A conversation with Prasiit Sthapit
Kathmandu, 12 July 2016
Prasiit Sthapit is a Nepali photographer and video maker based in Kathmandu. He is the author of the award-wining series Change of Course, dealing with how the geological evolution of the Narayani river, which supposedly marks the border between Nepal and India in the village of Susta, affects the identity of its inhabitants.
[Frédéric Lecloux] Could we start from the question of exoticism that we were talking about the other day? I don’t have a specific body of work in mind to connect exoticism with, but maybe you could first try to define what exoticism means for you?[Prasiit Sthapit] Yes, probably we could start with this. The photos that the outer world, the white world, saw of Nepal, were very exotified. Even what we saw of ourselves were very exotified versions of ourselves. The whole postcard movement did a really good job at promoting Nepal.
[F. L.] Like Mani Lama.[P. S.] Like Mani Lama. I really respect Mani Lama. The reason why I got into photography is Mani Lama. But we shouldn’t stop at that. We make a lot of fun of postcard photography. But it doesn’t mean that I’m disrespecting Mani Lama or Mukunda Bahadur or these photographers. They have a position in Nepali photography history. But we should evolve slowly. Even before Mani Lama, when India was colonised, a lot of British photographers came to Nepal. They documented the tribes of Nepal, India and the whole South Asian region, China even. It was very much like a museum diorama. “Here is a Gurung man, with his very dark complexion”, I don’t remember who took this photograph but “a Gurung man” it said, and “ plate 1”, almost like a science experiment, like the illustration of a science book. “A Gurung man”. Ok, it existed, then. That’s how we were exposed, like a museum pieces, and I guess that it also has to do with the fact that Nepal is a very beautiful place. If you go trekking to the Himalayas it is a beautiful place. It is this idea of Shangri-la. And the people of Shangri-la have to be pure and unadulterated by the outside world. Whenever I talk to people, even in India, they ask me: oh, so you have climbed Mount Everest! It sounds like it is in my backyard. Yes, it is a small country, ok but…
[F. L.] I don’t know much about the relationships between Indian journalists and Nepal, but wasn’t there this issue of how they behaved here at the time of the earthquake? Didn’t they just paste their exotic vision of Nepal on the earthquake situation?[P. S.] I don’t know if it is an exotic vision of Nepal and I don’t know if it is about the relationship between Indian journalism and Nepal as a whole. I think that Indian mainstream journalism is just really bad. I was in India when the earthquake happened. I was in Sikkim. And I found out about this earthquake after around five or six hours. I saw it from this guy I met randomly. Because of our Nepali accent he found out that we were from Nepal and he showed me a Facebook photo of Dharahara gone down. I live close to Dharahara. And we’ve been always told that: if there is a big earthquake New Road is going to go flat and Ason is going to go flat. I thought my house was down, probably my family is dead. And I couldn’t get through to them on the phone. After two hours I got through and I heard that my family was safe, my girlfriend was safe, my house was safe, so it was ok. But then we went to the hotel. We turned on the news. The only thing that all Indian media were saying was: Kathmandu is gone, Kathmandu is gone. They were repeatedly showing the few houses that had gone down, and people crying, and we did not know what to do. We could not speak to our family because the phone was not going through. We did not know the complete situation. We thought it was just chaos. Later we spoke to our family and they said: Kathmandu is safe. It was not as bad as Indian media was saying.
[F. L.] And the Western media, too. My father was worried because he thought that I would get the cholera. Yet I was staying at a friend’s house near Baluwatar and we were drinking beer in the evening, and we had perfectly clean drinking water the whole time. In that part of Kathmandu there was hardly a crack to be seen. There is a good recent piece by Kunda [Dixit] about foreign journalists coming in again for the first anniversary of the earthquake, where he addresses this issue of showing only the dramatic part of the event…[P. S.] That’s what sells. That’s what they sell. Your father was worried a few days after the earthquake, right? That’s almost acceptable. My friend came from Sikkim for a wedding yesterday. We were roommates in college. His mother was not allowing him to come to Kathmandu because the earthquake happened 15 months ago and then she heard some random news that few of the jails had gone down too, so all the criminals were out. And what she thought was that there were gangsters and criminals still roaming all around Kathmandu. She thought it was a dangerous place. Indian mainstream media is just about sensationalising things. And it is trickling down to Nepal media as well. It is still not as bad as India, but its happening.
[F. L.] Are there some weekly English magazines in India like Nepali Times, with that level of quality?[P. S.] There are. There is a good magazine called Tehelka that does a lot of investigative journalism. It got a bad reputation because of a sexual harassment issue, but the magazine itself is really good and in-depth. There are a couple of other magazines that are good, like Caravan.
[F. L.] We drifted from exoticism to maybe yet another sort of exoticism, which is the way media pretend that we have to see the world. I find it very infantilising. When I’m reading the media I nearly feel ashamed that they believe a reader can be interested in their partial and black and white vision of the world.[P. S.] I think that it is also about the mainstream media thinking that their audience is dumb. And because they have been doing that for so long, the audience is getting really dumb, in some way. And also there is this idea of image being the truth. That plays a big part on that. A lot of people do believe that image is truth, so one broken house means that the whole city is gone. Media has to be fed, it has to be quick and it has to be dramatic like Bollywood action films or Hollywood films. TRP is the main goal. It’s money.
[F. L.] Since most of the images we get to read treat us like stupid people, I guess that this also affects the way we produce pictures. I’ve just spent a few hours with Surendra Lawoti looking at his beautiful work. His portraits, all taken with a 4 x 5 inches pinhole camera, show a gentle and deep way of looking at the people. We had a conversation about the pictures but also about the text he wrote to accompany his work. And in the text he was in some way explaining the pictures. I told him that it was not useful. Even though this is not fashionable for the moment, you should and you must believe that your audience is intelligent, even if they happen to not be. But we are so used to be treated as stupid people that we also feel the need to explain whatever we produce. I think we don’t need to explain what is in our pictures. We can put a context. But we must be confident in the fact that the readers will be able to shape their own conception about what we want to say from our very pictures. And explaining the pictures is not only a Nepali tendency. This is worldwide. But look at what happened during photo Kathmandu. Many farmers and uneducated people, who weren’t supposed to have the knowledge to enjoy photographs, somehow spent hours watching 18 exhibitions in the streets of the city. This is the best proof that it is disrespectful to treat an audience as stupid people, whatever their level of education is. People can read images even if they haven’t been educated to. But if you educate them not to read images and to consider images as the truth, then it can spawn a lot of damage, isn’t it?[P. S.] Yes. I think that in the kind of work that I am doing or Surendra is doing, context has to be placed. Definitely it should not explain the images, but it should give a background of what it is about. In the Nepali papers for instance, the captions are horrible. Some of them are ok, but some of them are horrible. If there is a farmer ploughing his land in the image, that is what the caption would read: “a farmer ploughing the land”. Yes, I can see that. I don’t need your text to tell me what this guy is doing. It clearly looks like a farmer was ploughing the land. I would want to know where this place is and what this guy’s name is, and why he’s in the paper, something like that, something that I can’t see.
