Portfolio: Boris Joseph

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If you think we live in an age of austerity, spare a thought for the 7,000 nuns living in the makeshift "city" of Yarchen. Lacking both running water and electricity, this tightly packed encampment made of wood and fabric nestles in a remote Tibetan valley 4,000m above sea level – and is not even listed on Chinese maps.

"I'd heard about the camp several years ago, but it was impossible to get there, as access by foreigners is forbidden by the authorities," says the French photographer Boris Joseph. But when a particularly savage snowstorm caused the Chinese guards to abandon their checkpoint controlling access to the camp, Joseph sneaked through and entered the shanty town, spending three days documenting the simple, pious lives of the nuns. "They come from all over Tibet to live near the Yarchen monastery [seen at the far right of the picture] and experience its austere regime of Nyingma Buddhist prayers and mediation."

The highlight of this settlement's calendar year is the 100 days of coldest winter, when each morning the nuns leave their ramshackle homes to ascend to the thousands of one-person huts scattered across the mountainside, where they pray, meditate and sing for the day. At night, as temperatures drop to -20C, they return home to the camp along the river. Why endure such hardships? "It's only by experiencing this level of material destitution that they feel they are able to reach the Buddhist ideal of detachment from the world," explains Joseph.

For more: borisjoseph.viewbook.com