When The Mountains Called is a photography exhibition that presents 28 narratives of the various aspects of Kathmandu and its people. Jointly organised by Kathmandu INSIDE:OUT (KIO) and the Nepalese Society, the exhibition runs from 11 to 17 May 2015 at the ION Station (ION Orchard, Basement 4).
The photo stories are gathered over three sessions of KIO, which is an annual Kathmandu-based masterclass headed by photographer Edwin Koo. Participants are required to develop and narrate real stories of the Nepalese capital through their lens.
The exhibition speaks volumes about the resilience, strength and positivity of the Nepalese people in the face of hardship and challenging times. The images divulge both the personal and intimate details of the grueling everyday life in the city and engage with larger social and economic issues. They offer glimpses into Kathmandu’s contemporary culture as well as provide local insights into longheld Nepalese traditions and heritage.
In the wake of the recent earthquake in Nepal, When The Mountains Called serves as a platform to raise awareness and funds for the Nepalese people. Proceeds will go to Nepalese NGOs including Prisoners Assistance Nepal, Wildlife Conservation Nepal and Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA) in aid of the humanitarian effort now underway in Nepal.
Nookmag (N): Hey Edwin, tell us more about how stories are gathered during KIO?
Edwin (E): We assign participants with KIO buddies from Nepal who follow them throughout the eight days to help them mould and shape their stories and more importantly, to help them understand a culture that is foreign to them. These buddies are their guides/translators/best friends. Their common love is storytelling and they become your hands, feet and eyes on the ground.
The participants would meet me in Kathmandu with a story idea. There’s tremendous stress for them to deliver. No one has ever failed the course. At the same time, they are also enjoying themselves because they realise that what they experience through their story is personal and unique. The story becomes part of their own voice and their personal take on Nepal. None of these stories are replicated. All stories are unique because all storytellers are unique.
No matter how much homework you do, reality has a wonderful way of surprising you and often, it’s a good way. You may resist it at first but your story always turn out more beautiful than you thought. A lot of these stories developed in ways that they did not set out to do.
N: The Sk8er Gal story really speaks to us…
E: Most of the girls by 17 or 18 years old would have gotten married, especially in the villages. In Kathmandu, the age is getting higher. Despite that, the gender roles are very defined. When a girl gets married, she’s expected to take over the duties of her mother-in-law completely.
During the day, Anshu is a government office worker. When night comes, she turns into somebody who is very rebellious against social norms. In Nepal, girls are expected to be demure to be marriageable. She’s skateboarding beside symbols of authority. She’s pretty rebellious but at the same time, she works for the authority. For us, it was such a powerful story. We’ll always discover these really powerful stories during Kathmandu INSIDE:OUT that you will never think when you talk about Kathmandu or Nepal. When you talk about Nepal, people would think of mountains, rivers, pagodas, monks… But this is a very superficial way of looking at it. If you want to believe that is Nepal, you can. But there is also a deeper side of Nepal that you would miss if you’re not doing a story about it.
N: With all these accumulated stories being exhibited here, what do you hope to invoke in your audience?
E: At the end of the day, I hope that they can go through the stories and let at least one of the stories touch them in a very personal way – not to sympathise but to see themselves inside the same story. For example, if you have problems with your mum or dad, you can see yourself in Pankanj (A Place called Home), maybe in 10 years time, maybe you’re young now. And you will remember this story. The power of photography is because…this is how we remember things. I think for young people, it’s more important. In this age of Instagram where we shoot everything that we eat, every toilet that we visit, it’s starting to become a little bit too much. I think it’s time to take a step back and take a look at how photography can add meaning to your life, rather than make you meaninglessly busy by trying to update people about your life but telling them nothing. For young people, appreciate photography for the depths of emotions that it can carry.
N: Which particular story touched you the most personally?
E: I’d say it’s the story – Being Sherpa. I think this is one of the simple but great stories because when we talk about Sherpas, we think about people who climb mountains. But what about Sherpas who cannot climb mountains anymore? What about Sherpas whose tasks are more difficult than climbing mountains?
This is about a pair of husband and wife. The husband was a summiteer of Mount Everest but he met with an accident, so he can no longer climb. What is it like to be like him? What is it like to be like his wife, who has an even greater task of taking care of a person who sometimes forgets who she is? That is a higher Everest that anybody could ever climb. I think this is one story that is very emotive because it is very simple. We can see this situation in many families. For example, if you have aging parents.
There is a very common scene where the mother is wiping the father’s face, washing him up because he can’t move. They are Sherpas, they live in Nepal, they are very far removed from us. But when we look at this, we can identify with it. And so I think it personifies the power of photography that enables us to take ownership of a story even though we do not know the people inside the story.
We make meanings of photos. It may not be that meaning but that’s what we take away.
N: How are you raising funds through this exhibition?
E: There are two ways. You can either buy a postcard which is priced at SGD5 each and these postcards are smaller versions of these large story panels. In a very real sense, you take home the story with you. The other way is you adopt a story for SGD500. We’ll put your name on it and we’ll place a sticker.
This has been done by a few companies and personal sponsors who find that they connect with the stories and they want to sponsor them. We call it adopt-a-story because we feel that it is stronger than sponsor. Sponsor is just giving money. If you adopt a story, it means that you identify with the story. When this happens, Nepal becomes a part of you. You’re giving to somebody whom you wish will be able to regain a beautiful life that you witnessed in this story. Pass it on, pay it forward. It is a testament that anybody can be a storyteller if he/she puts his/her heart into it.
Of course they need medical supplies and shelters. After a while when all these needs are taken care of, what do you need to take care of? It’s actually emotional needs. They want to feel that people still care about them. In the long run, it would help with the rehabilitation – maybe not in a very tangible way, but in an even more important intangible way.
More information of When The Mountains Called exhibition and the Kathmandu INSIDE:OUT masterclass can be found at www.kathmanduinsideout.com.