1:1 with Kishor Sharma

1. What is your earliest memory of how or what attracted you to photography?


I was born and grew up in a village in Madhesh, the southern lowland of Nepal. Photography was not common during those days where I grew up. I remember occasionally getting photographed during my childhood. My father and maternal uncle used to live in Kathmandu, the capital city. My father used to work while my uncle was studying. They brought a camera home during the Dashain festival and took some photographs of us – that is my first memory. I also remember getting photographed occasionally in the photo studios of Kathmandu while visiting my father.


I moved to Kathmandu in 1995 when I was 12 years old. We used to live in a shared house and one of the tenants used to work in a big hotel. I don’t remember his name, but we used to call him Shangri-la dai as he used to work in the Shangri-la Hotel. He used to bring glossy travel magazines from the hotel. I remember that I enjoyed looking at the colorful photographs of scenery, portraits, and heritage sites published in those magazines. I also remember cutting out some of them and framing them or sticking them on the wall.


2. Can you tell us about your experience of doing a master’s degree in Mass Communication and Journalism and the advanced Visual Storytelling course from the Danish School of Media and Journalism? How have these experiences influenced and informed your practice?


I studied commerce in my early college years. Like many clueless youths of that time, I didn’t have any particular career aspirations and was following whatever my friends were studying and commerce was the choice of many young students. But it didn’t go very well with me. I realized that commerce was not something I intended to pursue further. I somehow completed my bachelor’s degree and started looking for job opportunities. Like hundreds of other youths looking for job opportunities abroad, I also tried my luck but that didn’t work for me either.


In 2005, I saw an advertisement for a short photography course in a daily newspaper. I met photography educator Sarad Rai, who is a popular photography teacher in Nepal, while doing that course. Later, I attended a slightly advanced course with him. These courses helped me understand the basics of the camera. Through him, I came to know about the College of Journalism and Mass Communication (CJMC), as he used to teach there. I joined the college for my masters. Looking back, I realize that this was the first turning point in my photographic career.


I was introduced to visual storytelling while doing my masters. The college, in partnership with Drik Bangladesh, used to host the Fredskorpset (a Norwegian Peace Corp) exchange program. I met Indian photographer Nilayan Dutta through that program. He had come from Kolkata and was teaching in CJMC. He was the first to introduce me to the idea of photo storytelling and documentary photography.


Later in 2008, I went to Kolkata and worked at Drik India through the same exchange program. I also visited the Chobi Mela Festival in 2009 for the first time. All this exposure to a wider range of photography practices was overwhelming for me at that time. It really confused me and, at the same time, increased my hunger to learn more.


In 2013, I was awarded a scholarship to study at the Danish School of Journalism. I had already started working on some photo stories by then. Nevertheless, attending the school changed my perspective on photography and my practice thereafter. The school is practically run by two amazing teachers and photographers – Søren Pagter and Mads Greve. However, many guest teachers visit the college and the classes are run on workshop modules. I met many amazing photographers and practitioners there.


I particularly remember the session with photographer Kent Klich. Attending his class changed my perspective on the medium and helped me understand my practice better. I was going through a phase of a serious creative block at that time. It had already been a couple of years since I had been working on nomads, but I had stopped photographing. I was not seeing a way through. He pushed me to take ownership of the work and pursue it further. Other faculty of the school were also very supportive. Finally, I continued the project after coming back to Nepal.


I really admire Kent as a mentor. He studied psychology and perhaps this is the reason he had a very different approach to mentoring. He would not talk about photography in just a technical sense, but rather would encourage us to explore beyond what is visible in pictures.


3. If you were to design a photo program for young Nepali photographers, what would it look like?


As I mentioned earlier, the Danish School of Journalism used to run classes on the workshop module, which I thoroughly enjoyed and hugely benefited from. Photography is a practice-based medium and one can’t learn it by just taking class lectures. Learning from working professionals allows learning the essentials of the trade. So, I would prefer workshop based mentoring modules.


4. Who or what has inspired you to pursue photography and/or continues to do so?


I fell in love with the medium instantly while doing my first short photography course with photography educator Sarad Rai – I learned the basics of analog photography during that course. But the tricky part was that I didn’t have a camera at that time. The training institute provided some old SLR cameras to practice. There was something magical about looking through the viewfinder of those cameras. Sometime later I bought my first SLR camera, but it was very expensive for me to continue practicing on that.


Digital photography was on the horizon. It was in 2007, I bought my first digital SLR camera. I was studying at CJMC at that time, and I became more focused on my practice after that.


I started to work with photo.circle (PC), a platform for local photographers, after returning from Kolkata. PC used to (and still does) organize photo workshops. I attended several workshops that helped me broaden my understanding of photography. PC has also been doing multiple projects such as Nepal Picture Library (an archiving project), hosting the Photo Kathmandu photo festival, publishing photo books, among others. I worked at PC full time from 2010 to 2013 and later supported several individual projects too. As I was not formally trained as a photographer, these workshops and projects played an important role in the development of my photographic career.


Over the years, I got to learn different aspects of the medium through photographers like Philip Blenkinsop, Frédéric Lecloux, Munem Wasif, Sohrab Hura, Mads Nissen, Antoine d’Agata, Kent Klich, and Anders Petersen, among others. All these photographers have very different styles of working and this helped me to see not only my limitations but also figure out what I was more inclined to.


Over the years, we have been able to build a network of young photographers in Nepal. We look at each other’s works and give feedback. We have also recently started to do a regular reading session after the first stage of the lockdown was announced due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We read some articles and look at some work together and discuss it. We also look at each other’s work and give feedback.


5. Is there a book, exhibition or body of work that has really impressed you and maybe influenced your work / life?


I don’t remember one particular work but, as mentioned earlier, many instances encouraged me to pursue the long form of photography.


6. What draws / drew you to the subject matter you are pursuing in your current work?


Raute is the last group of nomadic people who roam around the western mid-hills of Nepal. Until the recent past, there were 3-4 other nomadic groups in Nepal. The rest have given up on nomadic life due to several challenges and have been assimilated into the farming societies. However, the Rautes are still fighting for their existence. They have their own spoken dialect and unique tradition. There are just about 140 people remaining in the tribe.


I first saw them on the local TV news. They become a media sensation when they visit top political leaders in Kathmandu. They also get special attention due to their unique way of dressing and because they are still leading a primitive lifestyle. I was also not aware of their lifestyle other than this encounter on television. Whenever I saw them on the television screen, I wondered how it would be to travel to where they lived, to journey with them and photograph them. Finally, I decided to pursue this project in 2011 during a photography workshop. Initially, it was out of sheer curiosity and the work slowly evolved along the way.


7. Can you tell us about your experience working at Drik India in Calcutta (2008-2009) and at photo.circle in Kathmandu (2010-2013)?


I worked in Drik India as a Fredskorpset (Norwegian Peace Corp) volunteer. As part of the course, I also got an opportunity to attend a 3-week course at the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok. Later, I was posted in Kolkata, where I stayed for 10 months. This was quite early on in my career as a photographer, and my first time out of the country for such a long time. I had two other colleagues from Drik Bangladesh. Looking back, I realize that the whole experience made me more receptive to different cultures and people of different nationalities.


I worked full time at photo.circle between 2010 and 2013. Initially, I was involved in setting up the archive – Nepal Picture Library. I also attended several photography workshops. Besides that, I would also help in conducting workshops, taking photography assignments, and so on. Photo.circle is an incubator for almost all young storytellers and documentary photographers in Nepal. It has played a crucial role in the development of my photographic career as well.


8. Besides conducting photography workshops at photo.circle, you also have been teaching at the college / university level. Can you tell us about your experiences and any challenges you may have faced, given that photography as a medium is still struggling to find its place in the South Asian region?


I used to teach at the Kathmandu University Centre for Arts, the College of Journalism and Mass Communication, and a few other colleges. I also used to teach a workshop at photo.cricle. I have currently taken a break from teaching as I need to travel a lot for my office assignments.


Teaching requires preparation and looking at different kinds of work. It keeps one updated. However, we still lack a full-fledged photography course in Nepal. At the moment, photography is being taught as an optional subject (for a few hours) in colleges and universities and lacks an in-depth syllabus and practical assignments. The syllabus that exists hasn’t been updated in years, whereas photography practices are changing very rapidly.


9. Did you become interested in working on long-term documentary projects right from the beginning?


Initially, I also practiced street photography for some time. I never worked for any news-media outlets, so never had the first-hand experience of news and photojournalism. Also, I can’t work on very short deadlines. Besides that, I don’t have a knack for hustling and jostling, which seems very essential for the genre. I like to work on my terms and need a longer time to process things. I believe in taking ownership of personal work. For all these reasons, I found myself inclined towards documentary projects.


10. How has your project Living in the Mist evolved over the years to its current form, wherein you plan to publish it as a book.


Though I started to work on Living in the Mist in 2011, I soon found myself creatively stuck. And this is where taking ownership of your own work comes in. I felt that I had to give the project some kind of closure, as it was getting difficult for me to leave the work just like that. I also tried a different approach; for instance, I started using a medium-format film camera to slow myself down. This was not easy as film photography has completely vanished in Nepal and there is hardly any place to develop the film now.


Finally, I attended a book-making workshop with Valentina and Alex from Akina Books in 2017. The workshop was organized by photo.circle, which is also publishing the book. In early 2020, I started working together with Valentina again, and we are now giving it a final shape.


11. Do your projects typically run in parallel, or do you focus on one project at a time?


I don’t think I have done enough work to answer this question. The only other in-depth project I did was on a larger group of nomads in Nepal. I started this project in 2011 and followed it until 2017. I did some small projects in between. I also used to teach and do short assignments to pay my bills.


