The Art of photography has blossomed relatively late in Nepal. It began in the 1860s as the ruling Ranas learned of the new medium and desired portraits and other documentation (for example, those famous/infamous Chitwan tiger hunt photos) of their lives and institutions. The foreigners who came as climbers, government officials, journalists, and later development workers and tourists were struck by Nepal's beauty and exotic culture and began to capture it on film. But it wasn't until the 1960s that Nepalis really began to explore photography as a means of expression. And the lack of an independent media limited the development of photojournalism, an important source of experience and income for budding photographers, until the 1990s. Similarly, it was difficult to establish an independent organization for photographers to learn from each other and jointly promote their art until the founding of the Amateur Photographers Association of Nepal in 1987, which went through several incarnations and became the Nepal Photographic Society in 1992. Lastly, cameras themselves had been a bit of a scarce commodity in Nepal as they had to be imported and were beyond the financial means of most people until the last few decades.
The last little more than ten years has seen an unprecedented flourishing of Nepali photography. Cameras are present at almost every major event and family portraits and photo albums are prized in almost every middle class home; postcards, posters and photo books reveal an amazing range of the photogenic people, culture, land, and architecture of Nepal; local newspapers and magazines tell powerful photographic stories; and both amateur and professional Nepali photographers are wowing the public in many fields: documentary, landscape, wildlife, portrait, photojournalism, commercial, and even some abstract photographic art.
In preparing for this article, ECS staff wanted names: who are the pioneers and the leaders among Nepali photographers? We realized we have already given coverage to some of them: a feature on famed wildlife photographer Nanda Rana, a series of photo essays by the highly respected Pradeep Shakya, and in a different way, the ECS covers by brilliant commercial photographer, Raj Bhai Surwal. But other names came pouring in: Sreedar Manandar, Nepal’s first commercial photographer, still looked to for the latest in technical photographic developments; the late Ganesh Man Chitrakar and his sons Gopal and Rajendra Chitrakar, who had shifted from their family tradition of painting; Narenda Pradhan and his son Birendra Pradhan who joined him for a photo exhibit at Gallery Nine two months ago; and many other founding fathers and next generation torch-bearers. To mention a dozen would leave out at least a few dozen more who have made major contributions to the world of photography in Nepal. (And on top of that all the expatriate photographers who have dazzled us over the years...) But still, we wanted to give you a taste of some of the remarkable Nepali photographers working today and some samples of their work. So feast your eyes on these pages!
Jagadish Tiwari’s passion for his work and love and respect for the mountains has made it possible for him to expose Nepal's biggest assets - the mighty Himalayas - to the world. When he started his career as a photographer for the Nepal Army some 22 years ago, there were very few working photographers in Nepal. Despite numerous hurdles he is now one of the most successful landscape photographers in the country. “I didn't eat so that I could save money to buy and develop film. I've never regretted doing that,” shared Jagadish. Satisfaction for this mountain lover is to be able to witness the beauty of mother nature in such a way that no other human being has; it is this zeal that keeps him going. “I feel blessed to have been born in Nepal. Where else would I find the beauty I seek? My work involves many risks in the high altitudes and rugged terrain, but that is a small price to pay when I think about what I get in return. Many people talk about heaven, but I have been there many times. The beauty of the mountains and their different faces reflect joy and peace - I think that is heaven.” Jagadish is well known for his breath-taking mountain posters and calendars. He has also had his works printed in National Geography Maps and has published a photo book called ‘Passing by Nepal’, working in association with Soren Lauridsen, a Danish photographer. In spite of having extensive collections of magnificent photos, Jagadish has never put on a solo exhibition. “The time was never right,” he explains, but he is interested in doing one at some indefinite point in the future. What next? “Let’s see where the road takes me,” says Jagadish, who is currently working on his next book.
