Birgunj Nepal Photo Essay

When a devastating earthquake hit Nepal on Saturday, NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati was finishing an oral storytelling and digital-archiving workshop sponsored by the Nepal Picture Library. She and the other participants escaped the severely damaged building and helped construction workers next door who had been injured.

She waited out the immediate aftershocks and then went right to work, spending the last six days coordinating volunteers and sleeping a few hours outdoors each night. Her ad hoc group has been fundraising and purchasing food and basic materials for shelter.

The quake has damaged or destroyed entire neighborhoods and villages throughout the country, as well as many important cultural and historical sites. While the historical sites had been well documented over the years, many of the other areas have not been. Fortunately, the Nepal Picture Library, started by Ms. Kakshapati and her partner, Bhushan Shilpakar, has collected and archived over 26,000 images taken by both amateur and professional Nepalese photographers.

“We haven’t had a lot of time to dwell upon it, but it does feel that these photos are now an even more incredibly valuable record of Nepalese history and culture,” she said in a phone conversation this week.

The Nepal Picture Library was started in 2011 as a repository of images that also document the history of Nepali photography. There was a need, Ms. Kakshapati said, for a centralized visual history of the nation’s people and culture, especially since historically important images had been lost and discarded over time.

Nepal’s photographic patrimony offered an opportunity to consider the lives of everyday people and the dramatic shifts in the country since it opened up its borders in 1950. Access to photography was mostly limited to the aristocracy until the early 20th century, and it was not until the 1950s that the masses had access to photo studios such as the one owned by Atta Hussein Sheikh and Purna Bahadur Shrestha from Birgunj in southern Nepal (slides 1 to 10).

“When people look at our visual history, only the narrative of the people in power and the privileged have been put forward,” Ms. Kakshapati said. “We’re creating the opportunity for a lot of people to contribute their stories. In Nepal we’re trying to be inclusive, looking forward, but this project allows us to look at a more inclusive past as well.”

The collection now stands as a record of Nepal before the earthquake. Among the thousands of images are photos of people who died, as well as of neighborhoods that were destroyed.

Nepal has many ethnic groups, and the library has collected photos from around the country in an attempt to document its diverse people. Included in the collection are photographs from the family albums of Juju Bhai Dhakhwa (slides 11 to 16), an amateur photographer from Patan in the Katmandu Valley. The photos taken in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s show “the first generation of urban Nepali youth who enjoyed newly imported Russian motorbikes and Bollywood-inspired three-piece suits.” The neighborhood depicted in many of his photos was destroyed in the earthquake.

The collection also includes images taken by Janak Prasad Shrestha, the son of a Newar tradesman who became a professional photographer. Although little is known of the subjects, the pictures were made in Tansen, a town perched on the crest of the Mahabharat mountain range.

The Nepal Picture Library has been operating on a shoestring budget, and it does not have a professional archivist. Ms. Kakshapati is seeking assistance from curators, archivists and graduate students.

Ms. Kakshapati also helped found the Photo Circle, an eight-year-old collective that helps young photographers network, acquire new skills and distribute their work. This week, they started an Instagram account for Nepali photographers and friends from India and Bangladesh, to document the earthquake in a grass-roots manner.

Ms. Kakshapati was raised in Katmandu and went to school at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., where she became interested in photography. When she returned to Nepal in 2006, she realized there were no photo schools where other young Nepalis could learn to tell their own stories.

While she has continued to photograph her own projects, she has devoted most of her time to educational programs and creating the Nepal Picture Library. For now, she is putting all of her energies into relief efforts, but she plans to soon return to collecting and preserving the photographic heritage of her people.

“We’re a small, pretty impoverished country, but we are incredibly rich in culture and in natural resources,” she said. “We have messy politics and we have gone through incredible changes, particularly in moving from a monarchy to a democratic republic. But this is where I belong and where I’ve always wanted to work.”

Follow @JamesEstrin and @nytimesphoto on Twitter. Lens is also on Facebook.

Large swathes of southern Nepal were hit by floods in the weekend of August 12th and 13th, following a cloudburst. Fifteen districts in the lowlands have been affected, while landslides have been reported higher in the Himalayas. At least 90 people have been killed, 38 are still missing, and more than 2,000 buildings have collapsed.

The government claims to be rushing rescue and relief operations to the flooded areas, but local media reports indicate that victims have been left to deal with the disaster on their own. Munna Saraff, a photographer based in Birgunj in Parsa district, went to nearby Ramgaduwa to document a village hit by the flooded Sirsiya river, one of the many rivers in the transboundary Ganga basin.

A woman walks in front of her flooded home [image by: Munna Saraff]

A man carries his goat to higher ground [image by: Munna Saraff]

A woman contemplates her flooded home [image by: Munna Saraff]

A shopkeeper bales out water from his home in an effort to save his stock [image by: Munna Saraff]

Using his stick as a depth gauge, a man moves towards higher ground [image by: Munna Saraff]

Much of Ramgaduwa is flooded [image by: Munna Saraff]

Even brick and mortar houses stand isolated [image by: Munna Saraff]

This house has become uninhabitable [image by: Munna Saraff]

Homeless residents move into a neighbour’s home with whatever they can carry [image by: Munna Saraff]

People flooded out of the Jyoti Nagar area eat at a relief camp in Birgunj [image by: Munna Saraff]

Inside the relief camp, opened at a dharamshala (pilgrims’ inn) in Birgunj [image by: Munna Saraff]

This story was first published on August 16, 2017.

Share this story

0 thoughts on “Birgunj Nepal Photo Essay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *