Note: This blog is written in English but my native language is Portuguese. Sorry if you find typos, funny phrase constructions or odd sentences. And by the way, thanks for reading it!
Last December I traveled to Nepal to participate in a project called Kathmandu Inside Out (KIO). It’s a photography masterclass that happens every year in the Kathmandu Valley promoted by Singaporean photojournalist Edwin Koo and Nepalese photographer Suraj Shakya. The focus of this course is on storytelling and documentary photography and it translates in an intensive week of research, talks, cooperation and photo shooting. All things combined made KIO a great learning experience that helped me to see things differently. It allowed me to understand better where I stand as a photographer and some of the aspects and guidelines that make documentary photography such an interesting discipline.
Moving on from single photos to powerful stories.
For the last couple of years I’ve been looking to gain some insight about storytelling in photography and how to create a visual narrative supported by a sequence of images. Before going to Nepal it was always a mystery to me how a photo sequence is created, what are the rules (If any) behind the process and why do we choose to place certain images in specific places along the storyline.
I remember discussing with a friend of mine, many years ago, the importance of the order of songs in a music album and the way he reacted when I asked if the sequence was that important. He explained me that to create a great album it takes more than just good songs. Its important to tell a story and to tell that story the songs need to be in the right place, in the right order.
Documentary photography is no different, in this respect, to a good music album. We can have great images but if the order in which those images are presented doesn’t make sense, then we will have an unclear narrative and eventually no story at all.
Seeing comes before photographing.
A few years ago I was watching a Cartier-Bresson interview where he said something that I never forgot, didn’t fully understand the meaning at the time but it kept on resonating inside of my head, he said something like “we don’t look anymore, one must live and look!”
This is one of the reasons why I feel that documentary photography and storytelling are becoming increasingly vulnerable. We don’t allow our selfs time to look, before and after the picture is taken. We live by the thumb, or if you prefer by the speed of the thumb. We scroll on our phones an average of dozens if not hundreds of images a day. Its overwhelming. And we transport this urgency into the shooting process as well. How can we understand the depth of a story or even a single image by doing things at this pace?
And I don’t say this in a mere form of criticism. I say this because it’s the way of the world. The pace of our lives, the way in which we share our experiences through the different media platforms and the way those platforms are built allow no space and no time for long visual narratives.
So why go all the way to Nepal to study something that seems to have no place in the modern world?
My interest in visual arts started at a young age when I use to draw. Later in life I worked as a graphic designer and as a commercial photographer but when things took a completely different direction and started to make more sense was when I discovered some of the classic photographers of the last century, especially the works of W. Eugene Smith, Josef Koudelka and Robert Frank. This was a “decisive moment’ in my short photography life and it shaped permanently my interest in visual arts. The stories told by this photographers and the capacity of capturing and printing images that portrait important aspects of an entire society or generation or social group, is astonishing. It really is!
It was clear to me that what I was experiencing was a point of no return and I felt the need of knowing more.
I discovered KIO in a bookstore by picking up a book called “Paradise” from the Singaporean photographer Edwin Koo, and, what I came to find out later, one of KIO promoters.
“Paradise’ is the result of a personal long-term project, a photo documentary journey, shot in Pakistan during a period of great social instability. It is a magnificent, carefully curated, black and white photo book with images that are both deeply emotional and visually well crafted. And it was “Paradise” that eventually made me contact Edwin and send him my tiny portfolio for review and apply to KIO. Six months later I was on my way to Nepal to participate in one of the most richest photography experiences of my life.
Photography is a dance.
My nine days in Kathmandu were very intense to say the least. KIO is a full course on documentary photography, compressed in a week of permanent shooting, multiple review sessions, guest lectures and constant dialogue and collaboration among the participants, local and international, and the extremely knowledgeable volunteers that are part of the KIO structure. It’s a team composed by experienced photographers, editors and graphic designers all with one common interest – storytelling. In my opinion this is where the success of KIO lives. It’s this mix of talented and dedicated people that makes KIO such an immersive and unique experience.
What is my story?
The outcome of this eight days of work can be found here. It’s the story of Musafir Mukhiya, a migrant worker from India that works as a scrap collector. But the story initially, was meant to be something different, more focused on the relation between air quality, recycling industries and the role that scrap collectors have in this chain of elements. It turned out to be a more intimate and personal story and that’s something important that we learn in KIO. It’s not up to us, storytellers, to create the stories. It’s the stories and their subjects that show us the way and we need to be prepared to accept that we might find something completely different from our preconceived thoughts. This happened to me.
The only negative aspect about KIO is that we don’t have a lot of time to go out and explore Kathmandu. KIO absorbs most of our time. The solution is to arrive in Nepal a few days before or stay longer or even both as some of the participants did. That’s something that I regret not doing it. But it also means that I have to go back, hopefully in a very near future.
Still I managed to do some really early morning walks and snap some images from Kathmandu streets. Always with no direction in mind. Always feeling slightly lost but with a great sense of satisfaction.
A final note for the Lalit Heritage Home. It’s a guest house in the centre of Lalitpur with the most warm welcoming team and a beautiful view over the Historical Patan Durbar Square. A special thank you to Renish and Satish and their family, especially during those difficult last few days.
Me, Shruti Shrestra, Choa Fung Fung, Keshav Thapa, Utsab Adhikari, Bipin Tamang
Jeremy Ho, Sabrina Dongol, Jess Rai, Saral Karki, Labesh Shrestha, Fauzi Djauhari
Pritam Shakya, Robic Upadhayay, Rupak Raj Sunuwar, Pramin Manandhar, Suraj Ratna Shakya, Edwin Koo
My photography gear used in this story:
Fujifilm xt2 – Fujinon 35mm f2 – Fujinon 50mm f2 – Fujifilm x100s – WCL x100