Mani Lama introduced Nepal to the world with his postcard project back in the early 1980s. Being born the fourth son of the Chini Lama, the traditional ruler/protector of Boudhha, Mani came to know the area intimately and has photographed the stupa in every mood and from every angle. As a young man, Lama had intended a career in agriculture, believing this would be among the best ways he could serve the Nepali people. But photography kept coming across his path. When he worked as a guide and interpreter for various projects (both conservation and film-making) in and around Helambu, his family's other ancestral home, he took his camera with him and learned as he went. While completing his Bachelor's degree in agriculture at Frensco State University in California, U.S.A., he further developed his skills in photography through classes and jobs that helped put him through school. Ironically when he returned to Nepal, Mani Lama was unable to find paying work in his chosen profession, and turned to the camera to support himself! His postcard project, publishing hundreds of scenes from both Kathmandu and mountain areas, gave him wide exposure and he was offered a large variety of assignments. Today Mani Lama is one of Nepal’s most acclaimed and influential photographers, especially known for his documentary and art photos, capturing candid portraits of village people and using natural light to create drama and depth. Much of his work these days is for INGOs, but he still is open to everything. “I am not particular about what I shoot. Anything artistic can catch my eye, and I capture that beauty,” reveals Mani. He teaches students from the University of Wisconsin and Cornel University study in Nepal programs every year; takes on other teaching projects such as one where child workers of Kathmandu learned to use cameras to document their own lives; has published his photos in several books about Nepal; is one of the founding and most active members of Gallery 9, adjacent to his studio; and continues to work on a broad range of photographic projects throughout the region.
Raj Bhai Suwal
Raj Bhai Suwal quips, "Photography is for the eyes and not the nose." In other words, his photographs focus on creating a striking image that can be taken in at a glance, not a general atmosphere that might take more time to absorb. As one of the most in-demand commercial photographers in Nepal, Raj Bhai is the man behind a large number of the billboards and print advertisements that we see on the streets and in magazines and newspapers every day. He also has developed the much-appreciated and talked-about concepts and taken the photographs for the cover pages of ECS magazine for more than two years - one of his favorite projects. Raj Bhai had experimented with many professions before settling on photography 19 years ago. He was trained as a dancer (including disco, Nepali folk, and classical Karthak) and a tailor, making all his own clothes for many years and even learning knitting and shoemaking. He also worked as an electrician and a house painter. After photographing the weddings and other ceremonies of family and friends for about five years, Raj Bhai decided to go professional. He experimented with many types of photography: photojournalism, landscape, wildlife, architecture, portraits, and so on, but after a long struggle both within himself and with the profession he began to work consistently as a commercial photographer. For many years companies have turned to photographers outside of Nepal for their commercial work, believing that no one in Nepal was capable of meeting their needs. Raj Bhai has proved them wrong. “I worked for 14 hours of non-stop shoots during my struggling days. If you want to excel in any field you should be ready to give all it takes,” shared this down to earth artist. Raj Bhai has especially developed his talents as a glamour photographer, serving as the staff snapper for the Miss Nepal pageant since 1997, and as a premier studio photographer, creating dramatic and unforgettable still lifes.
Sanu Raj Bajracharya
Sanu Raj Bajracharya is no ordinary man. Presently with Tiger Tops Mountain Travels, he started his career as a photographer in 1979 as a research assistant for Todd Lewis, an American Anthropologist. For the next three years he occasionally worked for Father John Locke (history expert), Dr. Theodore Riccardi from Colombia University and Peter Burleigh, Deputy Chief of Mission, American Embassy, Kathmandu. But his major break came in 1982 when he met David Sasson, photographer for UNICEF. “I learned a lot about developing and printing photographs from him while working as his dark room assistant,” says Sanu, who felt that up until that moment he did not have any idea of what professional photography demanded.
From art and architecture to landscape and wildlife, Sanu has had a wide range of interest and proficiency in the work that he does. He has also taken photographs for a list of books including ‘Wildlife in Nepal’ by Karna Shakya, ‘The Cult of Humans - Tiger Worship in Nepal’ by Michael Allen, and ‘Festivals of Nepal’ by Saphalaya Amatya. He has been in this adventurous profession for the past 20 years and is well versed with the dangers that come with it. “I have had close encounters with wild Asian elephants and Bengal tigers, but that’s all part and parcel of the profession,” says Sanu with a shrug. He adds, “Before you go out on a safari you have to prepare yourself mentally and do a lot of research on animal behaviors and psychology. After that its all about patience, passion and courage.”
