Life in a Lens

Features Issue 168 Nov, 2015

Triggering memories, evoking sentiments: intrepid photographers and their inspiring photographic journeys.

100 Ways to Tell a Story

Contemporarily, a rediscovery of new forms of communicating and storytelling abound, because there is a new literacy in town: visual literacy.

There was an intent to each style used in each photo. 

Photographer Kishor Sharma illuminates the last 140 Nepali hunter-gatherers Rautes in the western mid-hills by using the power of black and white in his exhibition, Living in the Mist – the Last Nomads of Nepal, to emphasize the boldness of a tribe fighting modernity. Another exhibitor, Prasiit Sthapit, uses overexposure and lack of horizon to create a sense of isolation and helplessness amongst the populace of Susta, situated on the west bank of the Narayani River, which expands every monsoon, encroaching Nepali land, in his exhibition, Change of Course. Their techniques can be considered incorrect, and seemingly, contain “wrong” aesthetics, for traditionalists, as it goes against the conventional perception of how a photo should be clicked. But, in the end, the result does elicit a response. Both photographers’ series of images contain a complex narrative imbued with simple emotions at their core. 

There was an intent to each positioning of each exhibition. 

Because Sthapit’s photo story revolved around water and border lines, and because the entire set should be considered as one, rather than emphasizing an individual picture, his photographs were located near the water taps of Chyasal that was once considered the entrance point of Patan, and in such ways, public space fuses with the narration of the imageries to create stronger impact. Likewise,  it’s no coincidence where each of the exhibitions were chosen by curators Sujan Chitrakar and Indira Chowdhury. But, most importantly, the entire festival was held in public spaces, which was an important decision made at the inception of the festival. There was an intervention of unnatural elements (framed photographs) against the natural (courtyards, alleys, walls, patis). This is also where public art curation comes to the limelight, and in need. The exhibition had leaped outside the walls of galleries. It was now more than just about selecting and hanging artworks, it demanded audience engagement and collaboration from what was once empty spaces.

Now, these empty spaces were telling stories. “The entire exhibition by national and international photographers tells the story of the resilience, strength, and rich history of Nepal,” states Bhushan Shilpakar, one of the directors of the festival, while fellow director Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati, adds, “Different sets of narratives will now enter global consciousness and expose talented artists.”

This strong expression through the visual arts is prominent throughout Nepali history, but is now afoot in pop culture through immediate and convenient accessibility among the masses. These photographers have seized the power of the camera to document stories with their inspiring photographic journeys, and still continue to challenge conformity and welcome change. For instance, at the east wall of Dhaugal, a man, and a boy, not older than 10, are seen walking in front of Bikas Rauniar’s exhibition, The 90s: A Democratic Awakening. They are holding hands. The boy asks, “Daddy, why are there pictures on the wall?” and his father replies, “Son, this is a photo exhibition.” People from all walks of life can finally appreciate it, because it is right outside their homes, and taps into the art world which is considered ‘niche’. And, a story only has its impact if it reaches someone. 

The invigorating of the alleys and the squares and the gallis and the patis also proclaims a statement on the beauty of the urban landscape and its preservation. But, there is always a fear of vandalism when organizing anything in public. Surprisingly, Photo Kathmandu has seen less of this than expected, and only a few frames were stolen, including Sharma’s. He informs that two of his photographs were stolen, but he smiles his wide smile. He seems proud. 

Interests have been piqued, and invites an infusion of new creative blood, but Sharma warns that “photographers need to have strong professionalism”, and it is true, a single one can give a bad reputation to the rest. Sthapit continues “Many think that photography is easy, and everyone wants the most likes on Facebook with postcard-pretty pictures,” but he urges them to push the envelope, and break inhibitions and comfort zones, because the rewards are worth it. 

“Through photography, I have been given the chance to talk to people from all walks of life from all over the world, visit areas I would’ve never visited otherwise, and bump into more intriguing stories on the way,” states Sthapit, while Sharma adds, “But, like any other work, you need to research well, invest yourself in your art, and face obstacles on the go. Most importantly, you need to have a voice.” Philippe Van Cauteren, renowned Belgian curator, and one of the speakers at the festival, agrees, stating, “There is nothing sadder than an artist who has nothing to say,” but he hopes that people will get inspired and learn how to tell their story through the festival. 

These newfound discoveries seem to be the profound impact of the festival, but according to all at the premises of Photo Kathmandu: “This was also an excuse to build connections. There is a momentum now. People need to grab it.”  With the festival’s vigorous exposure, multitudes of exhibitions, slide shows, artist talks, workshops, and direct access to editors, curators, mentors, art directors, and other professionals, who can critique and publicize a photographer’s work, visual art can now proceed much further, and national photographers can click hundreds of pictures and curate them in a hundred different ways to share hundreds of stories!

Simply put, anyone can be a storyteller. 

Behind the Photographs

She’s in her fifties today, but still going strong, challenging conformity and welcoming change. And, she still prefers jeans, just as she did as an intrepid photographer in more youthful days

“Kanchha Baa had this camera that I was really fascinated with, he used to take photographs for Amritananda Bhante. And then, he would stay up all night to wash the photographs. We used to have a dark-room in our house in Kamalakshi, Ason. I remember waking up early and looking at them. I believe my interest in photography started brewing around that time.”

