1:1 with NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati

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


I don’t think it was one particular thing. Growing up, my mother worked in TV, radio, and print media, and my father was a hobbyist photographer. When I look at those old family albums now, I realize I grew up around cameras in a very casual way. In school, I was interested in the visual arts: drawing, painting, that sort of thing. In college, I remember visiting museums and galleries and reading magazines and I began to realize that those were the media and spaces through which I was most excited to learn about the world and engage intellectually. After college, I wanted to go to film school. But I took a short photo course after graduating and then came back home to Nepal because a political sea-change was brewing – our very own Kathmandu Spring. I jumped right in with the new DSLR I had bought as a bye-bye America present to myself. Photography felt, at that time and in those circumstances, a quicker, more independent medium and so I dug my heels into that, and film school aspirations waned away.


2. What was your experience studying documentary photography at the SALT Institute of Documentary Studies, Portland, Maine? How has it influenced and informed your practice?


I got a scholarship for the 6-month documentary photo program at SALT, but because the whole program required us to shoot on film, I ended up spending all my savings anyway. I had taken a very basic summer darkroom class before SALT, so it was a very steep learning curve for me. I spent long days learning how to mix chemistry, process film, print photos, and shoot two documentary projects. I had a rickety second-hand car, but it got wrecked as soon as I got to Maine (someone slammed into it while parked), so I had to do a lot of hustling and favor pay-backs to borrow cars from classmates, teachers, and the woman whose house I was subletting, to get out and shoot. It was impossible to get around Maine with public transport otherwise. SALT also offered documentary radio and documentary writing programs and the course work was designed in a way that required us to work with our radio and writing colleagues. I was really fascinated by both of those programs, and working with my radio and writing partners taught me a lot about their media, and about the challenges and possibilities of collaboration. I learned that radio and writing can be incredible visual media, and sometimes photography could end up being a lot more opaque in comparison! I had just exited a 4-year liberal arts bubble that prided its diversity percentages. Maine felt very homogenous and white in comparison, and I found myself struggling to be the desired “fly on the wall.” I found that people’s eyes lingered on me, in sometimes cold and sometimes curious stares, or they would start chatting, asking me questions about where I’d come from and such. The two families I was following for my stories eventually got tired of me and started to let me just hang around, but I had to work really hard to get there. These experiences taught me that it’s close to impossible to be a fly on the wall, that as photographers our presence is always affecting the tenor of the interactions and mood unfolding before our cameras, and it’s all a bit of a sham trying to pretend otherwise.


3. Do you think it’s important to have a formal education / training in photography?


I would like to say an emphatic no, but the truth probably lies somewhere in the grey space between a yes and no. One can argue that a trained eye and mind can become too straight-jacketed. I agree with that, largely. But I also realize that one enrolls in photography or any learning program for that matter, not only to learn or unlearn. Institutions can offer many kinds of resources for people that are not available to the rest of the outside world. They can open up professional networks for people. Certificates and stamps of approval matter – especially in our highly inequitable and competitive worlds, where access to “the industry” or an arts and culture ecosystem can be based on social and cultural capital. If your work cannot open doors for you, then certificates and networks sometimes can, even if temporarily and just long enough to get you in. I was congratulating a photographer friend recently on a fellowship she has been awarded at Harvard and she was jokingly telling me that finally her parents and extended family are going to get off her back for a while. She is a woman in her late 30s who has chosen to not marry and chosen photography as her life path. The ring of “Harvard” will be very useful for her against all the odds she has stacked up for these choices she has made. I also know some brilliant artists who have cultivated a distinct voice or a distinct eye without – and I dare say by avoiding – formal training. They see and engage with the world on their own terms. The aspiration of forging one’s own path forward is an ideal one. I just worry sometimes that we also romanticize this and forget about real-world issues of access and social and cultural capital that unfortunately shape not only our engagement with photography but also how we think, and invariably our work.


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


I think more of what we are doing now – loosely knit short and medium-term workshops and mentorships that focus on pushing ourselves as a community to learn how to read, think, question, discuss, shoot, edit, write about, think about, critically reflect on our own work and our lives.


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


I find inspiration in a lot of people and things, every day and on an on-going basis. It would be too long of a list, but just to name some forces that have taught me and sustained me these past few years; photographer, writer, activist, and teacher Shahidul Alam, the filmmaker and artist Amar Kanwar, my friend and brilliant therapist Prathama Raghavan – these are people who have opened up new worlds to me, and have shaped my ways of thinking and doing. I am so grateful for their friendship, wisdom, and kindness. This year I have also been grateful for the radiance of thinkers, writers, poets like bell hooks, Hafiz, Ocean Vuong, Ather Zia, Rebecca Solnit, Mary Oliver, and musicians like Shreya Rai, Jerusha Rai, Bartika Eam Rai, the legendary Heera Devi Waiba and Tara Devi. I have been so grateful for projects like NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts and the independent radio project On Being. My friends and colleagues who I work with on an everyday basis inspire me a lot.


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


If I had to name an all-time favorite book it would have to be A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. It has rescued me at so many crossroads. And an all-time favorite exhibition / work would have to be The Lightning Testimonies by Amar Kanwar. Calling it an exhibition or a body of work feels inadequate – what Amar has created through The Lightning Testimonies is an experience, a worldview, a life philosophy. We had the privilege of bringing it to Kathmandu in 2018, and that was a huge learning experience for me in so many ways.


7. You have been involved in documenting Nepal’s rapid transitions – whether it was the ten-year armed conflict with the Maoists or the second People’s movement that overthrew the Nepali monarchy since 2006. Where does this interest and commitment come from?


I was too young to be able to document the 10-year conflict. I was still in school and living in my protected bubble in Kathmandu. I did however get to experience, participate in and document the second people’s movement in 2006 that led to the end of the 10-year conflict, and overthrew the monarchy. It was a very big sea-change socially and politically for all Nepalis, so naturally it was a moment of political awakening for me and has been the foundation upon which I have come to understand and interpret evolving social, political, and cultural realities for Nepalis across class, caste, gender, and other strata. The work I suppose is just an on-going attempt to respond to our changing social and political realities.


8. You have found your own way to engage with Nepali politics and social issues through activism, storytelling, research and pedagogy, using visuals as your primary medium. Over the years it has evolved from being sheer documentary. Can you elaborate on this?


I think storytelling has been at the heart of many things for me. Stories help to describe and decipher the world around us. They help us understand each other better and have the incredible power to foster empathy. They tell us integrate our deep histories and give us a sense of identity. Stories can help to mobilize and build solidarity. Stories can help to heal.


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


I work quite instinctively. The initial prompts are usually based on questions and curiosities, things I want to understand better, sometimes memories, sometimes the need for more discourse around a particular issue. The initial phase is intuitive and then I try to do the research, interpret, rationalize, critically analyze, and find deeper grounding.


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


Everything runs concurrent and parallel. Of late, I’ve actually been trying to learn how to cut down on this multitasking and have been trying to declutter a bit. I feel like I need to work on fewer things at one go, slow down, and be able to delve deeper into each project.


11. You co-founded photo.circle, a photo collective in 2007, a first of its kind at that time in Nepal. Can you share some of the activities the collective was engaged with and how it grew into what it is today?


We started out as a collective of image-makers but now we work in increasingly transdisciplinary ways. Since its early days in 2007, photo.circle was a platform that took on the role of a photo school, an agency, a publishing house, a gallery, a production house among other things, because these entities and infrastructure did not exist for us in Nepal. We run workshops, make books, make exhibitions, create curriculum, sell photographs, initiate research, disburse small grants, run an archive, and run a festival. We are often bridging between different communities of knowledge producers and different audiences. We have retained this hybrid functionality for the institution and we have tried to stay light-footed and nimble. We take on commercial projects to be able to sustain and subsidize workshops and mentorship programs. We know that surviving just on grants as a small independent arts organization in Nepal is very difficult. We expand and shrink depending on the project at hand. Our community is very much rooted in the local, however we also collaborate and work with friends and partners across South Asia as well as the world.


12. You are the founder of the Nepal Picture Library, a digital photo archive that holds over 100,000 images and other material collected from Nepali individuals and families. This has, since its inception in 2011, become more than just a digital photo archive. How did this come about?


Nepal Picture Library was initiated because we felt the need to document the history of Nepali photography. As the initiative grew, we began to realize that we were actually documenting Nepali history through photography. The digital archive today holds over 120,000 photographs from various private and institutional sources across Nepal. It has evolved into a research platform that is a safe and open repository for materials that can secure a multicultural and pluralist representation of Nepali history. It also functions as a nexus for active public engagement through which Nepali people can deepen meaningful connections with the past.


13. You co-founded Photo Kathmandu in 2015, an international biannual photography festival that covers a different socio-political theme each time. What are some of the successes and struggles that go into running a festival at that scale?


We set the festival up in 2015 because that year, in particular – after a devastating earthquake that took 9000+ lives here in Nepal – we felt the need to stage a spectacle that would contribute towards rebuilding the ‘image’ of Nepal, which in turn would contribute to the recovery of our ailing economy. The festival, in many ways, became an act of hope for all of us after a very difficult year. As it grew, PhotoKTM started to become a popular event in the local arts and cultural calendar. For the local public, it became an opportunity to see the world through exhibitions and celebrate photography as a powerful and exciting visual medium. For the regional and global photography community, the festival became an opportunity to gather in Kathmandu, share and learn together, and expand networks. Five years in, and this year, in particular, we feel the need to switch gears and operate in an anti-spectacle mode. Events just for the sake of staging a spectacle tend to fuel their own ego and keep growing ‘bigger and better.’ All sorts of pressures start to build. We have reached a point where we are mindful of these pitfalls. We wish for PhotoKTM to remain a manageable, exciting, relevant, and intimate gathering every two years. We want the festival to continue to serve local and regional needs, to continue to push forward conversations that we feel are important and necessary, and continue to build community and solidarity.


14. You will chair the 2021 World Press Photo jury, the first South Asian woman to do so. Congratulations! What do you believe this mean for the photography scenario in South Asia – especially for women?


The World Press Photo jury invitation is certainly an honor, a challenge, and a responsibility. 2020 has been an incredibly trying year for communities across the world. How will we remember this year? I am eager to see the submissions that the contest receives. I am mindful that there are big gaps in mainstream global media in our parts of the world, which is in effect the majority world and is often highly under-represented. Participation in the World Press Photo contest has also been limited to mostly western, male voices. I am hopeful that this year the contest might see more diverse entries as global media mechanisms have been forced to work with more local photographers due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. I hope we will see a lot more entries from local photographers telling local stories. I am not sure what my involvement with this year’s World Press Photo jury will mean for photography in the region. To be honest – it will mean whatever we want it to mean as a community, I think. What I hope is that World Press Photo, as an institution, expands its networks and engagements in South Asia, and more photographers from the region will think it worth their time to enter the contest. Several friends and colleagues from the region have served on various juries before – including Tanvi Mishra, Munem Wasif, and Shahidul Alam. These are all individuals who I respect tremendously. I look forward to taking their contributions forward and working towards continuing to strengthen visual journalism in the region and continue important discussions on integrity and accountability in our respective professional communities.


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


Opportunities for photographers to show and publish work in our home countries are definitely limited. I can speak for Nepal because this is the context I know most intimately, but I can see this being a common experience across South Asia; we have very limited spaces and infrastructure both in the arts and culture, as well as mainstream media for photography. So, we rely on creating our own spaces. For us, the festival is one such attempt. We also publish books and support photographers to get their work published in mainstream media. And then yes, sure, if there is interest to show work abroad then we are happy to look into those options.


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


No, I don’t think there is or should be a universal language that photography uses. I think, like the written word, or performance, or any other medium of expression, the visual language also has a great deal of diversity and that this is very necessary. Yes, I do think that we tend to try to apply standards that are often set by the west. Sometimes these standards are imposed upon us from the outside and sometimes I think we impose them on ourselves, too.


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


Oh gosh, I don’t know; to learn how to take more time off with friends maybe? 🙂 I’m not sure if anything really prepared us for the tough things in life. I am pretty convinced that each of us lives and works in our own unique circumstances and there is no other way but to figure things out as we go.


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


Something still in the arts, and perhaps more of education perhaps.


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


I don’t really have work to sell. 🙂



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Copyright © Sagar Chhetri

Date Published

20 November