Monk With a Camera a Portrait of Unusual Privilege

Nicholas Vreeland is what passes for American royalty. He is the grandson of Diana Vreeland, the famous Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, and related to George Washington and Francis Scott Key. His father, “Freck,” was a longtime CIA officer and diplomat, and Nicky, as his family calls him, was born in Switzerland and grew up in Morocco, France, Germany, and Italy. He was so accustomed to privileged Euro-life that being sent to Groton, the boarding school FDR attended, came as a shock.

As a teen he performed conventional rebellions, supported by wealth. A policeman in Paris once chided him for using the city as his personal rally course but had to let him go because his car had diplomatic plates. Vreeland dated glamorous women and absorbed his grandmother’s sense of style.

“Nicky was all about the best of the best,” says Wendy Goodman, Design Editor, New York Magazine.

“He was an exotic,” says John Avedon, son of photographer Richard Avedon.

“He was a committed dandy,” says Vreeland’s brother-in-law.

The documentary film Monk with a Camera: The Life and Journey of Nicholas Vreeland (2014, available at Filmatique, which I have been using as relief from Netflix) means to portray something more dramatic. This young scion, in his restlessness, turned his back on privilege, and became a Buddhist monk in India, then the first Western abbot of an important Tibetan monastery and an intimate of the Dalai Lama. In framing that story, the filmmakers (and Nicky’s family and friends) flirt with a parallel, in terms of renunciation and spiritual evolution, to the origin stories of the Buddha himself.

Ptolemy Tompkins, a writer and Vreeland’s step-brother, says, “If somebody wrote a screenplay about the grandson of Diana Vreeland becoming a Buddhist and saying no to all artifice, to all fluffy surface, I think somebody might read it and say this is too obvious. And yet that’s what happened.”

He calls Vreeland a “princely figure who grew up in the fortunate world and then had this moment where he saw that the world of pleasures and appearances that he was so comfortable in, that it was untrustworthy, that it would not ultimately get him anywhere, that it would not carry him across.”

While Vreeland’s determination to do something more significant with his life and to help others is admirable, even exceptional in terms of denying wealth, his is also a story of ongoing privilege.

As a teen he needed a preoccupation, so he decided to become a photographer; his grandmother set up tutelage with Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, who worked for her. Vreeland abandoned photography when he became interested in Buddhism, sparked in part by his family’s relationship with Georges Prosper Remi, author and artist (as Hergé) of the Tintin books.

“I’m not saying Tintin in Tibet was the inspiration for my vocation,” Vreeland says, thumbing through the book Remi inscribed to him, “but it was surely the first introduction.”

Early on, a mentor got Vreeland an audience with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama himself, as one does. Vreeland took the Dalai Lama’s advice and moved to northern India, where he lived in a concrete room at the Rato Monastery for 14 years, separated by voluntary poverty from the sort he could have lived almost anywhere on the globe if he had not been born a Vreeland.

Family and friends insisted he continue practicing photography. They bought him expensive camera gear to take back to India. We watch as the monastery becomes overcrowded and loses funds for expansion in the 2008 recession. Vreeland’s friend Richard Gere explains that Vreeland then took it on himself to improve things by agreeing to sell his photos of monks, villagers, and the Dalai Lama.

Vreeland’s connected friends around the world create a website for him. They get him photo-editing help from a top Parisian publisher, figure out what sizes and formats will sell, and arrange shows (and guest lists) at galleries in Paris, Berlin, Rome, Milan, Genoa, Naples, New York, Chicago, New Delhi, and elsewhere. Presumably someone other than Vreeland prints, mats, frames, and ships the photos, though he travels constantly to support the project. It raises (at least) hundreds of thousands of dollars, which are used to build an extensive new monastery complex with temple, dormitories, kitchen, guest house, and landscaped compound. (The filmmakers are careful to show Vreeland getting other monks’ input on construction, perhaps to deter from any perception of white saviorism.)

Gere praises Vreeland for being “totally singular in the Tibetan community” in having these connections, though that discounts the Dalai Lama’s own international popularity and prestige.

The Dalai Lama, who is politically savvy, makes Vreeland the Abbot of the Rato monastery, though Vreeland protests more than once that any number of Tibetans are better qualified. The Dalai Lama tells him, “Your special duty (is) to bridge Tibetan tradition and the Western world.” (Vreeland is now Director of The Tibet Center in New York, and the ghostwriter for two of the Dalai Lama’s books, one a New York Times bestseller.)

Vreeland is bland, almost affectless, in the film. He is not shown to have been too wild in the old days, and in the present, as a holy man, never says anything much like wisdom. He speaks of helping the world, but we see few particulars. The film offers no deep insights into the life of either the rich or the Tibetan monks, many of whom are recent refugees. (There are two quick mentions of Vreeland’s ongoing desires of the flesh, which he cannot shake.) As merely a story of Siddarthean transformation from prince to philosopher, it would be weak.

The film’s real drama is the conflict within Vreeland, between his talent for art as self-expression and his desire for self-negation. Photography brings Vreeland happiness, but he believes it is a manifestation of worldly attachment. “It’s the ultimate conflict for someone like Nicky,” an interviewee says.

He continues to take pictures (after discussing it with the Dalai Lama), but Vreeland remains suspicious of his “preoccupation,” even as he acknowledges it pays the bills. Ultimately, he decides, “If you photograph with a true wish to benefit others, then the act of photography is virtuous. If you are doing so in order to become rich, or whatever, it is selfish.”

The most interesting part of the documentary, near the end, is when he says we find happiness by being “satisfied with whatever we get…and the more content[ment] with what we have, the happier we are.” It is ironic, nearly tragic, that this might have applied to any part of his life, or ours.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.