There may not be any great photography galleries in Kathmandu, or Nepal for that matter, but every so often a set of images surfaces that take you by surprise. ‘Bahini: Life of my sisters’ is one such project. ‘Bahini’ – which means ‘little sister’ in Nepali, is a project shot by two Singaporean photographers, Edwin Koo and Debby Ng, for the Little Sisters Fund (LSF).
The fund places girls from disadvantaged backgrounds into private schools where they can get a good education. The photo project included an exhibition (in both Singapore and Kathmandu) as well as a book.
I caught up with Edwin and Debby at the opening ceremony of the exhibition to learn more about the project.
REP: Where did the idea of documenting the work of the Little Sister Fund come from? What is your ideal outcome from the project?
Debby: It wasn’t really planned, it evolved. I came to Nepal in 2008 and heard about the Little Sisters Fund (LSF) and how they have provide about 900 scholarships to girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. I met Usha Acharya, the co-founder of LSF, and we talked about taking some photos. To start with we were thinking of portraits. I knew I needed help, so got Edwin on board. We took about a month and a half to shoot the project.
Edwin: We ended up shooting a ‘day in the life’ of six of the girls, both at home and school. The first exhibition was in Singapore, then came the book, and now the exhibition here in Kathmandu. It was Usha who pushed us to do more with the photos.
REP: What has the working relationship been like between the photographers and the fund? Did you get free reign as photographers or did Usha come with a fixed idea of what she wanted?
Edwin: Usha was absolutely respectful of our roles as documentarians, although Trevor (the other co-founder) had initial reservations, and rightly so, since ‘exploitation’ and ‘media’ have been close cousins in many instances. But they never dictated what we needed to produce. We agreed on a non-intrusive and natural approach to documenting, making sure the girls knew their rights to a dignified story-making process.
REP: How did you address issues of representation? How have the girls pictured been involved?
Edwin: I think we did what we could in a limited time frame, without intruding too much into their lives. We tried to represent an ‘average day’ in their lives of these girls, although having a photographer in their homes was already, in itself, a ‘special occasion’, not an average day. We can’t claim to be objective – journalism never was. We tried our best to explain to them, the process of the documentary, and most of the girls cooperated very well with us in the story-making process, being as natural as they could.
Debby: We only had a short time to shoot, on average one day per child.
REP: What is the plan to ensure the images get to be seen by a wider audience?
Edwin: More exhibitions, more book sales, and perhaps, another documentary process in the near future. I hope this develops as a long term process. The business of story-telling needs to evolve beyond the one-story-in-the-newspaper model.
Debby: The project has been an evolution, at each step it has been hard to know where it will go next.
For photos from the project check out Debby’s website.