Through a San Diego photographer’s camera lens, a peek at Tibetan life

This photograph — one in a series of photos Michael Orenich captured during a trip to Tibet in 2017 — will be part an exhibit of his work at Gallery 21 titled "Face of Humanity."
This photograph — one in a series of photos Michael Orenich captured during a trip to Tibet in 2017 — will be part an exhibit of his work at Gallery 21 titled “Face of Humanity.”
((Photo by Michael Orenich) )

On her forehead, wrinkles. And traipsing across her face? Despair? Hope? Worry? Contentment? The old woman’s eyes gaze forward, maybe into the future or maybe into nothing at all. But behind that forceful gaze — her rosy cheeks sun-drenched and stiffened — you can almost hear the stories. Untold ones. Each wrinkle, each crease hides a story begging to be told.

If only somebody would listen.

Michael Orenich listened — with his camera.

From May 29 to June 16, Orenich’s photographs — 38 of them — will be featured in the exhibit “Face of Humanity” at Spanish Village Art Center’s Gallery 21 in Balboa Park. The gallery promotes and showcases the work of San Diego artists. The show will focus on photos he took during a trip to Tibet in 2017.

Orenich, who’s traveled all over the globe for more than four decades with camera in tow, knows the power of photography, a craft he’s practiced and honed for years, ever since his days in the U.S. Air Force in the late ‘60s.

Photography, he says, has the ability to illuminate, to educate, to celebrate.

The key to the perfect photograph? It’s all about the “moment.”

“What I look for is the moment that captures an unposed event,” Orenich, 72, says. “Street photography is the art of candid. ... For people photography, I just stand around until I become unnoticed. You really stand out with big cameras hanging on you and people notice. However, after 10 to 15 minutes in the same place, you disappear.”

As part of his approach, Orenich says, he asks himself: “What am I trying to communicate? Vistas? Tension? Serenity? I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want, then I click the shutter. I was trained to not waste film. Sent out in the field with a limited amount of film, you learn not to waste.”

Orenich, a resident of University City who moved to San Diego in 1970, answered some questions about his photographs, his new exhibit and why the trip to Tibet in the fall of 2017 was life-changing.

Prayer wheels at Potala Palace in Tibet.
Prayer wheels at Potala Palace in Tibet.
((Photo by Michael Orenich) )

Q: What makes this exhibit, this collection of photographs, special?

A: It captures and presents the essence of Tibet — its people, remote vistas, monasteries and everyday life. The images are large — most 24-by-30 or larger, which enables the viewer to immerse themselves in the photos.

Q: What do you hope to impart to viewers who see your work?

A: I hope to communicate to my visitors what a beautiful culture and country Tibet is. Most people certainly know about Mount Everest and heard of the Dalai Lama, but little is known of the way of life of the Tibetan people and the beauty and vastness of the Himalayan plateau. (Today, Tibet is not an independent nation but has been under Chinese rule since 1959.)

Q: How many years have you been a photographer?

A: I’ve been engaged in photography since 1966-1970 while in the U.S. Air Force serving in Europe — trained by the Air Force, which I think relates to my style of street photography.

Q: When did you get bitten by the photography bug?

A: I’ve continued my interest in photography ever since. Traveling to remote parts of the world, you could consider my photography as National Geographic in form. I focus on cultures which are endangered or on the brink of extinction due to political forces or war. Prior to an assignment, I study as much as possible about the country, its politics, religion, culture and its presence on the world stage.

This photograph, showing the Himalayas in the background, is one in a series of photographs by Michael Orenich that will be featured in an exhibit at Gallery 21 in the Spanish Village Art Center in Balboa Park.
This photograph, showing the Himalayas in the background, is one in a series of photographs by Michael Orenich that will be featured in an exhibit at Gallery 21 in the Spanish Village Art Center in Balboa Park.
((Photo by Michael Orenich) )

Q: What was the most amazing and rewarding part of your trip to Tibet?

A: One of the most rewarding parts of my journey, given the time of year, was experiencing the sincerity of the people I met and their spirituality. Enduring what they have with the political situation and an unforgiving environment, they are very warm, smiling and willing to engage with you even with the language barrier. Secondly, you can’t be but in awe with the Himalayan mountain range — it is so beautiful and vast.

Q: What was the most grueling part of the trip?

A: Grueling is a good word for what it takes to perform in the high altitude of Tibet. Being delayed in entering Tibet due to “political” matters, I had no time to acclimate to the altitude before ascending to yet higher regions. The capital, Lhasa, is over 12,000 feet, which requires at least two to three days acclimating, but with a late arrival, I had to press forward in one day. The others were “in country” for a few days beforehand. Western altitude medicine leaves you so wired, it wasn’t recommended. Even having oxygen bottles at 19,000 feet, I was advised not to “hit” the oxygen as it would take longer to acclimate as your body won’t accelerate the making of red blood cells. I bailed on the second day of the “hora” (pilgrimage around a mountain) as I was informed that there was no way to evacuate from the ridges going around the mountain. Went down to a little town, 3,000 to 4,000 feet lower, and roamed for two days. Second challenge was the weather. Not much snow but nighttime temperatures dropped to -15F and the Quonset (lightweight prefabricated structure) accommodations while in the plateau areas were not heated. Oh well, great -40-rated sleeping bag.

Q: What kind of camera did you use on this trip? Or was there more than one?

A: Cameras. Well, I’ve used a number of manufacturers but settled on Nikon decades ago. Not that it’s superior to Canon, but for me, with a mortgage in lenses and Nikon’s commitment to backward compatibility for lenses, it’s Nikon for me. I will always have two full-frame bodies with me, limit to four lenses and a point-and-shoot small camera. Much to haul, yes, but even with the advancement in cell phone camera technology and amazing software, DSLRs are still the best for serious photography.

"Faces of Humanity" at Gallery 21 features the work of San Diego photographer Michael Orenich.
“Faces of Humanity” at Gallery 21 features the work of San Diego photographer Michael Orenich.
((Photo by Michael Orenich) )

Q: “Face of Humanity” — talk about how you landed on the exhibit name.

A: The short answer is it’s a reflection of the peril that a society and culture has endured for six decades. The long answer is when I select a destination, I study it. I did it for Cuba, Morocco, Mongolia — not from the tourism aspect but from the country’s history, culture and current existence. I do my research. I’ve spent almost a year diving into the background of Tibet and what has and is happening. “Face of Humanity” is just that. When you see an aging society that remembers prior to 1950, you see the “lost” in their eyes. Today, post 1959, little hope remains to regain their heritage. ... No, my exhibit isn’t political; it is my artistic photographic expression. You will see Tibet for its beauty, culture and people, which my exhibit attempts to provide.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: Well, I can say it won’t be at elevation — been there, done that. I’m looking at is a geopolitical cultural and historical region in India, specifically in the northern part, Punjab, comprising areas of eastern Pakistan and northern India. A little “dicey” at the moment, but we will see.

“Face of Humanity”

When: May 29-June 16. Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. every day.

Where: Gallery 21 at Spanish Village Art Center, 1770 Village Place, Balboa Park

Tickets: Free

Online: gallery21art.org