Leafing open Kevin Bubriski’s newly released Nepal 1975-2011, I’d decided to skip the essay and prologue and go straight for the first photograph. Good morning. A winter scene taken early in the day that featured a man carrying his kharpan on the right and a woman drawing water at a tap to the left, the two figures divided by a Peepal tree. I could almost hear the distinct strains of a flute piece that was played on many Nepali television-series when they transitioned to a morning sequence— a fitting way to kick off a book on Nepal.
As the title suggests, Bubriski’s book comprises of shots taken between 1975 and 2011. In that period, we have managed to go through three kings, a royal massacre, two democratic revolutions, many a prime minister and governments, a royal coup and of course, a decade-long civil war—quite a bit for a tiny country like ours to have coped in a span of just four decades. But while there have been plenty of changes on the political and social fronts, there is a lot that has stayed essentially the same. It is the juxtaposition of these aspects of Nepal that Bubriski is interested in illuminating through his book. Do we feel the differences between then and now simply because we know the images we are looking at are from the 70s and 80s? Yes, the cityscape has certainly been drastically altered, fashion trends have evolved and population has expanded. If Bubriski were to take a portrait of an old woman walking down a narrow alley in Maruhiti in black and white today, would it look the same as the one he took many decades ago? Indeed, here is a sense of timelessness that weaves itself through his photographs; once freed from their captions, the images could belong to any era at all, underscoring the idea that some things remain unchanged, for better or for worse.
The book does not just traverse different times, but also a number of places around Nepal; there is the ‘Rasilo Bread’ seller in Indra Chowk, 1978; a woman carrying water by a ‘Diotha ko Than’ (Deuta ko than?) in Jumla Bazar, 1977; Norbu and Tashi spinning wool on their roof in Humla, 1985; and two portraits of Honda Lama, also in Humla, one from 1985 and another more recent one. Those latter portraits are particularly interesting, almost emblematic of Bubriski’s larger mission: The first photo had been taken when the photographer was working on a community drinking water pipeline in Humla, and the second in 2010. Both are mid-shots, with certain visible difference between them, largely to do with technology; while the 1985 photograph is black and white with her carrying her son on her back, the 2010 photograph is a colour print one, showing just her looking directly at the viewer. There are Honda’s ageing features and the knowledge that the little boy must be a young man now. But the look on her face- one that tells a story that unrelenting adversity and struggle is the same. Humla of the past feels like it has been preserved, frozen in time.
The captions that accompany the images tell us about the photographs, but they tell us infinitely more about the photographer. Bubriski clearly is not just a passing tourist with a camera; he wants to learn about the people in his images, and in some cases, he has built relationships with them, followed up on their lives. There is a hauntingly sad caption for a beautiful portrait of Dolma at her front door in Mugu, 1979, for instance, which states that she, her younger sister and grandfather died due to a lack of medical care in 1982. But there are also images like the portrait of a Mangri boy from Mugu, 1985, which offer very little information but are still strikingly melancholic.
Turn to page 184 and you will see a photograph that feels like something straight out of the stories of my father and uncles. Young men carrying a newly bought TV set, Kathmandu, 1987. The people in the photograph are delighted with their purchase, eager to bring the outside world into their homes for the first time. They look like the sort of young men who listened to Duran Duran on bulky cassette players, hitch up their lone pair of jeans to go sit and sip chiya at stalls outside their colleges. These are images I am projecting from stories of my uncle who was once a similar young, middle-class man in the capital in the 80s.
In his introduction to the book, Charles Ramble states that Bubriski’s photographs have transcended “beyond the picturesque alienness”. While that may hold true in most cases, one can’t deny that Bubriski—like many before and after him (this includes Nepali photographers too)-can never fully switch off the ‘colonial gaze’ in some places. Nepal 1975-2011 is certainly weightier than other documentation of an exotic Nepal through the decades, but there are a number of images that feel like they are better suited to an ethnographic catalogue, rather than this otherwise brilliant book. I found Bubriski’s more recent colour photographs far less effective, almost amateurish, when compared to the stellar black and whites from earlier decades. This leads me to question my own gaze on my land and my people. Do I find the old black and white photographs more evocative, compared to the current color photographs because I too have the innate instinct to exotify the past? Has the transition to digital technology truly resulted in Bubriski losing control over his craft?
Undoubtedly however, Nepal 1975 – 2011 is an important book that captures and frames, as Bubriski himself describes, “pieces of a continuum that existed with or without the photographer observing it”, and I am glad he has been around with the presence of mind and masterful craftsmanship to observe and document.
The fact that Bubriski’s documentation of Nepal is so rare and therefore brilliant both excites and saddens me. There is so little we get to see of Nepali masters, despite the fact that there were and are many Nepali photographers who documented Nepal. The 2012 retrospective of Mukunda Bahadur Shrestha by Nepal Picture Library was fair proof of that and I have had the opportunity of viewing works of other masters since. If only these works had been as well collected and archived as Bubriski’s.