Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati – “I was just interested in telling stories.”

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.

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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.”REP: “You and your partner started photo.circle in 2007, what’s it all about?”

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.”

 

REP: “You guys are pretty friendly with Shahidul Alam from Drik. How have they supported the work of photo.circle?”

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.”

Fotosynthesis – participatory photography in South London

Always nice to come across a worthwhile participatory photography initiative, even nicer to find one set up in my old manor. Fotosynthesis was established in 2010 by a group of professional photographers, and is now based out of the Lilian Baylis Old School in Kennington, South London.

They run a darkroom and studio space where they provide training in traditional b&w as well as digital photography. Private classes are available for community projects, and seminars are hosted for emerging artists to promote their work.

The photo triptych above was exhibited at the British Film Institute for Refuge In Films 2012 in partnership with RefugeeYouth. Refuge In Films is a film festival curated by young refugees, who produced their own films and organise the event. It aims to raise awareness about the representation of refugees and migrants’ issues. Fotosynthesis exhibited a series of photographs at the festival that showed the life of three family members who migrated from Colombia (grandmother, mother and son).

Ingrid Guyon, one of the Dirctors of Fotosynthesis says,

We aim at giving a voice to marginalised people, provide educational activities and encourage community cohesion using photography. We use participatory methods to provide a supportive and inclusive environment where people can develop their critical thinking and engage with each other in a stimulating way.”

‘Forty Two’ – Lee Karan Stow & the Women of Sierra Leone

I picked up this interesting initiative from a tweet by duckrabbit this morning. The BBC story is rather inspiring and worth a read. I won’t regurgitate it here. However, in summary – the photographer, Lee Karen Stow, was born in Hull, which happens to be twinned with Freetown in Sierra Leone. She went to the country to deliver greetings cards produced by women in Hull and organized a workshop. Fifty women turned up wanting to learn photography. It was the women’s enthusiasm that sparked off ’42′ (named after the life expectancy of a woman in Sierra Leone). The rest is history. Check out the article for more details.

The project is an example of the role participatory photography can play in engaging communities and, in some circumstances, generating income (see my article ‘Participatory Photography – Jack of all trades, master of none?‘ for more on this). As in many cases, what starts as a small scale initiative develops a life of its own. In reading about ’42′ I was reminded of Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh’s work  in Lebanon.

My favorite quote from the BBC article on Stow is this;

“Credit and publicity for the photographer doesn’t put food on the table. It is very disappointing; the whole idea for the project is to train indigenous photographers because I believe we do get a more balanced view of the world that way. Gone are the days of the wealthy Westerner taking pictures of poor people in Africa.”

If only that were true. And yes, the debate over the advantages of local over foreign photographers will no doubt run and run. However, for me the benefits of hiring locally outweigh jetting someone in. Local knowledge, language, cultural reading, not standing out, access, ability to spend lengths of time with subjects, developing local talent…not to mention less carbon footprint. There will be many variables and considerations – not least other aspects of identity such as class, ethnicity, gender and religion within countries that will also have an influence. I am open to the advantages an outsider can bring which could be described as being able to ‘see the woods for the trees’ due to the newness / uniqueness of seeing for the first time. But what ever side you come down on Stow is right for another crucial reason – the reality is that there are an increasing amount of competent and talented local photographers quite capable of delivering the goods (not to mention an avalanche of digital images from everyone else). The economic realities of that will win the day.

For more on photographing Sierra Leone see my interview ‘Sophia Spring on Sweet Salone‘.

Caravan – Amnesty Nepal campaign for Safe Migration

Each year hundreds of thousands of Nepalis go abroad for work. The money they send home makes up over 20% of the country’s GDP. Each individual has a dream of what their journey will be like. Yet many of those dreams turn into nightmares, with problems starting even before they have left their home village. Amnesty International Nepal believes that if there was political consensus across parties in the country on five safe migration policies labour and human rights would be better protected. Amnesty’s ‘migrant worker’ caravan is touring the country to mobilize support on this important issue. They are lobbying parliamentarians and collecting signatures in towns along the way. You can also contribute by signing the petition online at http://www.amnestynepal.org/appeal-for-action/

Do Duckrabbit’s ads for Oxfam match their rhetoric?