He has great regard for Dr. Chuck Mc Dougal, Advisor of Tiger Tops Mountain Travel, under the guidance of whom he discovered his potential as a wildlife photographer. “Sometimes you don’t even finish a roll of film on a two-week safari and its very frustrating and unnerving. But Dr. Dougal taught me the different techniques of wildlife photography and the importance of patience and dedication in this profession”, says Sanu.
An executive member of the Nepal Photographic Society, he has had his works shown in Japan and Korea and feels that the environment for Nepali photographers at the moment is very promising.
Kishor Kayastha is a man who has captured to perfection almost every aspect of Bhaktapur, his native place. Born in a family of photographers, he took his first professional shot at the remarkably young age of nine. “I had always wanted to be a photographer and show the world everything through the lens of my camera", says Kayastha. Without any formal training in photography, it is his sheer fascination with the camera that has brought him this far.
He blends his technical photographic knowledge and the artist in him to create his striking photos. He plays a lot with different shades of light, which makes his pictures simple but magical. “Light is my color and the camera my brush;with these two I want to create enigma”, says Kayastha, who still feels there's a lot more to learn.
After seven years of hard work and dedication, he finally put up his first solo photo exhibition, called “Images of Bhaktapur”, at the Park Gallery in Pulchowk. The response and the exposure he got were tremendous. Most of his works were sold, a rarity in the world of photo exhibitions, and one of his photographs went for Rs. 12,000. From that moment on there has been no stopping him. He has had offers from big names like the Surya Tobacco Company. “My happiest moment was when my first photograph was the only photograph sold in the entire exhibition held by the Nepal Photographic Society in 1999. The German Ambassador was my first customer and he paid twice the amount of the tagged price,” says Kayastha. He adds, “My photographs are all about harmony, perspective and rhythm, and this combination has worked wonders for me.”
What's next? " The Taj Mahal", says Kayastha who is fascinated by the artistic brilliance of this monument to love. According to Gill Gocher, a professional expatriate photographer who has worked all over Asia, "Kishor has great potential and his photographs are dazzling."
Narendra Shrestha Shrestha is a name synonymous with the famous photograph of the late King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev in his casuals, which was published in the Kantipur daily newspaper. “I took that shot from the back of the rickshaw and in an instant that photograph changed my life", says Narendra who earlier that very day had decided to give up his career as a photojournalist! At present he works as a photojournalist for Kantipur Publications and has his works featured in some of the popular magazines of the valley.
A graduate in Arts from Tribhuvan University, he also holds a diploma in Photography from Crystal Professional Photography Institute and has completed a correspondence course in photography with the renowned German Internal Institute of Journalism. In his eight years as a photojournalist, he has been associated with big names like the European Press Photo Agency (EPA) and the Agence France Pressure (AFP). “I have been very lucky with work and am extremely grateful to Bikas Raunier, whose camera I used for almost two years and from whom I learned a lot about the art of photography,” says Narendra.
He does not believe in following the conventional rules and formulas of photography. “There are a lot of technical details you have to pay attention to but ultimately you have to have an eye for perfection and the ability to capture that very moment", says Narendra. With those abilities, his work shows some of the subtlest expressions of emotion and intricate and fascinating details of life.
Veteran photographer Mani Lama commented, “Whenever I see a photo in a magazine or newspaper that really stands out, is really well done, I notice that its one of Narendra’s.” When asked how he rates himself as a photographer, Narendra has a similarly high opinion. He conjectures, “If you ask a roomful of professional photographers to take a picture of a beautiful lady, I would bring out the beauty in her the best.” Young, confident and focused, Narendra is one photographer Nepal should look out for.