Over a fifteen year period I photographed the residents of a small village in a remote agricultural district in eastern Nepal. The district is far from the popular trekking and mountaineering routes, and the local economy consists primarily of subsistence farming. The opportunity to take on this project came to me as a result of my involvement with a small Canadian volunteer organization 1 that helps to fund and manage a series of development programs in the district. I visited the region with a small group of volunteers from Canada every year or so throughout the nineties and early two thousands. I am still involved, on an almost daily basis – primarily on an administrative level.
Getting to this region in Nepal takes some effort. A brief domestic flight, a six-hour drive, and then an eight-hour walk through the steep Himalayan foothills is required. It’s exhausting and overwhelming, and as close to time travel as I’m ever likely to experience, since in many ways it is like walking two hundred years into the past. I take a knapsack that contains a Wisner 4×5 camera and a vintage twin lens Rolleiflex.
Despite the punishing physicality of it, I’ve been fortunate to have this opportunity. Working with the organization gave me an intimate access to this part of the world and to these people, the nature of which would not be available to me as a tourist. I was welcomed into the community and, in many cases, into the home environments. In my interactions with the people over time, I began to notice – whenever I took formal portraits – that those I photographed seemed to have a familiarity and comfort level with having their portraits taken, which seems to be an inheritance from colonial India during the Victorian era, since the British military often photographed what they perceived as ‘the exotic’ throughout the latter part of the 19th century, ‘the natives’ notwithstanding. In any case, the familiarity with photography in this region has made my own project much easier, and it’s evolved naturally and steadily after I was asked to photograph a wedding on my first trip in 1995. I follow my subjects’ lead and work with the rituals and sensibilities that they associate with photography; logically arranged and formally posed portraits and family groupings.
My photographic work is primarily historical and anthropological in nature, in that I wanted to record, at this point in time, the everyday lives of people who live their lives in a particular place. It is not about poverty, or community development, or even the celebrated friendliness and hardiness of the people. It is, if I’m successful, an admittedly subjective record of a way of life that I am observing as an outsider to the culture. As land based, traditional cultures throughout the world are ever more rapidly being drawn into modernity and the trappings of Western consumer-based economies, my hope is that this project will serve as a historical portrait that will be valuable in the future when the uniqueness of their traditions and way of life have vanished inexorably into the past.
An aspect of this needs to be discussed. Over the years I’ve become concerned about the moral and social dimensions of not only my own modest project, but of photography in general, especially where it concerns photographing people in developing countries. As the digital era makes photography relatively easy, ubiquitous and inexpensive for all, and as international travel is quick and affordable for many westerners I think it’s time to reflect upon our role as outsiders when photographing indigenous peoples in their cultural context.
The differences in empowerment between my subjects and myself are clearly vast, starting with my being able to travel internationally, whereas most of my subjects do not, due to financial and political restrictions. I always travel with an array of expensive equipment, photographic and otherwise, the value of which easily exceeds a decade’s worth of their earnings. I have access to good food, modern medicine, and a functional civil society, all of which would be part of the innumerable benefits of residing in a first world country. My subjects do not have these benefits. I never forget this imbalance.
Despite this, I am drawn to photograph these gentle people who have put their trust in my efforts again and again, which has prompted my rethinking what my role and responsibilities should be not only as a photographer, also as an outsider to their community.
‘Taking’ a picture suggests the ‘removal’ of something that risks exploitation, as if the photographer was a hunter, ready to shoot his or her prey. As Ansel Adams pointed out,
Sympathetic interpretation seldom evolves from a predatory attitude; the common term “taking a picture” is more than just an idiom; it is a symbol of exploitation. “Making a picture” implies a creative resonance, which is essential to profound expression. (2)
What Adams was proposing was that we stop and think about our intentions as photographers in faraway places. For instance, as I would be indignant if a tourist bus was to stop in front of my home and start taking pictures of my family as we work in the garden on a Sunday afternoon, would I be ‘entitled’ to photograph those I meet as a tourist during my travels in faraway places, in search of the exotic to show my friends back home as a kind of visual trophy? Yet I wonder if all-too-often we unwittingly take on this position in awe of those who are ‘different’ from us, a trend that began in the late 19th century as Kodak made the camera accessible to the amateur market, so that consumers could begin to photograph whatever they liked, as a way to preserve memory. With modern life affording those in technologically advanced nations to visit the colonies as a leisurely event, taking photographs allowed one to create, as it were, one’s personal museum of visual artifacts, the exotic, the ‘simple’ lives of ‘natives’ in their ‘traditional’ garb.
In the final analysis, photography does not have to be exploitative and invasive, it can and should be beautiful and illuminating. Much is said about portraiture capturing the ‘spirit’ or ‘essence’ of a person. I have never really understood this platitude. I find instead that a good portrait resonates the sincerity of the moment. And these moments will come to us more often if we are aware, considerate, and sincere in ourselves.
The proceeding text is adapted from an article I wrote about this project for PhotoEd magazine.
1. Nepal Community Development Foundation (NCDF) : nepalfriends.org
2. Ansel Adams, 1944 ‘American Annual of Photography’, Vol. 58, pp. 7-16
I’ve produced a book of this project which is available in PDF or print format on the Blurb platform. A preview can be seen here