It is difficult to predict precisely, and I wouldn’t ever for the life of me even seem to second-guess His Holiness, but I strongly suspect His reaction would look a lot like this:

End of story?  As of beginning of July 2015, it would appear that Newsweek did at last remove the offending photograph.  It took them a long time, but they were finally responsive.  This has now been independently confirmed by Raj Kumar, so we may regard our campaign as successful.  That feeling of success is such a sweet one, isn't it?


  1. I just noticed this relevant article about how Newsweek stopped (or greatly reduced) fact-checking back in 1996. Interesting to know. Meanwhile, R.K. sent me a link to a sketch about the studio that produced "Storm over Asia." Also, a reference to an article on the subject: Martin Stollery (2011) — "From Storm Over Asia to Dawn Over Africa: Transnationalism and imperialism in British intellectual film culture of the late 1920s and 1930s." Transnational Cinemas, 2(1), pp. 93-111. On page 100, is a 'still' from the movie showing the child Lama, but with a bright smile this time. It's possible to see it at the author's site. I'll let you know more as information continues popping up. Meanwhile, write to Newsweek and argue in favor of checking the truth in news stories.

  2. Does that mean this kid did the role of the 14th Dalai Lama in a movie of which the shooting took place in Buriyata some years (1928) ahead of the latter's birth (1935)? What was the movie all about?

  3. Dear Anon., Yes, I think you grasped the situation very well. Well, except that the kid is playing the role of a recognized reincarnation in Buryatia, not the Dalai Lama at all. (I don't recall that either Tibet or the Dalai Lama are ever mentioned in the text of this silent movie.) The movie, in the end, is about how the proud and ancient peoples of Asia ought to wake up and recognize the lies, cheating and manipulation of the imperialists (more specifically the English) and free themselves of their domination. (True enough. Still, it's ironic, since I don't believe the English ever had any kind of dominant role in Buryatia. I think whatever oppression they were experiencing was coming at them from the Russian side.) A silver fox fur plays an essential role in the plot (to find out why, see the movie for yourself!). The Tibetan-style Buddhism of the Buryats is portrayed as crude and rather silly superstition, in much the same tone and vein, actually, as the Anglo-American newspaper stories inspired by the cinematic Incarnate's toes.

  4. Thanks for the information. The "English" might mean "Inji" (pan-whites). In that case, Russians are also Injis. One more remark: Thomas Lohnes' laughing Buddha is absolutely stunning.

  5. Dear Anon.,

    That English means English, in the movie itself, is visually proven by the Union Jack you can make out in the background of one scene. I would have missed it myself, but one of the movie reviewers noticed it. I really see no reason why the newspaper story was headed "The White Lama." Theos Bernard hadn't gone to Tibet yet (he returned in 1937, I believe), so it can't have anything to do with him. I totally agree with you on Lohnes' photo. He does know how to take them.


  6. But wait, Swami Mazziniananda was active in California during the time the movie was being made...

  7. Hi Dan,
    You are referring to a certain Dr Sri Leodi Ahmed Mazziniananda Swami, but have you realized that his name is an anagram for Danish marmalade ionizes a wizard mind? I think our man in Leipzig may be able to help.
    Do you think Newsweek will ever respond? It is now more than a week that I submitted my correction request, but nothing has happened. Have they written back to you?
    Raj Kapoor

  8. Dear Raj,
    I felt like what remains of my brain matter was getting vaporized, ionized really, in the attempt to figure out if this is a real anagram or if you are just pulling our legs. You've got the two 's's covered, and the two 'z's, and the three 'm's... By george, you've dunnit! Even if you're the real Kapoor, which seems dubious, I doubt anybody at Newsweek would find the time to write to you. Ditto here, all my writing for nothing. I'm thinking you're the only one who is listening. And even you may not be what you seem to be.
    But anyway, I thank you for taking the time to write with your expressions of concern. Not everybody would do that.

  9. Hello ji,
    Well done! There can't be any doubt that it is the St. Petersburg temple. The statue donated by King Rama VI of Siam is said to be of sandalwood, not silver, but nevertheless it might be the one seen in the photograph. Apparently it used to be kept in a smaller shrine room upstairs (see p. 162 in John Snelling's Buddhism in Russia, which also contains two photographs of the main room, one dated to 1916). One should really consult the works of Alexandre Andreev, he probably knows more about this temple than anyone else.
    Raj Kumar

  10. Dear Raj,

    Well, which is it, Raj? Is that Siamese Buddha icon made of silver, sandalwood or copper? I've got all those books you mentioned on my desk, and I'm opening Snelling's right now. You're absolutely right. He says it's of sandalwood and in the next story up above the main image.

    In the photo of the main room dated 1916 that you mention the large image looks quite different (I think it was damaged in the looting incident of 1919, and had to be repaired; it was "smashed" and "rebuilt by the best Soviet sculptors at the expense of the communists" - Snelling, p. 195). In this 1916 photo the smaller image isn't visible at all. Perhaps in those earlier days it was still upstairs? Where is Sasha when we need him?

    Well, I'm off to do my morning chores while it's still morning. Thanks for writing, Raj. We'll figure this out.


  11. Dear Dan,
    Interesting, and it seems you are right about the floral pattern in the fabric. I found a rather nice way of paying a visit to the St. Petersburg temple as it looks today. Simply go here. The 'Phags-pa script to the left and right, and the Rañjanā / Lantsha script above, all preserved.
    Yours ever,
    Raj Kaul

    1. Thanks for that link, Raj!

      I like those 'virtual visits' to museums and churches &tc. Visit the "Bardo Museum" in Tunis if you haven't. Especially if you appreciate old mosaics.