12. How do you measure success or that a body of work is going well? Do you share it with colleagues or others? Your own sense of it?


To me, it depends on the nature of work. For professional assignments, successful work is the one that satisfies your client. For personal work, it should satisfy the creator.


As mentioned earlier, we share our works among a close group of friends and provide feedback.


13. Do you ever find yourself creatively ‘stuck?’ Is there something that is particularly helpful to you in overcoming this?


Yes, a lot. In my experience, it helps when you talk to someone who can provide constructive feedback. However, I don’t advise showing your work to too many people when it is in the early stages. There was a time when I was completely stuck at one point having shown my work to many people with different kinds of styles and expertise. Their varied feedback almost paralyzed me creatively.


I later realized that it has to come from within oneself. Other people can encourage and provide suggestions, however in the end, you are on your own. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that it is okay to get stuck for some time unless you stop working altogether. There are no fit-for-all formulae and it’s for us to figure it out all by ourselves in the end.


14. How much effort do you put into getting your work shown? Is this important to you? Does showing your work feed your creative process, or does it distract you from it?


I am not very good at pushing my work. Like I mentioned earlier, showing my work too early to too many people proved to be a distraction.


However, professionally, it is important to get visibility as it broadens the chance of getting professional assignments. There should be a fine balance, I suppose.


15. Do you feel that there are adequate opportunities and avenues to share / show your work in your home country, or do you always look for such opportunities abroad?


Photography, as an institution, has not developed in Nepal. There are no proper galleries for photo-based projects or professional curators for the market, as such. Neither are there any proper educational institutes. Some individuals and institutions are trying to promote and support photography in a huge way; however, there is still a long way to go.


Moreover, it is even difficult for freelancers as they don’t get enough support from media houses. I have some bitter experiences of publishing my works in local media.


It is difficult to share our work internationally, too, as there is a tough competition and local photographers can hardly make it to these expensive portfolio reviews or festivals.


16. We know that fine art or documentary photography is not always enough to make a living. Some do commercial work, others teach. Are there other photography related areas that you work with in order to supplement your living? Some that you would recommend aspiring photographers to consider?


Indeed, surviving as a freelance documentary photographer is not easy. It is also challenging to survive by doing a personal body of work only. Apart from doing personal projects, I also used to teach and take short assignments from international and local NGOs to make a living.


I freelanced for almost 10 years before taking up a full-time job in 2018. I am currently working in an INGO and have taken a break from teaching or taking short-term assignments. However, I intend to do more personal projects in the future.


17. Digital technology has changed photography drastically over the last few years. Did you initially embrace the changes or resist them? Do you believe the changes have been good for the medium or not?


I started with analog photography, but I couldn’t continue to practice in the analog form for too long even though I like the whole process of taking the photo on film. As mentioned earlier, I took some photos of my project on nomads on film.


However, the whole process takes lots of time and resources. Personally, digital photography has helped me more to hone my skills as it was affordable to practice. I probably wouldn’t have been able to continue my practice without digital photography. But, yes, I find it overwhelming with the amount of photographic work being produced now. The digital medium is changing the photography scene very rapidly.


18. Do you think there is a universal language that photography uses? Do you think that Nepali photographers are finding that they are judged by western criteria and standards?


I don’t think there is a universal language that photography uses. It might be universal at the technical level, but the content has a socio-political dimension to it.


But yes, photography in this part of the world is still dictated by western standards as we have to look up to the western market for opportunities. There are hardly any viable grants or economic opportunities at the local level. So, to get the work or to get published or to get a commission, photographers have to look for opportunities in the western market.


19. In your experience, of the lessons you have learned, what is the one thing you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?


I started photography quite late in my life. It took me over a decade to get some kind of clarity in my head, but I am still in the process of learning as photography has a wide range of genres and varied practices. Looking back, I wish that someone had told me earlier to not take photography too seriously and to not take it to a level of obsession; that it is okay to go slowly, and that it is equally important to enjoy other things in life.


20. How has it been living through the lockdown period and the pandemic for you, in terms of your practice and/or producing work?


I have been working from my home office. The lockdown has certainly affected my office work, as it requires lots of traveling. Personally, I have been taking random photos but with no clear intentions as such.


As mentioned earlier, we have also formed this ‘reading group,’ where we meet regularly to read together and look at some work and discuss. We also invite other creative people to the group. We recently even did some sessions on creative writing.


21. How would an interested collector go about buying your work?


They can contact me directly via my eMail (kisor.sharma@gmail.com).


22. If you didn’t do photography, what other career might you have pursued?


I might have been working in Dubai. I had already been selected to work as a sales boy in Dubai in 2004. My passport had been deposited within a manpower recruitment agency. Just a few weeks before I had to fly, 12 Nepali workers were gruesomely murdered in Iraq. As a result, there was a riot in Kathmandu and many manpower recruitment agencies were burnt down. I got my passport back, but I could never gather the courage to go abroad to work after that.



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Copyright © Kishor Sharma

Date Published

20 November