ITN commissioned forensic artist's impression of Gendun Choekyi Nyima
Interview with forensic artist Tim Widden on the construction of the image of Panchen Lama on his 30th birthday As the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who has been missing for nearly 24 years, turns 30 today, International Tibet Network’s (ITN) Political Prisoners Campaign Working Group commissioned a specialist forensic artist to create an image showing what the 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet may look like today.
The forensic artist, Tim Widden, is recognized by the UK National Crime Agency and he specializes in age progressions and facial reconstructions for missing and unidentified people, using techniques similar to those used in any criminal or missing person’s case.
ITN said it hopes that the release of the image, will reinvigorate this serious and important case and bring a new direction for action to bring us closer to seeing the release of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family. 1. What was the experience like constructing the image of the world's youngest political prisoner that Tibetans haven't seen or heard from in nearly 24 years?
It was a privilege to be given the opportunity to work on an age progression of such an important figure. However, when it came to constructing the image, it was the same process I always use - making the best possible estimation of appearance from the information available to me. Every missing person deserves my best effort. 2. What research went into it given that there is only one existing photo of Panchen Lama as a 6-year-old to work with?
The fact that there was only one confirmed image of the Panchen Lama available, and at such a young age, made the process challenging. I would hope to have a range of photos of the missing person as well as photos of their family members, as this gives an impression of family resemblances.
In this case, these were not available and so I relied on applying normal facial development patterns which are informed by how the skull changes with age. I also spent a long time looking at images of Tibetan faces at different ages, and this image is actually a composite made from Tibetan men’s faces only, edited and stitched together to make a completely new face.
The International Tibet Network requested that his hair be kept in this style as it is similar to, but not as short as, the cropped style he would wear if he was acting in his role as the Panchen Lama. They also decided he should be wearing a polo shirt rather than robes as he is not acting in his role. The shirt was originally black, but we changed it to maroon to reference Buddhist robes. 3. What do you think of the reception so far and the kind of emotions attached to it?
The reception has been very positive. Members of the Tibetan community I have spoken to are hoping the public interest that age-progressed images generate will help lead to answers about Gedhun Choekyi Nyima’s current situation and whereabouts.
Some people have suggested that in reality, he may look thinner and less healthy than his image, as he may have been a prisoner for many years. Others have suggested they were expecting to see a more God-like face. I made the decision to show him in average health and weight as really we have no way of knowing his current condition. 4. Is there anything you would change about the constructed image?
There is nothing I would change according to the information currently available. However, whilst I am confident with the configuration of his features and proportions of his face, estimating his nose and cheekbones at age 30 was very difficult.
Adult Tibetan men range from having very flat nasal bridges and cheekbones to very prominent, and from his photo, aged six, it was impossible to estimate how these features would have developed. Without photos of his adult family to indicate how he may have changed, I could only give him a nose and cheekbones of medium prominence as a compromise.
However, we recognize faces by the configuration of features rather than individual features, so I would expect there to be a good level of congruence between his age-progressed image and what he looks like in reality. BBC made and broadcasted a short film for ‘The One Show’, a primetime UK programme on the unveiling of the image of the 11th Panchen Lama. ITN has made the video available in nine languages for the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and Tibet groups to screen.
ITN is screening the video at Tashi Lhunpo monastery tomorrow.