Visions of Bhutan

Former Encino dentist Barry Shaffer channels his talent for photography and his passion for Bhutan into the book, Echoes of Bhutan.

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  • Photographed by
    Barry Shaffer

After a 40-year career as a dentist, Barry Shaffer was restless. Ready to start cutting back on hours at his practice, he wanted to find something meaningful. Little did he know he’d find that meaning in photography and a tiny Himalayan kingdom on the other side of the world.

Clouded Himalayan foothills in the background of the massive, walled Paro Dzong. This was my initial photograph of Bhutan from my first visit in 2001. It was a surprise to turn a corner and see this incredible scene … it encapsulates Bhutan’s landscape and was stunning to see in my lens.

This photo—the sight of colorful prayer flags over an ancient bridge of wood and stone spanning a pure Himalayan stream of icy glacial water—is a photographer’s dream. Loving prayers for our well- being and that of all creatures are written on the flags, which are believed to scatter through the atmosphere when gentle breezes cause them to flutter.

The Tarzana resident had taken up photography as a hobby in the 1990s and, as someone with a keen eye and deft fingers, it was no surprise that he showed promise.

“The skills involved in dentistry and in photography are actually very similar,” Barry explains.

In 2000, he began to scale back on dentistry and two years later, Barry enrolled full-time in the professional photography program at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. “I was 52. My classmates were 18 to 20—but it worked better than I ever imagined.”

During that period, he heard a speech by the renowned Indo-Tibetan Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival. “He described a very pure Buddhist culture amongst the beautiful mountains and valleys of the Himalayas. He made it sound like a kind of Shangri-La,” Barry says.

Being inside an ancient structure like the Zangto Pelri Temple is awe-inspiring for a photographer—or anyone for that matter. The smells, sounds and feelings turn you into a time traveler, as you get a chance to capture and share these scenes. It’s awesome.

In the most remote part of the countryside, I had the incredible privilege to see this image through my lens. I just could not believe what I was viewing ... the Jangbi shaman performing a ritual to ready an ancient house for its new inhabitants.

Ten months later Barry and his wife, Barbara, found themselves in Bhutan, camping and trekking to the most remote parts. “I was blown away by the clean air and gorgeous mountain views, which have a spiritual quality, but also by the people. I was struck by how happy they were. We might think they have very little, but there is such joy among them. It made me think that it’s the complications of life that make it such a hassle.”

The couple has embarked on three trips to Bhutan, where they’ve been embraced by the locals and the government. Barry has compiled his work in a fine-art photography book, Echoes of Bhutan, and here he expounds on some of his favorite shots.

While trekking in the Bumthang Valley, I came across these four children on their way to school. They were completely enamored to be my models, dressed in their national dress. I felt lucky and energized from my encounter with them.

All proceeds from sales of Echoes of Bhutan will benefit the Tarayana Foundation, established by the Queen Mother of Bhutan, to support improvements to the most rural communities. The book can be purchased at

Barry’s work will be on display through July at USC’s School of Gerontology. The project, “Quiet Heroes ~ Over 80,” exhibits black and white photographs that spotlight aging and immigration.

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