Up in her terrace in Kamalakshi, Sumitra Manandhar Gurung once smiled to her Kanchha Baa’s camera during her Bahra Tayegu ceremony. Her stance in that particular photograph is confident, and seems to declare: ‘Here I am’. Perhaps because it captured the essence of her ‘I have a lot to do’ resolve. However, not many realized then that Sumitra Manandhar was different than most women, she wouldn’t easily give in to conformity, and was bent on trying out the novel. She was a traveler, a photographer, and a documenter at heart.

Growing up, she chose to be a geographer, an explorer, and a naturalist who would help people understand the land they lived in. Sumitra Manandhar Gurung, the woman in jeans, was outspoken and didn’t fear anybody. She went around with her camera, observing and capturing things that amused her, things she felt she had to document. A picture in her collection shows students giving their exam in the field. The photograph overwhelms us with the reality we live in today, and tells us much about the changes we have lived through. 

“I first began taking photographs when I started to travel as a geographer to scale maps and distances. I felt like I had to document places and stories, so as to come back to it again later. I didn’t know why it was important at the time, but I was sure that these photographs, in time, would be meaningful. Travelers from foreign countries used to come to Nepal and write papers on their journeys. And, I being in Nepal had done nothing when I had so much to do. I had realized then that the camera I owned was powerful, and I had to contribute to enhancing its significance.” 

Manandhar worked with Jack Ives, an adjunct research professor on a ‘Mountain Hazard’ mapping project. This was a time when she realized what documenting meant, and how important it was. Jack Ives used to tell her how he wrote papers on his journeys, and how he deeply researched on people’s lifestyles and their effect on day-to-day life. Eventually, like him, Manandhar started documenting what she saw for herself in people’s ways of lives with much diligence and patience. Often, after getting the negatives, she would sit down to write the name of the place and the event, along with the date it was taken. Below the info, she would sign her name.

“Photographs do trigger memories, but sometimes, you need captions to remember what went down exactly. Memories are faulted you know, and therefore, I realized that I had to caption my photographs. Of course, they could mean something different to someone else, but some stories are for the photograph itself, you need the captions.”

There were instances in Manandhar’s life that made her realize that her narrative was not always the way how the real story that she was documenting would unravel. One such time was when she was hazard mapping. Her job required her to identify landowners who could be interviewed about lands on the verge of collapsing, and how this had made their lives difficult. This was near Balaju in Kathmandu. 

“While I would try to question them about how the landslide might have deeply affected their lives, they would make my task more confusing by saying, “We are happy that it happened.” I was astounded at first, the story was not making sense with what I had in mind. But, later, I  realized that the landslide had made their lives easier, because the collapsing of the land had turned over more fertile land, which would have taken years if they had to do it themselves by just using human energy.”

Manandhar also witnessed amusing cultures as she went around the country. She has traveled to 68 out of the country’s 75 districts. She had traveled to Karta Jigaon in 1985 for her PhD dissertation. There, for the first time, she came across the Balami community that practiced child marriage. Teenage girls and boys married each other in batches. For the community, it was a practical thing to do, especially when the girl and the boy were coming of age. 

“Of course, the idea was absurd, children who didn’t even understand what life was about were getting married and attending to responsibilities that came after. But, at the time, I didn’t know what to do. So, I just documented them in my photos. I lived in the village for about three to four months.”

Manandhar, today, is Chief Executive Officer of Mahila Sahayata Microfinance Bittiya Sansthan in Chitlang, Makwanpur, and is also a mother who still travels in her fifties. She still challenges the conformities of society. She has over 900 collections of her journeys in Nepal that are valuable not just in terms of the memories she made, but in terms of the wide documentation she indulged her life in. 

“My daughter says that I am hyper, and that now I should take rest and enjoy my life. But I love what I do, and I believe we all have a part to play in the lives we live. I had a wonderful photographic journey. I think a camera is like a mirror, but the images it captures are the storytelling of the photographer. However, these stories are open to any interpretation. My journey with my cameras has taught me a lot, and like I said, in time these photographs have all found meaning.”

Sumitra Manandhar Gurung’s collections were exhibited in ZYU, Swotha, during the Photo Kathmandu Festival in Patan.) 

During the first week of November in 2015, hundreds of stories were being told all over Patan. Excitement coursed through the city’s veins, and it had nothing to do with the imminent arrival of Tihar, or the impending coming of Benedict Cumberbatch to shoot a Hollywood movie.

Storytelling had found a new home at Photo Kathmandu (November3-9), Nepal’s first international photo festival, and each picture exposed a new story. Bygone black and white framed pictures from the personal photo collection of Juju Bhai Dhakhwa were on display in the cozy, intimate, and homely curated space of Dhakhwa House. There was a reunion at Nagbahal. where neighbors shared their community photos, showcased them throughout their spacious tole, and strengthened forgotten bonds. Kevin Bubruski’s hauntingly beautiful photographs of Nepal traveling across the world finally found their way home at Managalbazar, and portraits of the Swotha community and others connected to the areas were displayed on the walls of a house in front of the Radha-Krishna Mandir—one of the structures destroyed in the earthquake—aptly illustrating the stories of diversity, resilience, and optimism of the Nepali people. Each photo was a time machine, where stories across time transported viewers away from the present, and where present and past stories were juxtaposed and reflected.

All thanks to the love for the camera, an inanimate object that manipulates light to portray a vision to a larger audience. It surrounded and captivated everyone without let-up. Every photo drew a response: a smile, a frown, a question, or wonder, but rarely a blank. With strong captions to each photo, connections were immediately built, and information was communicated in the shortest span of time, but quintessentially, boundaries of expression were pushed not only through composition, design, and exposure, but also through art curation.