16-22 January 2015 #741

Documenting dukkha

An American photographer’s impressions of Nepal
Cynthia Choo

THROUGH HIS EYES: American photographer Kevin Bubriski at the launch of his photo book Nepal: 1975-2011 in Kathmandu last week.
At the launch of his photo book Nepal: 1975-2011 last week, photographer Kevin Bubriski moved around the room quietly, at one moment speaking to acquaintances in a corner, then chatting with friends the next. Once he was seated, he barely flinched, staring blankly into space as his work was praised in front of a crammed room full of fans and aspiring photographers.

It was only when he started describing the stories behind his photos of villagers living in extreme poverty in rural Nepal that we saw him truly come alive.

Kevin’s passion for documenting the lives of Nepalis is not unknown. It is the reason long time friend Michael Gill describes him as a “real humanist”.

“His photos are full of the happiness, sadness, joys and challenges that Nepalis face,” said Gill.

Kevin, 61, first came to Nepal as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1975 and was based in Karnali. His stay there inspired him to begin telling Nepal’s story through his lens.

“I was among the first few outsiders to arrive in the village,” he said.

The best viewfinder for Kevin was living in close proximity with the locals. With his 35mm camera, Kevin started taking portraits of villagers.

“In the first section of the book I wanted to show the gruelling lives of the people in Nepal. I focused on the mountainous areas where there are food deficits, high infant mortality rates, poverty and lack of healthcare,” said Kevin.

In fact, Kevin constantly refers to his photos as capturing the “dukkha” or difficulties of life in Nepal. While on a trek, Kevin stumbled upon a barefoot porter carrying a sick man in a doko.

“Do I take a photograph or help the porter?” Kevin asks, rhetorically.

He ultimately decided to take the photograph because it was vital to shed light on the arduous lives of people in rural Nepal.

Despite spending almost four decades documenting lives in Nepal, Kevin still does not think his book is ‘the whole Nepal story’.

“It is just one American photographer’s impressions of Nepal,” said Kevin.

Kevin confesses that he is still very much an outsider in Nepal in many ways. “I don’t really fit in,” he said. Fortunately, being unaware of cultural stereotypes meant that he could chronicle the country without any prejudice.

Once on a cold winter day, Kevin invited a Dalit into his tent, only to be stopped and dissuaded by his Nepali porter who said he was ‘untouchable’. Dissatisfied that he couldn’t bring him in, Kevin helped start a fire outside for the Dalit.

Though he wishes to continue photographing Nepal for as long as possible, he concedes that his work is merely one person’s perspective of what happens in Nepal at one point in time.

Nepal: 1975-2011

by Kevin Bubriski

Radius Books/Peabody Museum Press 2014

224 pages

Rs 6500

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Kevin’s eye