In Nepal, Armed With A Polaroid Camera
Nepal is a country that conjures ethereal images of the Himalayan Mountains, Everest, Hindu and Buddhist temples, Monks and prayer flags. For some, a spiritual pilgrimage. For others, a challenge to the limit of human endurance in the face of the world's highest peaks.
As a travel photographer, I am never entirely sure what draws me to each destination, an instinct that I struggle to articulate. There is a sea of elements that must come together in order for you to be in a precise destination in a particular moment in time.
This time, these elements lured me to Nepal, to Annapurna Mountain Range, where this story kicks off.
I teamed up with the guys at Portrait Equality; a non-profit organisation with a simple honest goal: to provide families in developing nations with a tangible image of their family or children or themselves to keep, using a Polaroid camera.
I was truly naïve to how such a simple gesture would make such an impact on me and change how I capture people.
So armed with my camera, a Polaroid camera and my backpack; my amazing Nepalese guides and I took the long and bumpy road to the start of the trek as we set off into the Himalayas.
The trek through the Annapurna ranges is dotted with villages and tea houses along the way. Villages so remote they require donkeys to bring in the essentials from the bottom of the mountain. In the wintertime,the villages are completely cut off. During the trekking season, the paths are filled with trekkers from allover the world. The villagers earn what money they can to survive the winter,by selling food, trinkets, jewelry, trekking equipment and providing accommodation during this season.
Up until as recently as 2006 Nepal was in a civil war. The Nepalese have suffered oppression and continue to suffer severe poverty. Many families cannot afford to education; orphanages are overflowing, child labor and human trafficking is a very real issue. During the uprising of civil war in Nepal between the Maoist Communist party and the Monarchy Dictatorship, the Maoist guerrillas operated out of the villages in the mountainous regions of Nepal. Conflict between the Nepalese Army and the Maoists often involved civilians in these villages causing widespread destruction and separation of families.
Although Nepal is rebuilding itself, these residual issues trickle throughout the country.
On our ascent we stopped to chat to the villagers. They were used to photographers and would smile for photos. The Polaroid camera however,peaked their interest. My guides translated as they opened up and told stories of their lives, their struggles and dreams for their children. There were families who had lost everything in the war, having to rebuild from scratch and wanted a photo with their new house. They gathered their children, got dressed into formal clothing for their picture. They laughed and were silly. There was a mother who cried when she received a Polaroid of her son, those who hugged me, who danced. It was infectious.
On our descent we approached a small village perched precariously on the edge of a cliff at the high point of a mountain pass. As I stopped to re-adjust my pack, I took in my surroundings. A lively two-year-old Nepalese boy ran past me and sat down at the feet of his grandmother who was seated affront a large mud hut with a stoic face. The boy’s family was seated in a row watching the trekkers struggling up the mountain, and collapsing in a collective heap. As I approached the boy, he curiously looked up, held my gaze, and continued to play on the concrete. I pulled the Polaroid camera from my bag, and the movement caught his eye and instantly I had his attention. To a two year old, everything is a toy. I lined up the Polaroid and snapped and the camera churned as the Polaroid film processed and ejected from the top. I had sparked the interest of all those around us. Handing him he Polaroid, I motioned to him to shake the film and blow on it. As his face slowly appeared on the film, he squealed with excitement and ran to his family. The whole village and a few exhausted trekkers were now crowded around.
His older brother, a boy aged around seven years, looked on quietly. I asked him if he would like a photo he shyly nodded his head. I took the photo, and handed it to the little boy, who was still enthusiastically shaking his own fully developed photo. The little boy watched closely as the photo of his brother developed in front of him. Suddenly as the picture formed, the boy gasped in mock surprise then laughed “you ugly!” in Nepalese. Everyone erupted with laughter; the boy’s grandmother broke into a radiating smile. The boy, play tackling his little brother and laughing.
Back in Kathmandu, the journey continued. A sacred place in Hinduism called Pashnupatinath is located just north of the city. Named after the local deity. It is sprawling array of Shivas and temples on the Baghmati River. This river is quite significant in Hinduism, as it runs from the Himalayas to the Ganges. On the banks of the Baghmati, Sadhu’s, the holy men of Hinduism seek enlightenment and bodies are cremated in open-air religious processions. The smoke stings your eyes, and leaves your throat dry and course. Behind the banks of the river, in a large traditional Nepalese building is the Mother Theresa Missionaries of Charity hospice for the destitute. A place created by the Sisters for Mother Teresa, devoted followers who continue her life’s mission. Those who reside there,have little to no family, come from destitution, have no possessions and are disabled and dying.
As I entered the hospice I saw elderly woman in her late 80s seated alone in front of me. One of workers in the hospice had joined me and translated as I spoke to her. She talked to me in Nepalese in a grandmotherly tone so melodically; it could rock you to sleep. She touched my cheeks with the back of her hand and stroked my hair with tender hands, as grandmothers do. I pulled out the camera and asked permission to shoot as she laughed and pulled faces as I shot. As we talked, I took a Polaroid photo of her. She mocked outrage in Nepalese at the hideousness of her old wrinkled skin. The crowd forming around us laughed. I took another photo and she kissed my head, holding on dearly to the photo. These unusual commotions for a usually idle afternoon drew others from the woodwork. Soon I was surrounded.
As my eyes took in the scene around me, the degree of destitution was becoming apparent. I saw the glaucoma in one woman’s eye,another severely deformed spine forcing her to be hunched at a right angle, the lost limbs and weary bodies. With little more than blankets and haphazard beds strewn across hallways, as smoke from the cremations next door filled with air.They were treated well and were loved by the staff, but have to stretch very little funds a long way.
And yet here they were, their bodies broken and frail, yet their eyes were vibrant and alive. They compared photos, shaking the Polaroids and giggling. Many of them pleaded with me not to go. Straightening their clothes, combing their hair or retrieving prayer beads, and standing proud for their photo.
When I finally said my goodbyes one man chased after me, waving his Polaroid in the air, saying goodbye, clasping his hands together in a prayer motion, his smile radiating across his face.
The impact of this project became immediately apparent. This cheap Polaroid camera, revealed an insight and openness I was not expecting.They were illuminated. Some, just wanted to share their story, others were overjoyed to have a their first ever photo of their family member to keep. For others, it was capturing a moment that demonstrates how far they have come in rebuilding their lives after such devastation and war.
But here, at the Mother Teresa hospice, it took on a completely new meaning. With the literal smell of death in the air, this simple portrait was one last chance to leave their mark in the world. To say: I was here. I existed. I am not forgotten. A tangible measure of existence. A small kindness, for those with nothing. This project became beyond me, I was lucky enough to be the vessel, a witness to them in this moment, and the power of a single picture.
Nepal is one of the few places that shifts the rhythm within you. It was unforgettable. I was lucky enough to find my way there. To witness the sheer compassion of all those I met. But, I am not a writer, so these words fail to convey everything that Nepal is, and means to me. A feeling only felt,until you pack your bags and see it for yourself.
7 months after my visit to Nepal, an earthquake utterly devastated the country. The rebuild continues, but the remote nature of the vast majority of those affected means even still, aid is slow to filter up to those regions. Thankfully the Missionaries of Charity hospice was unaffected by the earthquake and remains standing today. The guide and porter who assisted me on this trip, and their families also survived. But please donate what you canto this incredible country, even if all you can donate is your support.
Some notable organisations doing some incredible work over there: