Danielle Pons and Olivier Föllmi were born to find each other: so there could be no doubt, Himalayan Gods have knitted them a single destiny.
Winner of a travel grant, Olivier Föllmi discovered Asia during his first expedition to Mir-Sa-Mir (6059m) in Afghanistan, in 1975. In 1976, with just his backpack, he set about living in Zanskar, one of the most isolated regions of the world, where he stayed over four winters (1980/1988). He made a winter retreat in the monastery of Phuktal, at 4,000m in 1980, following the traces of Alexander Csoma de Köros and became a guide in India and Nepal for trips specialised in Tibetan culture (1979/1986).
In the middle of winter 1982, he narrowly escaped death when after gangrene set in from frostbite in his feet. His first narrative, Two Winters in Zanskar, recounting these travels in the depths of the world came out in 1983, when he was twenty-two years old.
In 1980, he was awarded the first French photography prize. His pictures were also awarded the 1982 Grand Prix at the Festival International de diaporama, in Châtel, and the following year he obtained the Grand Prix at the Festival du Film d’Adventure, in Royan for his multiscreen report : Zanskar d’hiver et aujourd’hui.
In 1984, he married Danielle and went off on a discovery trip to China, Tibet and his country of adoption, Zanskar. Signes – Espaces, his first book of photos, came out of these trips. Two years later saw the birth of Zanskar, devoted to those days waiting in remote valleys, looking for the best light, and the months on watch with a candle and the complicity he nurtured with the people of Zanskar.
As a photographer-lecturer, he spoke about the state of an invaded Tibet (1984-1987) and worked for the Tibetan cause with the Delai Lama. In 1987 he was awarded the Prix Hommes sans Frontières at the Royan Travel Festival for his 6-screen report, Tibet-Zanskar.
In 1988, he left for the empires of China, URSS and Afghanistan, and took part in the French expedition Omnium/Accor in Mustagh Ata (7546m) where he reached the summit on skis. He made this voyage eternal through his pictures in Mustagh Ata – Asia.
In 1989, Olivier and Danielle brought back from Zanskar, isolated by the snow, two children who they then registered at school, in India. Together, they walked for twelve days on a frozen river, in peril of their lives. Olivier and his wife still follow the education of these two children who they consider as their own. This adventure, prize-winner at World Press Photo, was crowned as one of the most beautiful human adventures of the century and produced The Frozen River, a book of photos translated into English, German and Japanese. Caravane pour une école, a narrative and L’Ecole au bout du fleuve, a children’s book recommended for school use by the French national education authority, soon followed. Olivier then created a multi-image nine-screen show, The Frozen River which took the Grand Prix at the 14th Festival de Film d’Adventure and the Photo-Reporter Prize. He was contacted by the impresario "Connaisance du Monde", and became lecturer on a tour across French speaking Europe.
In 1990, Olivier Föllmi made the third ascension of the highest summit in Patagonia, St Valentine’s Mount (4000m), Chile, with the Omnium/Accor and Allibert team.
After weeks in the ice of Hielo Continental, he published Terre de sel-Terre de gel, a book of pictures which won him the Prix de la Presse in 1991, at the Salon de Montagne, Passy.
The couple also went to live in India that year, with the exiled Tibetan community and, in 1992, they adopted two children: Yvan Tséring (5) and Lèonore Pema (4), who have been living with them ever since in Haute-Savoie. That year, Olivier and Danielle also created HOPE (Himalayan Organisation for People & Education), an organisation promoting the development of the Himalayan world and supporting reflection on the values of Tibetan teaching.
At the end of 1992, associated with the French Omium/Agefi/GOBTP expedition, Olivier Föllmi reached the invincible summit of Kangla Gachu (6000m), in Bhutan. The members of the team had decided to stop their ascension just below the top, out of respect for local beliefs. Out of these trips – during which he was received by the Bhutan royal family – came Bhutan – le temps d’un royaume, in 1993, a sincere and deep work, which sold out in just three weeks.
Starting from 1994, faithful to his Himalayan passion and Tibetan links, Olivier Föllmi visited Tibet and attempted to climb the Minya Konka (7556m), in Kham, with the French Omnium/Agefi/La Bourse de Paris expedition. The attempt was a purist’s failure but a victory for those who came back unscathed after coming close to the summit in a terrible wind storm. Hommage au Tibet was published in 1995, with the foreword written by the Delai Lama. A book of art and revolt, Hommage au Tibet relates the experience of twenty years of the passionate life of a photographer of light, and a man profoundly marked by the Himalayas. This book is offered as a gift, from the Delai Lama, to the presidents and personalities visiting the land.