If you have followed Duckrabbit over the last couple of years you will no doubt know they produce an excellent blog and exceptional multi-media work. However, their recent work for MSF and Oxfam sits some what uncomfortably with the position they often seem to support. Advocates for the voice of those in the developing world to be at the forefront of audio-visual communications, these voices are conspicuously absent from their most recent work. In both the pieces for MSF and Oxfam we predominantly hear from white Westerners who can be described to differing degrees as outsiders. All others are passive receivers of their largesse. We hear very little from those actually from the countries where these problems exist, let alone those who suffer. The claim that the work Duckrabbit did for Oxfam is unique because it is unscripted seems to ignore whose voice is included and whose is absent.

Now, to be fair, both sets of ads are aimed at raising funds in the UK. They are aimed at a UK audience with a specific objective in mind – that they motivate people to give money. The question is – does this mean the voices of the rights holders should be absent? Or more to the point – in order to better understand the problems and balance the relationships between the developed and developing world should we not have voices from both sides represented? I feel uneasy writing this as I admire the folks at Duckrabbit and consider them a progressive force in this field. But feel the need to ask these questions given the work they have produced recently. I welcome their response and hope it contributes to the healthy debate they themselves have fostered so well through their blog.

UPDATE: You can read an initial response from Peter at Duckrabbit here.

Imagination fatigue?

Save the Children released research this week that claims ‘aid works’. This appears to be more than an exercise in accountability or impact assessment. This looks like the defense of aid in the face of a recession, negative press and a changing world. Part of the response from Save the Children is the video above. It is a film of two halves. Firstly, it gives us old school skeletal infant shots (and even chimes in with images from the Ethiopian famine of the 1980′s and a shot of the crowd at LiveAid from 1985, in case we’ve forgotten how we gave money in the past). Image after image of mainly poor children from the African continent. In the second half we get a up to date animation about how many lives UK aid could save in the next four years. The narrator tips his hat to economic investment and industry as drives to reduce poverty, but throughout we are given a rather retro vision of both Africa and development. We never see a bustling city. Modernity (except medical appliances and transportation bringing aid) is conspicuously absent. We don’t hear how several countries in Africa and Asia now have healthy economic growth rates and growing middle classes. Nor do we hear anything about what people in developing countries are doing themselves to reduce poverty. Not that Save the Children should be painting an overly rosy picture. Why would they if they feel under attack. But I can’t help feel that the video represents a broader failure of imagination in how we represent humanitarian assistance. The narrow picture presented tries to address what is perceived as ‘compassion fatigue’ (or at least the threat of a reduction in donations – whether that is due to a reduction in compassion or a growing conviction that aid is generally wasted is debatable). Halfway through we get a good dose of shock therapy, that all this good work could be undone ‘in the blink of an eye’. But the world has changed and I suspect few are now won over by such melodrama.

Send Socks

Nice little film by Marc Silver for Amnesty International on migration from Mexico to the USA. Its all about the socks. OK, its about other things too. But the socks are important.

The Guardian ‘Readers’ voices development photo challenge.’

The Guardian newspaper (UK) continues its Flickr photo projects in 2012 with this interesting challenge. Only open to those residing in developing countries, they are asking people to document one theme over the coming year. Whether education, farming, business or politics – they want people to shoot a series of images regularly over the year to tell an in-depth and evolving story.

Details can be found here. You can check out the Guardian Flickr group to see what has already been posted. Questions can be submitted either via Flickr or to [email protected]

Korean version of ‘False Promises’ – exploitation of Nepalese migrant workers

Here is the Korean language version of Amnesty International’s short film ‘False Promises – Exploitation and forced labour of Nepalese migrant workers.’

You can find out more on this issue by reading the report or a summary at the Amnesty International website.

False Promises – forced labour & exploitation of Nepalese migrant workers

This video accompanies new research published by Amnesty International this week on the trafficking of Nepalese migrant worker for labour exploitation. The piece was shot by two Nepalese film makers to a brief myself and the AI researcher developed with them. Dinesh and Ramyata (who previously worked on Julie Bridgham’s ‘Sari Soldiers‘) of Sutra Films did a fantastic job.

The 10 minute film was produced as a visual summary of the report findings, with the voice of returnee migrants a prominent part throughout. This is supported by the inclusion of local experts. It was first screened at a press conference to launch AI’s research findings in Kathmandu on 13 December. The film was distributed to the local and international media. A Korean version has been prepared for screening in Seoul due to the increasing number of Nepalese migrating there. We also hope it will gain viewers in Malaysia and other major destinations for Nepalese migrant workers.