In Toronto's edgy garment district stands 410 Richmond, a factory transformed into a multi-use art space. Here, at Gallery 44, Surendra Lawoti's work will go on exhibit next week as part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival.
Born in Panchthar and raised in Kathmandu, Lawoti studied photography in Chicago and Boston. Upon moving to Toronto in 2008, he began to photograph local bodies of water, including the Don River, which once marked the city's eastern boundary.
The Don River flows through some of Toronto's most developed, environmentally debased and also wealthiest neighborhoods. Its shores also host a homeless population whose numbers shrink or swell with the seasons and the world's economic fortunes.
Lawoti's photographs allow the viewer to get to know Don River through the people who come to it in search of recreation or shelter. The photographs are luminous, and remarkably detailed. Lawoti works with a 4x5 view camera on film, in a process that is slow and deliberate.
"With this format, you really need the cooperation of the people you're photographing," he says. The format suits him, as his work is about "looking closely, and intensely, at the world."
In some of the photographs, Lawoti closes in on people's faces, or on the telling details of the landscape. In others he draws back to meditate on the overall atmosphere of Don River.
Among the homeless he portrays are Paulie, who lived in a shelter built with 2x4's before moving to an apartment with his girlfriend; and Joe, who is shown, in a stance both vulnerable and challenging, in front of his tent. Those who come to the area for recreation include a father and son with their dog, and a runner.
Exhibition Coordinator Alice Dixon points out that Lawoti approaches all his subjects with a respectful, full-frontal perspective reminiscent of August Sander's portraits of working people. "It's a way of democratizing the gaze," she says. The rest of the photographs focus on the landscape: a hemmed-in, urban wilderness besieged post-apocalyptic menace.
What emerges as a whole is a compelling portrait of an urban habitat as fragile and fleeting as the lives of those who move through it.
It is a mark of Toronto's cosmopolitanism to showcase artists such as Lawoti. It is also a mark of Lawoti's sophistication to have found a way to engage, and so deeply, with a land that he knew little about just a few years ago.
"When I started this project, I didn't know anything about Don River. It felt like going into the wilderness," he recalls with a laugh.
But he was determined, he says, to "ground" himself by getting to know this specific patch of Toronto. It was his way of engaging, and forging a link, with his new home.
"Working on this project helped me understand Toronto," he says. "Nepal is also home, of course. But I feel rooted here now."
'Don River' will be on from 30 April 30-4 June www.gallery44.org ww.surendralawoti.com