      Meanwhile I had to turn the captchas back on. I hope they don't get in the way of the free flow of comments, but I couldn't withstand the slowly but surely snowballing spam-mails, by now over a dozen a day. Speaking of snow, we're expecting some very soon.


  12. Just today a friend of mine alerted me to a certain edition of the purported autobiography (actually written by her children and grandchildren) of the rgyal yum chen mo, i.e. Diki Tsering (1901-1980), mother of His Holiness: Dalai Lama, my son: a mother's story
    I am speechless, really, but who would have ever doubted that we are living in a world of delusion?

    In confusion,
    Raj K.

  13. Dear Raj,
    I dug out my copy of the book, purchased in the Waterstones in Gatwick Airport on August 7, 2000 at 20:49 for the price of 12.99 pounds sterling. Well, you know, authorship is something that's much negotiated. The name on the cover usually isn't responsible for 100% of the content. You are often not very sure whose voice you are hearing in that biography you mentioned. Not that the information is all that hidden. It says already on the outer cover that it is not only authored by the Dalai Lama's mother whose name was Diki Tsering (བདེ་སྐྱིད་ཚེ་རིང་) [her name is in the bigger letters], but "edited and introduced by Khedroob Thondup" མཁས་གྲུབ་དོན་གྲུབ་. This K.T. is a son of the Dalai Lama's brother Gyalo Thondup (རྒྱ་ལོ་དོན་གྲུབ་). On the acknowledgement page we read "and, of course, Holly Hammond, who shaped the book." This H.H. is an editor and contributor to Yoga Journal, as we can find out, but her role in "shaping" is never clarified. The introduction is by K.T., and there on p. xviii there is a clarification of how the book was made: "Because my sister died before she was able to complete this book, it fell to me to carry on this important project. My grandmother spoke only Tibetan, and my sister translated her stories into English. I compiled the notes for publication..." The sister is clearly identified elsewhere as Yangzom Doma (གཡང་འཛོམ་སྒྲོལ་མ་). But I think so long as we accept that it was a family project, the authorship doesn't matter all that much, and the book remains a very interesting one.

  14. I don't know what's wrong with Newsweek. Time did a set of photos of His Holiness, and they realized their mistakes. It looks like they took down 2 photos that weren't actually of the Dalai Lama. Look here:

  15. Newsweek still has their mistaken photo up there on their webpage. So we can add unresponsive, to irresponsible.

  16. I thought I would share this scene from Alexandre Andreyev's book "Soviet Russia and Tibet," p. 112 on events that took place at the St. Petersburg temple soon after October 1919:

    ...the temple was thoroughly looted and vandalized. The despoilers, presumably, the Red Army men, knocked the head off the plaster of Paris statue of the Big Buddha in the main prayer hall and they also pierced a large hole in the gilded image's chest with the bayonets, searching for some treasures which they believed to be hidden inside. However there was nothing there but sheets of fine paper with sacred Buddhist prayers and invocations, which would later be sold at the city's second-hand markets for use as cigarette paper."

    I guess we have to understand that by "plaster of Paris" alabaster is meant?

  17. It's chilling to think about it, I'm sure nobody noticed it, and I'm not sure I ought to draw attention to it, but I noticed today that I had mentioned the Bardo Museum exactly a month before it was attacked by terrorists, resulting in 24 deaths.

    Today I sent still another 'correction' complaint to Newsweek, and still, after 10 weeks, not the least response from their direction...

  18. I checked once again to be sure of it, but Newsweek doesn't seem to have the photo in their online version of the story any more. It took them quite a long time to get around to it, but they did fix their error after all.

  19. Happy New Year USA! Meanwhile, back in England, The Telegraph's website is still posting the photo as if it were His Holiness. But what really amazes me the most is that it appears on the outer dustcover of a book by the Dalai Lama's mother. The book has the title "Dalai Lama, My Son," and the author is given as Diki Tsering, although the authorship problem, as I've commented above in an earlier comment, is a much more complicated one. (I'm afraid it took me awhile to realize why Raj brought up this book!) The irony is that His Holiness mother more than anyone would have recognized that this was not a photo of her son. How can this particular mistake be fixed? I guess we should write to the London publisher, "Virgin Publishing."

  20. Just a note to say that on December 4-5 there were suddenly about 6,500 "page hits" on this particular blog. Nothing like this ever happened to Tibeto-logic before. So, I looked into this amazing spike in the number of readers and it turns out it comes from a Reddit discussion page. Look here: I don't recommend reading all the comments you will see there. Most are laughable or silly and a few funny. Oh, and a couple of serious comments about Tibet, which is good to see.

  21. I just sent feedback to Getty Images, complaining about their mislabeling of the child. Let's see if they will respond by withdrawing the misinformation or not.

  22. Just to update, I went to Getty Images today and found that they have changed the label on their photograph to better correspond to knowable history.
    Try looking at this.
    Perhaps our blogs into badly lit alleyways do eventually bring a little light. My, that sounds hopeful!

  23. You almost expect this from The Telegraph, but they still have the photo up on their webpage. They ought to be shamed for this and a lot of other things. Look here — — unless we get lucky and they take it down.

  24. The photo was used by the BBC today!

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