Photographic exhibitions of conflict, human rights abuses or poverty can be compelling and powerful tools to educate us on issues we know little about in places we may never set foot. All too often the awareness and empathy these exhibitions produce is left to dissipate, with no outlet or next step for the audience to take. In my opinion, advocacy campaigns need to channel this energy to be effective. However, when the images are closer to home and connect with our own lives then the outlet for action becomes how we live our own lives and the future choices we make. This is the case with the ‘People War’ exhibition that documents the so-called ‘Peoples War’ in Nepal between 1996-2006. Originated and produced by Kunda Dixit, Editor of the Nepali Times, the collection of 179 photographs focuses on the impact of the conflict on individuals rather than documenting the wars progression and battles. With the death toll reaching nearly 15,000, mainly civilians caught between the warring sides, it highlights the individual grief and loss, as well as the triumph of a people longing for peace.
Originating from a photo feature in the Nepali Times, the exhibition is a selection from 3,000 photographs submitted by journalists and photographers, both professional and amateur. The final edit, made by a panel consisting of Kunda, Shahidul Alam (Director of Drik photo agency) and Shyam Tekwani (war photographer), represents the work of 80 photographers. The exhibition toured Nepal, pulling in over 350,000 people from all sectors of society, before being developed into both high quality hardback and paperback picture books. The success of the exhibition is unprecedented in Nepal, attracting more visitors than ever before, and evoked an emotional outpouring against such violence engulfing the country again – recorded in nearly 40 visitor books.
Progressing from the success of the exhibition and book, Kunda Dixit and nepa-laya, publishers of the book, have produced the film ‘Yuddha Chitra – Frames of War’. Now touring Nepal the film focuses on the victims of the conflict in the same way the photo project did.
Entry to the film is free and the hope is that it will expand the reach of the project to a wider audience with the aim of promoting peace and non-violence.
In early March I talked to Kunda about the photo exhibition and his work as director of Panos South Asia (1997-2000).
Rob – ‘You returned to Nepal in 1996 after serving as Asia-Pacific Director of the Inter Press Service (1990-1996) to establish Panos South Asia. In your years working at Panos what in your opinion were the key developments in the use of photography as a tool to raise awareness on social issues?’
Kunda – ‘Panos South Asia worked on raising awareness in the media (not necessarily the general public) about issues like trans-boundary water, TB, HIV/AIDS, etc. We involved photojournalists in the field trips and workshops, and used their work in the books and briefing documents we prepared. We also did a workshop and a simulated newsroom on newspaper and magazine design and the use of photographs and info-graphics.’
Rob – ‘Panos gives training to the media – how does it approach topics such as representation – addressing clichéd or stereo-typical images with photo-journalists?’
Kunda – ‘In thematic areas like HIV/AIDS and public health it was especially important to sensitize journalists about stigmatisation, ostracization and sensationalizing victimhood — especially if pictures were taken.’
Rob – ‘The photo book you produced, ‘People War’, brings together a great variety of images from the conflict in Nepal and was accompanied by a photo exhibition tour of Nepal visited by 350,000 people. Where did the idea for the book come from?’
Kunda – ‘The book idea came from a pictorial retrospective of the war that we did at The Nepali Times timed for the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the conflict in February 2006. The publishers, nepa-laya, then approached me with the idea of expanding that work into a picture book. The idea was to use the impact of photography to show the public what the war had done to society—especially through violence against non-combatants.’
Rob – ‘The public’s response to the book and exhibition was beyond expectations. How does this response relate to your original objectives for the project and in what way have you been able to measure its impact?’
Kunda – ‘We just wanted to have a pictorial archive of the war in a book format. The overwhelming response from the public and the desire for peace took on its own momentum and turned the project into a peace movement, without us realizing it. Some visitors for whom the conflict had been distant were shocked when they saw the photos. Their response was, ‘Did this really happen in my country?’ For others who had borne the brunt of the violence it was all too real and was a very emotional experience.’
Rob – ‘Do you have any future plans to continue this project?’
Kunda – ‘Nepalaya is bringing out two sequels this year: one is a collection of testimonies from people who visited the exhibition and the other is a follow-up of about 50 people in the original book. We have tracked them down, interviewed them and found out what they’ve been up to and how they are coping. Kesang Tseten and Prem BK have collaborated with nepa-laya to make a brilliant documentary on the exhibition tour called ‘Frames of War’.’
To buy a copy of the book ‘People War’ follow this link http://www.rajeshkc.com/a-people-war.php