[F. L.] So let’s go back to exoticism. When we raised the issue of exoticism in the beginning you spoke about how British photographers from India were picturing Nepal. But it dates back to the 19th century. What would exoticism be nowadays? Where could we find it?[P. S.] You can see it everywhere, in Nepal especially. I’m sure you have noticed that Nepali photography got stuck in postcards for a really long time. Then there was a little bit of journalism, but then that got stuck, too. It didn’t evolve after that for a long time. And now thanks to NayanTara [Gurung Kakshapati] and Bhushan [Shilpakar, the founders of photo.circle], for the past, I guess, five or six years, it is slowly starting to happen. I saw this book, in Langtang, a coffee-table book, on Tibet and Nepal, the Himalayan culture, that sort of thing. There were some very boring-looking exotic old wrinkled face smiling, and the caption reading: “Tibetan nomad, 1982”. And then another “dirty something something boy”, dated 1979. It had been published by a Nepali publisher in the early 2000s. Ok, that was fine. I had seen a lot of coffee-table books that were like that, exotic to the core, exotic like hell. There were some interesting photos, though. But then I turned to the back and there was the photographer’s photograph, I forgot his name, some white guy, and he was with a very good-looking Tibetan man, and the caption read: “so-and-so” (whatever the photographer’s name was) “and a Tibetan man”. Like if that man didn’t even have an identity. If you are taking a photo where you put your arms around him, I’m sure he has a name and you know his name. And people have the right to know his name. Even more than the content inside the book, that spoke more about exoticism, and in a bad way, where a sense of colonialism still exist. Like if we were not even people. We’re just a dying breed of tribesmen living in this pristine land. That really pissed me off. And that exists because of postcard photography and because of damned Steve McCurry. He is the king of exoticism in our lands, around South-East Asia. But when he comes here three hundred persons attended his talk and people make selfies with him. He’s one of the most famous photographers in this area and around the world, and he stinks of exoticism and colonialism. And his pictures are pretty. I’m not doubting. His pictures are very pretty.
[F. L.] So that’s something we have to go back later: the tension that can exist between the obvious beauty of the picture and the insufferable content of it.[P. S.] We’ll get back to that, but what I was saying was: because of the whole postcards pictures, that’s the biggest amount of pictures that Nepali youngsters see.
[F. L.] But there is a distinction to be made between a postcard by Mani Lama representing say a monk around Swayambhu or Bouddanath, and the vision of Asia by Steve McCurry. What would then be the difference between them?[P. S.] We’ve been talking a lot at photo.circle about that. It is about who is representing whom. And it’s also about the time that you’re doing it. When Mani Lama started postcards photography, there weren’t many photographers doing that. It was needed during the seventies and the eighties. Promote Nepal, bring tourism, because Nepal was not known. So he did a really good job. And he even did a better job than what is happening now. His pictures had some kind of depth. It was not just a flat picture of a mountain. But now… I’ve been teaching workshops with photo.circle, and there is the whole thing about social media. Social media is a beautiful thing you can work with in such a beautiful way…
[F. L.] Social what? I don’t know what it is…[P. S.] You don’t because you’re old, you’re really old, that’s why… It can be used in a beautiful way. It was useful during the earthquake, right. But what happens is that every other guy has a Facebook page named something like “ABC photography”. Everyone with a DSLR has a photography page. And they’ve been taking all these pretty pictures, they go to places, they take pictures of temples and all this boring shit that has been going on for around more than fifty years. Mani Lama did it. Mukunda Bahadur did it before him, you know, it’s been done for so long. And the problem is that they post these photos with fancy filters on Facebook, and then they get three, four, five hundred likes. And that is an achievement. So they get stuck. I met a lot of people like that. I post a photo on Facebook and I get about three likes. One from my girlfriend, but sometimes she doesn’t even like my pictures any more. But well, three, four likes. That doesn’t even matter. They get five hundred likes instantly.
[F. L.] You said that exoticism is also about who is photographing whom. I’m also thinking a lot about that question for the moment, especially regarding the Nepal Photo Project and the various representations of the earthquake. I wrote a piece about that on my blog on the occasion of the first anniversary of the disaster. For instance, I have a strong feeling that the pictures produced by James Nachtwey, who was flown in by Time Magazine three days after the earthquake, are very weak – although Kishor [K. Sharma] was hired as his fixer (maybe he mislead him on purpose!). They don’t tell anything. They show no empathy. I don’t feel the presence of the photographer neither his understanding of what is happening. He just takes the few pictures he needs to fulfil his assignment. If I remember well he arrived on the 28th. By that time the Nepal Photo Project had already started. Nepali photographers, most of them coming from photo.circle’s sphere, had already started to post pictures that were far more interesting and human than what James Nachtwey did. My feeling is that James Nachtwey had no reason to be there. Time Magazine was rather selfish to add an extra mouth to feed in the capital city while it was not even sure that there would be enough drinking water in town for the week ahead. On the contrary, these Nepali photographers were exactly at the right place. Because while taking pictures and documenting the resistance of the people to the earthquake, they were also bringing relief material to the field, thanks to the action of NayanTara and her teams. But then this question arises, and this is the point where I want to come: isn’t there some danger to think that only people from the place where things happen can document what happens in that very place? I’ve long had the same question in mind about someone like Munem Wasif. His work is only about Bangladesh. Because I like it, I sometimes would like to see a work of him about somewhere else. I raised this question with Christian Caujolle one day: what would Munem do, say, in Belgium or Ecuador? Christian replied that this was not his work, and that we should let him do what he has to do. What do you think about this? About the danger to only document your own place, however positive this kind of approach might be in terms of avoiding exoticism or colonialism?[P. S.] I don’t think that just because a white man or a foreigner is taking pictures in Nepal or Bangladesh or India or China or wherever, it does automatically become exotified. Any place in general, see Kathmandu, needs an outside perspective as well. We can’t just be a bubble in ourselves and just talk about ourselves within ourselves and be done with it. That won’t be right. There has to be people documenting things from the inside and there has to be people documenting things from the outside, too. You have been photographing Nepal for twenty years. I’ve been doing things for four five years now. You see things completely different than I do. There is depth in your work, too. Let’s take your photo of the mother breastfeeding the baby in Humla. If I take that photo, how am I not an outsider, and you are an outsider, just because I live in the country, in the same artificial borders? I’ve never met her. I’ve never been to Humla. I don’t who they are. I live comfortably in Kathmandu. I am as much an outsider in Susta as you are. Probably I know the language better. But I’m still an outsider. Me photographing my neighbours, it is still an outsider photographing them. Me photographing my mother is also an outsider photographing my mother. There are levels of outsiderness and otherness.
[F. L.] This is about where otherness begins, and what identity means, isn’t it? In Nepal, I heard a lot of stories about people deemed to be very courageous because they did an inter-cast or an inter-ethnic marriage. I don’t even understand what it might mean on a larger scale. We have a certain time to live on this planet. We don’t know how long. Why are we locking our lives then into such a narrow vision of ethnics and identities? On the other hand I can’t but acknowledge that between me living in the south of France and you living in Nepal, there are some differences in the way we live, the way we perceive our world, the relationship with women, with elders… There are differences, but it is very difficult for me to call these “identity”, and to make it the goal of a fight.[P. S.] This whole casts and religious system is definitely a part of Nepali and South-Asian society. I feel it is shit. But I cannot neglect the fact that it is very much a part of the society. My parents are quite liberal, especially now. They were not, a few years ago. But I remember a conversation with my grandmother. She passed away 7 or 8 years ago. I had this conversation with her about marriage, and casts and all that. I was pretty young. She treated me like a son. We were very close. I loved her more than anything. But that time we had a fight. You know that even in Newars there are sub-casts. We are from this cast called Urāy. Sthapit and Thuladars and all them, we’re from Urāy. And we were talking about marriage and all that and she said no: you have to marry an Urāy. There’s no other way out. And she’s the matriarch of the family. No one can say no to her. And I said: why? Her reason was: because we have to preserve our culture. And I was trying to explain her how the Roman civilisation ended because they wanted to preserve their culture so they were just fucking their brothers and sisters. It doesn’t work. Our culture is our culture because it evolved from something else, and it go mixed with a lot of other things and then became our culture.
[F. L.] Let’s go back to photography. Can photography do something about it? About that particular sense of belonging to a fixed culture, that should no longer evolve, and that we should preserve at any cost? Photography cannot change it on the spot, but maybe on the long term, can it bring some larger vision of what a culture is?[P. S.] I think it can and it should. It’s happening. The first step would be to break out of that exoticism. To break out of our shell of putting ourselves into this exotic view. It is very romantic. But we are not that. And we, holding a DSLR and going to Dolpa and shooting this man on a horse, and thinking oh! This man is so this or that… It’s not just about white people exotifying us. We ourselves are exotifying our own country. And it’s changing. We have to preserve our culture.
[F. L.] What do you mean by that? What has to be preserved and what has to be left open to change?[P. S.] Everything has to be left open to change. I’m not trying to put Newari culture in a box and pretending that this has to be preserved. Festivals have to be preserved because they are rooted in something. What the root was, I think, that will change in time. But I think that the Machhendranath rath, the chariots, they have to be continued because it is a part of our traditions. It can change in time. We should include men and women together while pulling the chariot, for example.
[F. L.] But don’t you fear that by saying this, let’s take the Machhendranath chariot as an example, it becomes museumified and as such it will die? [P. S.] I think that these things should not die. A lot of traditions have died in time. But then, there is also a question of what change is and what development is. Just because I wear a shirt and a pant doesn’t mean I’m more developed. That’s again a colonial view of development. Why don’t we think that the tribes that still exist in Andaman Islands in India are developed? They should be exposed, but it’s their right to say what they want. It’s a very confusing debate because when we talk about development we relate it to what’s new. The ancient traditions or the traditions that have been going on, why are they not called development?
[F. L.] What you mean is that a certain vision of development could include a measured transformation of the ancient traditions?[P. S.] Yes. And I’m sure it has. How we observe Dashain is completely different than what my grandfather did when he was a kid. I’m sure it has changed. And it’s ok to change. Let’s change it. Let’s make it more appropriate. Just because my sister is on her periods doesn’t mean she cannot have a tika on her forehead. Let’s change those things. I am an atheist. I’m not at all a religious person. But I observe these traditions. I don’t go out of my way to observe religious festivals and all that, but I’m ok with them because it’s tradition. Not because it’s part of my religion. I don’t associate myself with buddhism or hinduism at all. I’m an atheist. My mum and dad are not here. It’s been almost two months now. I have not even gone to the prayer room once. My mother strictly told me to go there every day and put at least a flower. And I told her: no. She knows that I’m an atheist. She makes fun of it. But if there is a festival and my mum and dad are not here, I go to my grandmum’s place, I go to my uncle’s place and I observe it. Just because it’s tradition. And it’s a beautiful tradition. It will change and it should change in time.
[F. L.] This is a vision of the word tradition that I’m not used to. When I try to figure out what tradition is, I think of something totally unmovable and unchangeable. You are raising some possibility of making tradition evolving…[P. S.] I think tradition, like anything, is changeable. We come back to how we are represented and the role of photography in how Nepal is perceived… That’s where the whole conversation started. We have heavy metal bands. Yes, we did get influenced by heavy metal bands from Scandinavia. I was very much into the whole heavy metal scene in Kathmandu when it started. By peer pressure, but still I was. I did not like the music, but lots of my friends did, so I got into it. And yes, we are part of that, too. And then there is also a way of exotifying that part, because Nepal has a heavy metal band. Oh! That pristine land has a heavy metal band, it’s so fascinating! We have electronic bands. We have acid parties. The whole world is like that. We have different things. And let’s enjoy all these things, too. Especially now, we are part of this global world. Everyone knows everything now. We are not pristine any more.
