Monk With a Camera
Tina Mascara + Guido Santi

Monk With a Camera

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MONK WITH A CAMERA: The Life and Journey of Nicholas Vreeland

A documentary film by Tina Mascara and Guido Santi
90 minutes, 2014. NTSC DVD

English. USA

Nicholas Vreeland walked away from a worldly life of privilege to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk in 1972. Grandson of legendary Vogue editor, Diana Vreeland, and trained by Irving Penn to become a photographer, Nicholas' life changed drastically upon meeting a Tibetan master, one of the teachers of the Dalai Lama. Soon thereafter, he gave up his glamorous life to live in a monastery in India, where he studied Buddhism for fourteen years. In an ironic twist of fate, Nicholas went back to photography to help his fellow monks rebuild their monastery. Recently, the Dalai Lama appointed Nicholas as Abbot of the monastery, making him the first Westerner in Tibetan Buddhist history to attain such a highly regarded position. Monk With a Camera chronicles Nicky's journey from playboy to monk to artist.


Like Prince Siddhartha Nicholas (“Nicky”) Vreeland walked away from a worldly life of privilege to become a monk.

The son of an American diplomat, Nicky grew up in Switzerland, Germany, France and Morocco before moving to the United States. He went to the prestigious Massachusetts Groton prep school. By the time he finished his studies, he knew he would be a photographer. Thanks to his grandmother, the legendary Vogue fashion editor Diana Vreeland, he got a job apprenticing world-renowned photographers Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. Yet, Nicky felt that something was missing from his privileged and glamorous life. As he searched for meaning, Nicky was introduced to Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist Master and one of the spiritual teachers of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Rinpoche escaped Tibet in 1959 during the Chinese invasion, and eventually moved to New York in the early 1960's to establish the Tibet Center, which is dedicated to the study of Buddhism. Upon meeting Rinpoche at the Tibet Center, Nicky’s life changed dramatically. Rinpoche eventually became Nicky’s lifelong teacher and guru.

When his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Nicky came to the realization that worldly pursuits were meaningless and felt the desire to become a monk. Ironically, his cameras were stolen, which made his decision easier. Without cameras to distract him, he completely immersed himself into the study of Buddhism. Rinpoche tried to hold Nicky back from becoming a monk, but Nicky’s vocational calling was too strong to overcome. In 1984, he moved to India to become a monk at the Rato Monastery -- the same monastery as his guru.

Before Nicky left for India, his brother, Alexander, gave him a camera in hopes that Nicky would not give up photography completely. Nicky accepted the gift, but had no intention of using  it. He was serious about his studies, and did not want to be distracted by photography at a time when he was trying to give up worldly attachments. He locked it away inside a trunk. It was only after many years of living there, that Nicky would occasionally take the camera out to indulge his old passion.

Nicky would spend the next 14 years in India, earning a Geshe degree, the equivalent of a PhD in Buddhist philosophy and taking photos. During this time, more and more monks kept coming to India to join the Rato Monastery. Nicky’s monastic community grew from 8 to 150 monks, and soon there was not enough space to house them all. The time was urgent to help his fellow monks and Nicky took it upon himself to rebuild the monastery.

Some of his friends pledged to donate, but when the stock market crashed in 2008, everything came to a sudden halt, and the funders were not able to keep their pledges. The difficult situation was made even more complicated because contracts were already signed and the work had to be completed within a certain amount of time. Nicky did not know what to do. Eventually, it was Nicky’s brother, Alexander, along with some of his friends, who suggested that Nicky sell his photographs. Together with Nicky, they were able to host and organize a series of exhibitions around the world to sell his photographs, which became Photos For Rato. There were events in Paris, Berlin, Rome, Naples, Genoa, New Delhi, Mumbai, and New York. The sale of his photographs raised over $40,000, which was used to build a brand new monastery and dorms for the monks. Living conditions drastically improved for the Rato monks, and more importantly the reestablishment of Rato would forever ensure the preservation of Buddhist culture and identity.

In 2011, His Holiness the Dalai Lama officially inaugurated the Rato Monastery. It was attended by thousands of people who came to celebrate this history-making day. However, even after such a remarkable achievement, Nickyʼs journey was far from over. Taking the Buddhist community by complete surprise, in April 2012, the Dalai Lama appointed Nicholas Vreeland as the Abbot of the new Rato Monastery, which made him the first Westerner in over 2,500 years of Tibetan Buddhist history, to attain such a highly regarded position. Nicholas is once again challenged to forge a path where no monk has gone before, to merge East and West,  to erase cultural boundaries, and to bring happiness and compassion to the world using his unique  experience as a Westerner and his comprehensive understanding of the way of the Buddha.


"[Not] just the biography of a remarkable man, but a revealing meditation on the relationship between spirituality and art" - Globe and Mail

"Buried beneath the admiring encomia and ritual spectacle that clog the pores of this maddeningly tactful film is a tantalizing glimpse into the personal and institutional mechanics of Tibetan Buddhism." - NPR

"Aptly serene in tone, this pleasing documentary by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara has a built-in mix of retro celebrity and spiritual appeal."- Variety

"Like a good photograph, or a wise abbot, it only presents the evidence and allows us to arrive at truth." - The New York Times


Producers/Directors: Tina Mascara, Guido Santi
  • His Holiness the Dalai Lama
  • Khyongla Rinpoche
  • Nicholas Vreeland
  • Alexander Vreeland
  • John Avedon 

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