Bookworm Issue 132 Nov, 2012
This picture book features dozens of images in full color, largely of camouflage greens and reds, the predominant colors of Nepal Peoples Liberation Army (NPLA). Most are portraits of young men (52) and women (16) at a moment in time, interspersed with photos of the encampment in which they have been living since the end of Nepal’s decade long Insurgency (1996-2006). The photos were taken in July 2010 by professional photographer Kevin Bubriski. Altogether, they represent a poignant cultural/political statement of Nepal’s recent past and present time. But, rather than glorify war, these images are still and mute and castigate it by their stark honesty.The book begins with text by three commentators. The Foreword is by Sam Cowen, a retired British General, a Gurkha officer. Cowen’s first impressions were similar to mine — these photos are “evocative,” he says, and they raise several questions: “What motivated these people to commit themselves so totally to the Maoist cause?” “How much fighting did they personally do during the 10 long years of conflict?” “How much dying and suffering did they see and contribute to?”  More questions lurk behind every face in this remarkable collection, so that by book end we wonder what the future holds for them. Where will they go and what will they do with the rest of their lives? The insurgency and counterinsurgency had no possible solution by arms, says Cowen. Both sides, the Maoist combatants and the Nepal Army, committed appalling human rights abuses, the General concludes, “but it is the State and its security forces that have to set a higher standard of behavior...”Deepak Thapa, author of the insightful A Kingdom Under Siege: Nepal’s Maoist Insurgency, 1996-2004, writes in Bubriski’s book about the history of the insurgency and the situation in the cantonments since 2006. His conclusion is not a happy one: “Neither the Maoist leadership nor those opposing it have thought it necessary to even demonstrate that they genuinely have the welfare of these young men and women in mind...”The third commentator is the ethnographic film expert Toby Alice Volkman. Her short essay ‘On Kevin Bubriski’s Portraits’ is followed by a brief statement by the photographer himself.Who is Kevin Bubriski? And what about his photography? Volkman points out that these pictures here were taken with a modern digital camera. Bubriski simply asked his subjects to look into the lens, then composed each picture in relation to the surroundings. The result is forceful to see and contemplate, but of a very different order and impact compared to his earlier,  Portrait of Nepal (1991), a cultural masterpiece. For the earlier book he used a more conventional large format film camera with a tripod to capture striking images of ordinary villagers, boys, girls, monks, elders, whole families, at home, at the temple, in the fields, and so forth, all in stunning black and white. Each of those was a compelling still life illustration, frameable.