I first met Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati when I was exploring participatory photography in Nepal in 2009. Since then we have worked together on the issue of human rights abuses committed during the conflict in Nepal (1996-2006) on a number of occasions. I chose to work with Nayantara because she is a good photographer, plain and simple. I saw some photos she had taken of vulnerable women in the entertainment industry in Nepal. It was evident from these images, as well as her manner, that she was able to gain people’s trust. And in doing so could bring intimate stories to her audience. I also came to experience her deep understanding of her country and her ability to notice cultural nuances that were lost on me despite living in Nepal for a couple of years. I doubt most foreign photographers would have brought that depth.
When I made a trip to Nepal last December Nayantara gave me a copy of ‘The Constant Change‘ – photo.circle‘s latest book. It contained the type of images of Nepal that I had been searching for – no sadhus, no temples, no Himalayas. Just real people, real lives, taken by young local photographers. Oh, and its great! It was then that I wondered why I had never interviewed Nayantara for the Rights Exposure Project? A bit of an oversight on my part, so eventually I got round to mailing her some questions. She kindly sent me back the responses below.
REP: “Documentary photography is an emerging field in Nepal. The profession is very male dominated, so how did you get into it?”
NGK: “I actually got into it while I was in college in the US – it was an all women’s college. I was just interested in telling stories. In Nepal, I can count the number of working female photographers on my right hand – there are less than 5 of us here.”
NGK: “We started photo.circle because we felt Nepali photographers needed to be stronger as a community in order to become better photographers. Although not a photographer himself, Bhushan had worked as a designer and web master for a leading Nepali media house for many years. He had worked with a lot of Nepali photographers and realized their limitations and needs. I was just starting out with photography. Since 2007, we have definitely seen many developments – we are seeing the emergence of more engaged photography and photographers. But there is still a lot to do. Once interesting work is produced, we need strong channels of distribution, we need to develop and access markets to keep photography going as a profession. These are things we are trying to figure out now.”
REP: “Photo.circle has promoted and supported local photographers. Where do you personally stand on the debate of local vs. foreign photographers covering issues in the developing world? With such a huge UN and INGO presence in Nepal many European photographers come there looking for work. How does that impact on domestic photographers?”
NGK: “I have nothing against people working trans-nationally. This is now the way of the world. But it is a lot more difficult for a photographer from Nepal to go work in the West, than for a photographer from the West to come work in Nepal. As any other profession, photography needs a market to survive and I feel only a local market can sustain careers in the long run. UN agencies and INGOs still choose to fly in photographers for short-term assignments. Why do this when there are now Nepali photographers who can deliver comparable services? In the past, the reasoning was that local photographers did not have the skills and that they were not ‘professional’ enough – but now that is changing. And local photographers offer the added advantage of knowing the local language/s, culture and socio-political context. But local photographers also have to become more professional, stop undercutting each other about rates for example – they have to gear up or be ready to get left behind.“
REP: “Nepal has been photographed a great deal, but the focus has either been on sadhus, temples, mountains, or more recently the armed conflict. Was the ‘Constant Change’ photo project an attempt to get away from that?”
NGK: “Yes, ‘The Constant Change’ was a project involving 12 young Nepali photographers who were looking to intimately document stories of change that surrounded their everyday lives. These were photographers not concerned about selling Nepal to travel agencies or travel magazines. They were not trying to feed into International news media either. ‘The Constant Change’ was made primarily for a Nepali audience who could connect to the stories of change in a personal way.”
REP: “Your photographic contribution to the project is very different to the photography you usually see in Nepal. How was it received?”
NGK: “Last year I submitted a story to a national photo contest and it won first place in the ‘Story’ category. It was shot in the traditional reportage style. This year, I submitted ‘Being Nepali’ to the same contest and did not win anything. So sure, people are perhaps not sure where to place this conceptual and visual approach. But I’m pretty confident that the work has been received well by ordinary people. The issues – of the Nepali identity and ethnic federalism – are really prevalent ones for every Nepali today. Literally, as I write this today, Nepal is completely shut down outside – the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities are demanding that federal state territories be names and mapped according to ethnicity. Through ‘Being Nepali’, my intention is to ask the ordinary Nepali person how different we are, how alike, and how much it really matters? Yes, discrimination as we have seen in the past must come to an end, but the Nepali people cannot afford to fall prey to power-hungry, populist, identity politics. I have been wanting to start a poster campaign using the portraits as a call for social harmony – but to be honest I have been feeling really powerless and depressed about this whole thing. The politicians are busy bartering, lobbying, negotiating and people have been left to fight each other on the streets. I have never been a defeatist but this week I really don’t know if these pictures would make a difference. I guess I have to try to get it out there and find out.”
REP: “Photo.circle run regular workshops, including with the likes of Philip Blenkinsop. How do you see the future of documentary photography developing in Nepal? Is it possible to make a living?”
NGK: “Yes, we have been very lucky to have some great photographers – the likes of Philip Blenkinsop, Munem Wasif, Mads Nissen- come and teach workshops for us. But I’m afraid it will never be easy to make a living as a documentary photographer. Here or anywhere in the world. The local editorial market is really small and Nepali photographers don’t have the network/s to plug into the regional and international editorial market, yet. Same goes for grants. I think for now, the solution will be to try and harness the local and regional I/NGO market, sell stock, sell prints, develop other skills like video, multimedia, write, consult, do workshops, design websites – do whatever it takes to keep you going, and keep the personal projects going on the side.”
NGK: “Shahidul has been an amazing friend and mentor to photo.circle and to us personally. He is a true visionary – and is extraordinarily generous with his time, guidance and contacts. Photo.circle has had really productive collaborations with the PATHSHALA South Asian Media Academy and DRIK in Bangladesh. We have learnt a lot about photography, about how to run an organization to develop the medium, and about what kind of photographers we want to be. It is really great to have such inspiring expertise so close to home – and not have to always look to Europe or the US for expertise and inspiration.”
REP: “What are you working on now”
NGK: “Personally, I would really like to continue with ‘Being Nepali’ – my country is so diverse (and I mean this the truest, non-cliched way) – there are many people/places I would like to cover still. And I would like to get the poster campaign going for next week. I am sure there are people out there who don’t want to cut Nepali into little pieces and fight over them or with each other – it will be good to see the solidarity and wash some of this hopelessness away. We are also of course working to make photo.circle a more engaging and accessible platform for Nepali photographers. As an organization we are trying to figure out how to be more efficient and cost effective. There are several workshops in the pipe-line, and we are planning an exhibition showcasing the work of this 86-year-old Nepali photographer who’s work (12,000 images) we have just finished digitizing. Despite the dirty politics, it is an exciting time to live and work in Nepal, especially for someone who wants to tell stories.”