In 1996, to reaffirm their engagement to the Tibetan cause, Danielle and Olivier Föllmi produced a piece of work for the young generation. Les enfants de l’espoir uses texts and pictures to retrace the poignant history of the Tibetan children who, due to the Chinese occupation, had to escape by foot through the Himalayas, before being given the chance to grow up in Tibetan schools set up by the Delai Lama.
In the autumn of 1997, after a year in the making, Where Heaven and Mountains Meet: Zanskar and the Himalayas was published. This is Olivier’s tribute to Zanskar for all it has given him. The book comes complete with marvellous pictures and a passionate narrative. Everything is done by hand, just like the Zanskari ways. Wangchuk, a Tibetan artist, came especially to Europe to patiently paint page after page of water colours. This book and this man have forged a soul: two hundred and thirty pages, full of sensibility, relating twenty years of pictures and passion, offering the comprehension of another life and the mark of gentleness and wisdom. The book sold out four weeks after its arrival in bookshops, and was reprinted twice in the space of six months.
L’Horizon des Dieux was published in spring, 1998. It is an account of a climb in Nepal during autumn 1996. The French René Collet expedition, which Olivier Föllmi joined for the fifth time, crossed the valleys of Mustang to the Dopo valley, to climb the Putha Hiunchuli (7246m) and the Kang Tokal (6300m), a world first. A harmonious mixture of Olivier’s photos and Tibetan calligraphy by Jigmé Douche, this is an innovative book which received critical acclaim and sold out in just eight weeks.
In the 1998/99 edition of the French Who’s Who, Olivier Föllmi’s name figured among “20,000 biographies whose notoriety, integrity, merit, talent and competence contribute to spreading the activity of France”.
During 1998, after a series of conferences for "Connaissance du Monde", Olivier wrote two synopses for the documentary series Dans la nature avec Stéphane Peyron, shown on the channel Canal+. He then went off to find the location for the film Les moissonneurs de l’Himalaya (first shown in December 1998), and was floor manager and artistic advisor for the production. Finally he joined the René Collet expedition to explore and photograph the sparsely populated regions of north Sikkim, at the foot of Kanchenjunga.
In February 1999, he took off for the Himalayas once again. This time to the Ladakh region, where he was co-director for another Canal+ documentary, Les bergers de l’hiver (first shown in December 1999), filmed at 4500m and –30°.
In September 1999, he was nominated for a Visa d’or magazine at the 11th International Festival of Photo-journalism in Perpignan (this prize is awarded by a jury made up of 46 international magazine photo directors to the three best reports of the year). Olivier’s report Les Forçats de Himalaya was nominated along with Norbert Wu’s, Un jardin sous la glace, for National Geographic and Chinatown by Chien-Chi Chang for the Magnum agency, which gained the prize.
In November 1999, his book of photos Les bergers de l’hiver sold out in three weeks and was immediately reprinted.
Summer 2000 saw him covering a difficult report tracing the great trans-Himalayan caravans in the Ladakh regions of Rimo and the mythical Karakorum pass.
In September 2000, Danielle and Olivier were asked to be official photographers to the Dalai Lama during his stay in France, where he gave a number of major talks and officially met numerous French political personalities for the first time.
In December 2000, Olivier was given the mammoth photographic task of covering France and the Rhône-Alpes region for the American magazine National Geographic.
In January 2001, Olivier and Danielle publicly received the medal of honour awarded by la Sociéte d’Encouragement au Progrès, at the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. This medal distinguishes “those people who, through their actions, creativity and continued personal effort, have managed to accomplish unusual feats, with a willingness to put them to the service of humanity in one or other form.”
The year 2001 was devoted to working on the book Buddhist Himalyas with Matthieu Ricard, ready for its publication in October 2002.
In May, Olivier visited Greenland to report on the Maniitsoq region.
2002 saw Olivier reporting for the magazine Paris-Match in Bodhgaya, in the Indian plain. There he photographed a gathering of some 400,000 pilgrims from the Himalayas and Tibet, united together to pray for world peace, which was followed by a teaching from the Delai Lama. This report was published in the Paris-Match edition number 2755.
Since then Olivier Föllmi has travelled to the Great Canadian North on a trip of discovery and photography. He has also created his own publishing house Editions Föllmi and spent time in Bolivia and Peru to climb two virgin summits of the Andes.
Since August 2002, Olivier and Danielle have been working on the groundwork for a new book project expected for autumn 2003, edited by La Martinière in France.
(to be completed)
The road continues