[F. L.] No. And there’s no such thing as a pristine land any more. And there probably has never been any.[P. S.] There has never been.
[F. L.] Except in the mind of those who decided that there had to be, but it was decided regardless of what the people living in the so-called pristine lands would think about it.[P. S.] And I think, that is also what exoticism means. It doesn’t really care about what the person in front of the photographer thinks.
[F. L.] Exactly. Like the guy you was mentioning earlier who didn’t take the pain to write the name of the Tibetan man he was posing with.[P. S.] Yes! Maybe he was his fixer! Maybe he had been travelling with him for months or years! He at least deserves that much credit. Photographers are trying to enforce their visions. It does happen. But then, what’s happening in front of us has as much a say, if not more, that what we are trying to present.
[F. L.] But at the end of the day, what will be in the picture will be nothing more than what you have seen.[P. S.] Yes. That is definitely true. But there has to be a connection or a dialogue between us and what’s in front of us. It can be just a toy, but you have to have some connection. It cannot just go like: oh! the Western world has not seen this, let’s take a picture then, and fuck what they think and fuck what they are…
[F. L.] Maybe let’s move slightly from what we have already said about exoticism and about taking pictures, towards the idea of beauty? I have this feeling that in documentary photography or in photojournalism in some way, what we are trying to do is to attract the attention of our readers. So we have to show them something that they will find attractive. So, beautiful. Maybe. Or maybe not. My question lies precisely here. In your opinion, does “attractive” necessarily means “beautiful” and what does beautiful mean? Your series Change of Course, for instance, although it tells a terrible story of people who don’t even know to which country they belong, aesthetically, it is beautiful. I have pleasure watching these pictures. We can say the same about Kishor [Sharma]’s series about the nomadic Raute tribe. We can say the same about what Sagar [Chhetri] is doing now in Birgunj. I have a lot of aesthetic and intellectual pleasure to engage with these pictures. And still, all these pictures represented people living in difficult if not desperate situations. So I recently came up with this idea that documentary photography was just about making something beautiful out of a problem. I’m not sure I fully agree with this idea. It just occurred to me. In your opinion, is it so or not? And do you think your Change of Course series is beautiful, and it is if not, what is it then?[P. S.] It’s a very complicated question. Not just a question. It is a very complicated thought. It’s really difficult. You go to a place that has problems. And then you take beautiful pictures of that place and show it to the world, and they say oh! beautiful pictures…
[F. L.] And you get that Magnum grant…[P. S.] And I get that Magnum grant… But, what happens to the people in the pictures? Things sometimes do change because of your photographs, but then sometimes it gets stuck in just photography. And the aesthetics of photography, and how beautiful the pictures are. And oh! thank you for bringing up that issue… And then it stops there. Should we then make ugly pictures of terrible things that are happening to people ? But then again, what is an ugly picture?
[F. L.] Please tell me, what is an ugly picture, today?[P. S.] I don’t know. My pictures are very slow, pretty to look at, and then there are photos like Antoine d’Agata’s that are very hard to look at. That’s very… in your face. It’s pretty harsh, but still it’s beautiful.
[F. L.] Still it’s beautiful. I believe that you need to make the difference between the surface of what you are seeing, the aesthetic aspect of it, and what’s behind. Antoine often represents women wincing horribly. We are made to think from their facial expression that there is a lot of suffering in what they are experiencing at the very moment when Antoine takes the picture. Even if it’s not true and they were just mimicking suffering, which I don’t believe, that’s what we are made to think. And even though they show an experience of suffering, most of his pictures, as pictures, are somehow beautiful. What is represented is not: it is the image of a woman suffering. But it is represented in an ambiguously beautiful way. I don’t think that for him it’s about making things exaggeratedly beautiful. It’s not aestheticism. It’s rather about producing a trace of his intimate experience. But a trace that be conscious of this distortion it creates with the viewer. For you, is there a difference between the beauty of the surface of the silver salts or the pixels, the way they are organised – and what’s behind, or inside?[P. S.] Us, as photographers, we manipulate the situation in such a way that it looks beautiful or it looks a certain way. And the person right next to you might not see the same way. It’s about representation. Let’s say the paintings of Rembrandt. They have very beautiful light, and very still portraits, they are beautiful. And then the painting of Francis Bacon which is very horrorish, very uncomfortable, that’s also beautiful. So what is beauty? How do you define beauty? And if I as an individual find both of them that are in complete opposite poles, beautiful, then what is beautiful? And how does that affect the story? Looking at things in a very practical way, it’s also that if the picture is not beautiful, then people will not look at it.
[F. L.] So, that’s interesting. So what is at stake when we want the people to look at our pictures?[P. S.] The story! The story is very much at stake. Sometimes I think… Not sometimes, I think about this a lot, especially with the Change of Course work. I made that story. It got exhibited in a lot of places. I got a fancy grant. I got a fancy masterclass. Things are changing in Susta, but how much of a part did I play in that? Good things are happening.The river erosion has stopped because there’s a bridge that is going to be built and retaining walls have been built to contain erosion. And with the bridge, electricity will come. It will be easier there. But I’ve been documenting it for four or five years now and the only consolation I have for what I’m doing is what this guy I live with when I’m in Susta said. There is this new community building, and he said: you should put your photos there. It is about our history. If you put your photos there people will get reminded of what kind of situation it was. So that’s my only consolation.
[F. L.] It’s a beautiful consolation… That’s good! Maybe what you have brought, to that guy at least, it is just the courage to believe that a brighter future would come?[P. S.] That’s putting me on a very high pedestal. I am not that… When I talk to people there, because I’ve been going there for so many years, they know me, they talk to me, and they have a hope that because I’m telling their story something will change.
[F. L.] But still if that man says that your pictures should be shown in the community hall, it means that he recognises that your pictures represent something in the history of the community. And if it represents something, we can wonder what. And if it is not hope for change, I don’t know what else it can be. In this work that I’m doing about the Nepali migrants to Qatar, there has been a few moments a bit like the one you describe. I was in this village in Morang district, I interviewed that woman and she called her husband in Qatar, then I spoke to the husband on the phone and he told me: thank you so much for coming to my house, so far away from your place, to listen to our story… In the meantime I understand that it can seem very pretentious to believe that you brought some hope to people living in a very desperate situation. But concerned photography, photography with a deep sense of empathy towards the people it represents, it is maybe just about that? It makes me think of the story Philip Blenkinsop told at the opening of Photo Kathmandu 2015, about that woman that had heard of his picture of dead Birendra being carried to the funeral pyre, then who came to the exhibition and cried in front of the picture. Philip also was about to cry on stage when he told the story. Maybe that’s what photography is made for? From time to time, we don’t know why, we don’t know when, we light a candle in someone’s mind… I don’t know, I’m not even sure… Do you think it’s possible?[P. S.] I think that it’s possible. If only one person connects with one of your photographs in that way, like how this old woman connected with the photo of Birendra, I think that’s a big achievement. Especially now, because there are so many images, there’s so much pollution of images in the world. If that connection happens with just one person, let’s say for a minute, that’s a big achievement.
[F. L.] So this is not a meagre consolation, the one you’re talking about.[P. S.] That’s what I’m saying. I’m sure you have had it too, when you go talk to people, and you photograph people and such kind of situations, they place so much hope on you that you’ll talk about it and that things will change. And then it doesn’t really change. How much of that small connection for a minute is a consolation? Sometimes it is. You feel really good that something has happened. But then again in the larger context, what has happened? It’s a really sad reality.
[F. L.] It maybe shows the very narrow limits of photography, doesn’t it?[P. S.] Yes.
[F. L.] Very often I’m confronted with how weak the medium is in some ways, and how powerful it is some others. There is this interview of Luc Delahaye where he says that we as photographers have this tremendous power that, whatever pictures we take, it is always and will always only be the document of the experience we had at this very moment. Painting cannot do that. Literature cannot. Cinema cannot. Other mediums cannot be that trace of our experience. But it is not more than that. It’s just that. And on the other hand, it’s very limited. When we speak about the power of photography to change the world we always give the same few references like Kim Phuc by Nick Ut and few others. But look at this photograph by Nilüfer Demir, representing the dead body of Alan Kurdi, the young migrant Syrian boy who died on a beach in Bodrum, in Turkey. It caused such an emotion in Europe, and it would supposedly change the fate of migrants there, and the way we look at them and welcome them. But it did not. It’s even worse for migrants now. Even that terrible picture (which I believe should have stayed on the memory card of the photographer), even that very shocking picture didn’t change the things. So our relationship to photography, as users and viewers of photography, has also much changed since the time of Vietnam War and the so-called golden age of photojournalism. In your opinion, is it still a medium that can say something about the world, that has the ability to convey something about someone’s relationship to the world, or is it condemned to be desperately disconnected from it?[P. S.] I think, it also depends on how much it has been used in what part of the world, or what part of the society, and how much it has been used and abused. How many stories have you heard about, let’s say, Susta. Or how many stories have you heard about the Raute people? It’s also about which part of the world you live in, I guess. And yes, photography has been abused and there’s too much pollution, but then in this part of the world, there are a lot of stories that are still waiting to be told. Because this visual medium has not been abused, or used enough. So, I think, it is very important to tell the stories. And probably in a beautiful way so that people know about it and don’t ignore it. This I guess might not be as important in other parts of the world, but it is still important here.
[F. L.] Then what about the places to show the stories? This is a discussion that has been running for a long time at photo.circle. It’s good to teach young Nepali photographers how to do storytelling and how to make them engage with issues, but where to show the works?Are there some new possibilities to show stories? Maybe my question is also about the fact that you are going to have this Masterclass in Amsterdam. Is there not a way to make things happen here, so that people here, too, are more aware of what goes on?[P. S.] I think, we should stop thinking about photography, publication of photography, disseminating photography, like we did even five or ten years ago. Yes the papers are dying. Let’s accept that fact. The festivals have less funding. Let’s accept that fact. But we have now our first festival. So it’s growing, right. Documentary photography just started, a festival scene just started. So there’s a chance. And then, let’s accept that this is the world. How we thought of photography as a way to earn our living, that has got to change, too. If there’s a story you want to tell, tell that story. It might not make money, yes. So what? It doesn’t make money. But then, let’s spread that through digital media, let’s make a multimedia out of it, let’s put it in our blog, let’s put it in our website, it’s for free anyway. So let’s put it there. Let’s spread the word. And then maybe some paper that still exists will like your work and then will assign you for something else and money will come from there. The way of thinking has to change. It’s definitely much more democratic than what it used to be a couple of years ago. The scene is scarier. It’s a very precarious position I guess that we are in. But we should stop thinking about photography as this pristine sphere that only a few can enter, that you have to be the chosen one to enter.
[F. L.] But in the meantime you don’t want every other guy with a DSLR to post his things on a Facebook page.[P. S.] They will. There is no way of avoiding it. Let’s just accept it. You’re not on Facebook. I’ve accepted that a long time ago, Frédéric. They will. There is no way of stopping it. But I think there is a distinction between a random guy posting an HDR over-saturated photo of Basantapur, and someone else, like Sagar, or Kishor, or me or Shikhar [Bhattarai] posting a photo of something that we really believe in. There is a difference, and people in time will know that difference, I guess.
[F. L.] This is a matter of educating people… Oh! that light is too bright, isn’t it? [P. S.] Should I switch it off?
[F. L.] Don’t you have a candle?[P. S.] You’re too romantic, man.
[F. L.] I guess I am. That’s better, thanks. Yes, it’s all about the motives. The reasons why you’re in. Even if it is at the cost of a hard life because it didn’t work commercially, I do believe that sooner or later someone will recognise that you’ve been faithful to your beliefs, and that you remained a good human being despite photography. This is the same for Philip. He struggles to make ends meet every month, although he is Philip Blenkinsop![P. S.] One of the most famous photographers in the world…
[F. L.] Yes ! But who can afford that? Whether it be in Nepal or in France or anywhere else? How do you find an answer to that question? How to work in such a way that whatever truly necessary story I’m telling, it doesn’t need to be the source of my income?[P. S.] I don’t earn money from Change of Course. I don’t earn money from the stories that I really want to say. Most of the publications are published for free. I really want to spread the word. But then I have to earn a living. So I make videos. I do shitty assignments. I know that they are shitty. But then I draw a line, too. There are some organisations that I’ll never work with because I do not believe in their principles. But there are organisations that I will work with even if I sort of don’t believe in their principles, but they are better than the worse. That’s for money. I do that. Yes. It is unethical. It is a not romantic view of the world at all, but that’s what we have to do to earn a living. We have to stop thinking, as photographers, that we will tell the world what we want to tell them and then we will make a living out of it. That is not going to happen nowadays. The way we think about these things has to evolve.
[F. L.] But are we going to end up with all of us doing our own personal honest things on our part while doing more or less shitty things to earn our living, and then no one knowing about it because there is no longer any place except our blogs and websites to show it?[P. S.] I don’t think so. I’m not that pessimist. Yet. There are few avenues that are left, that are still famous, that can showcase your work. Yes, they may not pay you, but then that’s what I mean when I say that you have to find other ways to earn your living, too. We have to face that reality. In the Internet world there will be blogs and websites that are more famous than your own website so let’s feed it through that. So even if we are uncomfortable, we have to accept the reality. The world is changing very fast and we have to adapt to it.
[F. L.] So let’s go a little bit further and speak about this [Magnum Emergency Fund] grant. What do you expect out of it, and what do you think about it?[P. S.] The reach is definitely one of the plus points. Obviously, because it’s a Magnum grant and it will be featured in the Magnum website, the reach of that story will definitely be much more than what it has been till now.
[F. L.] What will this “more” bring to you?[P. S.] In the story itself, from the perspective of the people I’m photographing, I think that anywhere in the world, if something is known more, it will have more focus than what’s not known at all. Let’s put a hypothetical situation, a very dreamy situation. Let’s say that my story is known around the world and does get attention. Then maybe the budget that passes from the centre or the district will benefit a little bit more to Susta, and maybe a little bit more development will happen in Susta… That’s a very utopian idea but let’s hope for that. And me, personally (from utopian let’s be selfish now), maybe it’ll be easier for me to get more assignments. Maybe it’ll be easier for me to make a little bit more easier living.
[F. L.] What would be the fears then, if there are any?[P. S.] There are. Definitely. The fear is again about the utopian perspective. Maybe I get more views. Maybe my story will get more widely known and then it will get limited to that and nothing will really happen. So then what’s the point? What’s the point having this very romantic view of documentary photography, and you out there trying to tell the story of the people that are struggling and nothing really comes out of it? Then why am I in? That’s the question that I’ve been really stuck with for a long time. Why am I doing this? I love photography, I love taking pictures, I love telling stories, I love meeting people. It’s scary meeting people but I go out of my way to meet people, so if it doesn’t really have any consequence then why am I even doing this?
[F. L.] With regard to your own exposition on the photographic scene, is there any fear inside of you to become somehow a tool at the service of that industry, like the token Nepali photographer from this one poor country among the twenty poorest in the world? Do you have any such fear? Sohrab [Hura] raised that question as well when he joined Magnum. Does this question exist for you and if yes, how do you cope with it?[P. S.] I definitely don’t want to be the token person from the third world, or the “majority world” as Shahidul Alam would say. Oh! This poor photographer! Let’s take him to fill our representation quota. That’s what I was talking about with my girlfriend when I got that Magnum grant. I was telling her: I’m not even sure that I deserve this grant. Because the earthquake just happened. Nepal was on the news. Maybe they’re giving me this grant just because I’m from this poor country that just had a very bad incident, and to really console themselves, they gave it to me and maybe I don’t even deserve it. And then I got the Worldpress Joop Swart Masterclass and I thought the same thing. The whole world has talked about Nepal. And then there’s a photographer in Nepal.
[F. L.] This is a breaking news![P. S.] Yes! And he’s not doing the usual stuff, so he’s a token guy and yes, he fills our quota! I still think maybe that’s the case.
[F. L.] In a certain way it is. What are your arms against that?[P. S.] I am not armed at all. Let’s be very honest. The stylistic approach that I approached Change of Course with, is sort of a very European, very American way of approaching things, right?
[F. L.] I would never have dreamt to make you say this…[P. S.] I just did it! But it is! And now, I do not want to cater to that.
[F. L.] How do you recognise this? Because this is a very important point, in my opinion. How did you understand that your approach of the Change of Course project was in a way easily understandable, acceptable, or likeable by a Western audience?[P. S.] New contemporary, let’s say. In trend.
[F. L.] Develop this please. Tell me how you understood this, and why you overcame it. Why at a certain point didn’t you stop and said: no, this is not me?[P. S.] No. I’m not saying that this is not me just because it’s famous in Europe and America. It doesn’t mean that it’s not me. I can’t deny the fact that it’s in vogue right now. Look at all the other things that are coming out. It is similar. I can’t deny that fact. Let’s talk about the people who are really following Alec Soth. It is sort of like that. My work is sort of like that. And that’s happening everywhere else in the world. That stylistic approach is pretty famous, and I am following that, and yes, it does sort of work with what I am trying to say.
[F. L.] I think that is the subject of the conversation: there is one photographer in Nepal who knows about Alec Soth.[P. S.] Oh yes, and he’s from a poor country.
[F. L.] And he must be a Buddhist?[P. S.] He’s an atheist!
[F. L.] Ok, sorry.[P. S.] That will destroy a lot of my exotic view, I guess. Yes I am an atheist, I’m not a buddhist.
[F. L.] So how do you cope with producing a work that is in some manner, on an aesthetic point of view, in vogue?[P. S.] I’ll tell you how I got into this sort of aesthetic approach…
[F. L.] Sorry to interrupt you but when you first showed me the Change of Course work some years ago in the photo.circle guest room where I usually stay, you spread the prints on the bed, and they were not overexposed like this at the time. They were already good pictures in the sense that they were addressing the issue, and they were also in a way beautiful, or strong enough (what is a strong picture though, maybe we could have another conversation about that). But this overexposed style wasn’t there at the time. How did it come?[P. S.] The first time I started this work was after a workshop with Philip Blenkinsop during an exchange program with Bangladeshis and Norwegians in Nepal. We were given a certain amount and a certain time to do a small story. So I thought of Susta. I had a really difficult time to enter there, that’s another conversation. Then I reached there. I really liked street photography back then, so the first time I went there it was about the street style. The moment. It was about heads popping from somewhere and arms going out from somewhere, very influenced by Blenkinsop and all of that kind. Then we had an editing session in Bangladesh with Munem Wasif. The way I post-processed it was very contrasty, a little bit saturated, too yellow. And then Wasif and I started editing the work and what he said was: ok, let’s say that you have to make a happy story. How are you ever going to do it with this approach? It’s very rough. And I didn’t have an answer to that. I just had started photography. I didn’t know. I just did what I did. I didn’t even know why I did it or how I did it. It was there. And the he told me: what are the photographers that you don’t like? I didn’t have an answer. I like lots of kind of works. So he said ok, look at these photographers when you go back home. So I don’t remember the other names, but he showed me Rinko Kawauchi, you know Rinko Kawauchi?
[F. L.] I don’t.[P. S.] She’s a Japanese photographer. So he gave me her name, and the editing session started. I was very disappointed with what I had produced and it was not going anywhere. Then I came back to Nepal. I was in photo.circle. I was looking at Rinko Kawauchi’s work. Her work is all about light and very slow. A very dreamy kind of work. The first time I saw it I wondered: what the fuck is this? And the question Wasif had asked before that was: who are the photographers that you do not like? And I thought maybe this is a trickle down of that. Maybe she is a photographer that doesn’t even mean a thing. Maybe she is just a bad photographer. And maybe Wasif is just trying to prove his point. So I thought: I’ll forget about that. For me this is a very bad work. I don’t get anything out of this. This is shitty photography. I forgot about that. And then I guess, four, five months after that, or more, I came across Rinko Kawauchi’s work again. I don’t know from where. From the Internet somewhere. I just came across it. I looked at the work. And I felt like this was the best thing that I’d ever seen! How did I even ignore this work? It was so beautiful I could not even… Then I went back to Susta again following that approach, following light, with a little bit of overexposure. A dreamy, poetic sort of a feel. It was very undersaturated. It was still two by three. And then I was in an editing session with Sohrab Hura who suggested to crop the pictures to six by seven, and from then on it just started like that…
[F. L.] The question of influence is interesting. Very suddenly you were struck by the power of the work of someone else and it changed your perspective about your own work. I experienced the same with Lise Sarfati. It took me ten years though, I wouldn’t say to get rid of her influence because I still acknowledge it and love it, but I hope I managed to dilute her influence into others’ and also into what I am myself. Hence my question: how do you think you’re going to cope with that? You cannot be a clone of Rinko Kawauchi, you have to be Prasiit Sthapit. So how do you see yourself evolving with regards to this influence? Will it be through the addition of new layers of influences, or through a radical shift towards something else?[P. S.] There have been really important figures in my career. One of the first one was Morten Krogvold, this Norwegian photographer. I had done photography before. I was doing picturesque postcards kind of things. Then I thought I knew everything because I knew how to expose a picture well. And Morten really told me that my pictures were shit. And then after that workshop I knew that I didn’t know anything about it, but I fell in love with photography. Then, definitely, photo.circle was a big changing, a turning point in my life. I’m here because of photo.circle. And then there was my girlfriend who still now looks at my pictures and says: boring, boring, boring, boring… She is also a turning point. And there is also Sohrab Hura, who cropped my pictures, that’s one thing. Then I showed him another body of work that I did, and it was also similar, overexposed, with the same style, and he said: why did you do it that way? I don’t know, that’s what photographers do, right? They do the same style forever, isn’t that how they do it? Alec Soth has been doing the same style forever. Bruce Gilden has been doing the same style forever. Isn’t that what is supposed to happen? I did not understand his question on the spot. I was thinking things like: he is just trying to be too smart, maybe he is not the photographer I have to follow! But later on I slowly started to understand. Why do you have to be jailed in that same style? You evolve. Your style evolves. The story demands different things. Then why do I have to be known by a particular style?
[F. L.] Because this is what the photographic sphere tells us… They want to be able to put labels on photographers. It’s easier for people who need to give quick answers to complex questions. That guy works in black and white, this one overexposes, this woman is always working in medium format and makes blurry pictures… But if you produced something different, how do they put you on the right list then?[P. S.] That also happens I guess because most of my friends are not photographers. Most of my friends are musicians. We’ve been friends since school. That’s how I got into heavy metal. They used to be not just heavy metal: grindcore and black metal and mathcore, whatever the names were, they were really into that shit. And then one of them suddenly turned to pop. He was known as one of the best heavy metal or rock musicians in Kathmandu. So I could listen to that music, too. I didn’t have to pander to the whole peer pressure. That also unconsciously affected me. You can change. I don’t completely agree with what they’re doing or with their mindset, but you can change. You change as a person so why can’t you change your style or why can’t you change your approach? I don’t want to be labelled and I don’t want to get bored. I remember you telling me that after so many years of doing similar things you started to get bored and you started using that toy camera of your daughter. I guess that I realised it much sooner than you. I don’t know if it’s a good thing…
[F. L.] It’s what happened. Everyone has to follow his own pace. The moment I thought that I could start to feel bored, I changed style. But I’m slowly getting back to it, having included things in my practice that I gleaned along the way during that short period with the toy camera…[P. S.] That’s maybe what the time demanded. That break. I’m not saying following the same approach forever is a bad thing. Maybe that’s why a lot of photographer did it, because they found their ultimate calling. Maybe that’s what the time demanded then in the middle you had a break then it again demanded the same approach. It shouldn’t be forced. Do you want to walk? Do you want to go and meet my friends?
[F. L.] Where are your friends?[P. S.] In Thamel.
[F. L.] Let’s walk then, yes. A few days before the earthquake I walked from Patan to Thamel through Teku. Then in the small streets, not exactly knowing the direction I had to go, somewhere just after the river there is a temple, and that morning there were people chanting bhajan. I stopped and asked permission to enter the temple and they welcomed me. I sat down and listen. I felt so intensely in Kathmandu at that moment. Then this earthquake happened a few days later. And I cannot help but connect this very moment of intimacy with the city and the fact that the earthquake arrived a bit later. But the bhajan were very beautiful. I don’t know what happened to the people. But I walked that way again in February and the temple was there. This is just a remembrance of why I am here. Well, it’s not only because of hindu chants, I am not religious at all either.[P. S.] It’s not about hindu exoticism…
[F. L.] No, you’re right. It’s about this very strange feeling of being at the right place in spite of the chaos. You told me one day that this idea of mine was the fantasised vision of a white man. And indeed, me coming from a rich country and owning everything I need, how can I say that I feel at the right place, a place where the balance between order and disorder is the most acceptable to me, in a country where the level of poverty, of malnutrition or of illiteracy is so high? This is one of the very difficult question I have to face. Because on the one hand yes, this is a fantasy, a fiction, a concept. And on the other it is not. This is how I feel. This disorder is less violent to me than the disorder of Paris.[P. S.] It is about what you really feel. Again, maybe that can be termed as the worst exotification, but we have this idea of the Western world, we have this idea of Europe, of America: all our problems are going to go away once we are in America. We have a dream. We’ll go there, and build a happy life like we see in the movies. But we also in our hearts know that it’s not going to be the case. It’s going to be fucking hard to live there, it’s not going to be as easy as living in Kathmandu… I guess that is also a sort of exotification, isn’t it?
[F. L.] It is. And it is brought in through the same kind of channels than when we exotify Nepal. Nepalis exotify America through films. We exotify Nepal through the few things we know from the hippie period and from buddhism and the Himalayas…[P. S.] During the April 2006 uprising, my twelfth grade exams were supposed to be scheduled, but because of the events they didn’t happen. And my brother had gotten a scholarship in the US before that. So he was in the US to study. And I also thought, let’s try the US. That’s what you were supposed to do. Again that idea of doing what is expected. My brother got a scholarship. I’m not as intelligent. I don’t get as good grades in school but let me try. I tried for the US. I got a few scholarships, but not 100% scholarships. And I got into a few colleges but obviously I couldn’t afford it, so I said: let’s fuck it. I’m not going to go. After 75% scholarship you still have to pay 40,000 dollars a year. I think that me going to India rather than to America, in hindsight now, was the best decision that I made. It was a very random decision. Arya (my girlfriend) had applied to Manipal, the Indian University that I studied in. I thought I don’t have anywhere else to go, so I might as well apply. I have to do something with my life. Let’s just apply. Then I got in. Then I told my parents. It was a very bad college that I was in. The courses were good but the teachers were really bad. But there were some teachers who were involved with the communist movement and the Naxalites. I learned a lot thanks to them. It was there that I learned that I didn’t not want to do journalism any more. It was just shitty. Then I came back to Nepal. Photo.circle happened. Photography happened in my life. Thank god America didn’t happen to me. If I had gotten that scholarship probably I would be in Walmart selling things to whoever doesn’t need them…
[F. L.] I don’t remember having ever walked from Indra chowk to Ason at this time of the day [nine in the evening]. That’s beautiful.[P. S.] It’s the first time in twenty years, twenty-one years now?
[F. L.] Twenty-two. I took off from Europe on the 13th March 1994. I landed here the next day.[P. S.] Are you being nostalgic?
[F. L.] I am. I was a mere tourist wanting to go trekking then. I went to Khumbu, Jumla, Rara lake, Dolpa. Then my guide, who was not at all a professional guide, invited me to his family after the trekking we did together. There was a good friendship between us. His family lives in Ithari, not far from Biratnagar. It’s the first time I’m thinking of that in these terms, but maybe that’s a decisive step in my relationship to the country. I had been in Nepal only for two months and then someone took me to his village in the Tarai, a boring place where people were only watching television. There was not much else to do. I read two thick books by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who was my favourite writer at the time. But I also started to learn Nepali because no one would speak English in the family of my friend. He taught me things like there are different words to say rice in Nepali: when it is a plant [dhan], when it is a grain [chamal] and when it is cooked [bhat]. Then I came back in 1996. I went to Dolpa again. I took a bus to Pokhara then another bus to Beni, then I walked towards Dorpathan and I crossed the three passes to Dunahi.[P. S.] I did that too! I did the same trek. You mean to say Shey Phoksumdo?
[F. L.] Yes, exactly. I did it in May 1996. There was a lot of snow on the passes.[P. S.] Did one of your porters die?
[F. L.] I didn’t have any porter. I was alone. I had two maps, a compass, food for some days, and I reach Dunahi…[P. S.] I did that trek in 2006.
[F. L.] How was it?[P. S.] When we reached Dhorpathan, because of ten years of war, it was nearly empty. And the people would just talk about the fact that they saw the first people from other places, other than the Maoists, after ten years. Probably they were thinking about you the time before! It was so hard. How long did it take to reach Phoksumdo?
[F. L.] I don’t remember well. More than twenty days all in all. I took it slowly. I was carrying all the food, the stove.[P. S.] We were the five of us, plus one guy as a porter. He was a brother for us, a fifty years old guy, he was taking care of us. And that was our first trek. We were just stupid young people. Who did we think we were to walk from Beni to Shey Phoksumdo on the first trek? And that was just one month after the peace treaty was signed.
[F. L.] That’s a good experience.[P. S.] It was the best experience. We could have died. But we survived.
[F. L.] When you ask me if I’m nostalgic, you know… After that I didn’t come here before 1999. This was my longest break in my visits to Nepal. Then I slowly turned to this kind of documentary photography because of my encounter with Lise Sarfati. Then I started to consider anything that was linked to the tourism industry here as not worth the time spent at it. But now that I did all these things, working for these NGOs, doing the whole Everyday Epiphanies series on the fringe of these documentary journeys, I start to feel that photography could be connected again to the simple fact of being here, and doing what the people do. People go to Tsum and Nar and Phu and to Shey Phoksumdo. So if I documented the daily life of people suffering from famine in Humla, why couldn’t I go trekking again in these places that still attract me, but to do another kind of photography than what I was doing in the beginning? This is something that I’m considering now.[P. S.] I really want to see Tsum. I have never been there.
[F. L.] I have a friend who comes here five months a year and often spends the winter in Tsum with some local old people who give him a room in a house. He spends his time there, cutting his wood, doing whatever he can…[P. S.] I have a project to go to some place like Manang, upper Dolpo where they shift down from winter settlements and then there’s only few people left in these places. I want to go there and live for a while with the few people that are left. I just want to see how it is. Probably that’s my way of exotifying things…
Photograph: Prasiit Sthapit, Kathmandu, 2013, Everyday Epiphanies series.