Indra Jatra is the largest religious street festival in Kathmandu, Nepal’s largest city. It was started by King Gunakamadeva to commemorate the founding of the city in the 10th century. I have to be honest; I didn’t really know much about the festival when I decided to go, so I wasn’t all that prepared for such a wild afternoon in Kathmandu’s largest public square.Read More
A Year In Review for A Photographer In Nepal
As my first year in Nepal draws to an end I’m feeling nostalgic about all that I saw and did this year. Nepal is an incredible place and it’s not hard to see why so many people are drawn to its magic. I spent 2016 wandering its streets, trying to make sense of all I’ve seen with my camera.
I thought it would be appropriate to end my year of story by choosing twelve stories (one for each month) that have left the greatest impression on me since my arrival. Some cover work that I did, many opened a door for me to learn more about culture and religion, and some I stumbled across by accident. Regardless of how these experiences happened, I’m grateful to live in a place that has such an abundance of culture, faith, and truly kind people.
Maha Shivaratri is a Hindu festival celebrated annually in honor of the god Shiva. It symbolizes overcoming darkness and ignorance in life and the world.
I participated in this festival with a local Nepali photographer who had been photographing it for several years. His relationship with the sadhus (Hindu holy men) makes it possible for me to take this spectacular image.
These three sadhus can be found in the first shrine on the corner across from Pashupati temple on any given day in Kathmandu. I once witnessed them forcibly boot out a visiting sadhu who had unfortunately chosen to set up shop in their designated spot. Their relationship with each other draws me back to the Pashupati.
Madhav Narayan is a festival and one of the most difficult rituals practiced by Hindus in Nepal. Devotees undertake a month-long fast, walk barefoot in the cold winter mornings, and take a chilly, holy bath in the Hanuman River by the early light of day.
Around me, women loosen their hair and prepare their offerings before entering the freezing water. They disregard the trash that floats up around them and rinse their entire body, including their mouths. Many light candles at the water's edge and chants fill the air.
Samyak Festival is held once every four years by the Newar Buddhists of Kathmandu. They preserve the Vajrayana tradition (one of three ways to enlightenment). Over a hundred statues are brought from all over Nepal so they can be worshiped simultaneously.
Seto Machindranath Temple. Kathmandu, Nepal
Seto Machindranath, also known as Janabaha Dyo, is a deity worshiped by both Hindus and Buddhists. This temple is believed to have been established around the 10th century. Each year, the deity’s image is placed in a chariot and paraded around Kathmandu.
This was the first temple that I photographed in Kathmandu. The outside of the temple is intricately designed with beautiful metalwork and in the morning light streams in from the left side of the temple and glistens on the golden walls.
The temple is surrounded by pigeons, and worshipers feed them daily. The belief is that if you show compassion to another living being, you will bring good fortune to your life. It is my favorite temple to photograph in Nepal.
The Boy Monks from Dohla
Over the last year, I’ve built a relationship with a Tamang community that was displaced after the earthquake and one of the nonprofits that is helping them. Their homes and livelihoods were destroyed and there was no hope of rebuilding. The community has been living in tents for over a year. Their lives are far from easy, which is why I joined a project supporting them in building new houses in a new location.
I photographed a group of children from this community who left their homes to join the Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery. They are between six and ten years old.
For some, joining means a roof over their head, food on the table, and education. For others, it is an honor to their devout family to have a Buddhist monk in the family. Almost every family from Dohla has sent at least one of their children. One monk tells me he joined at 14 because he knew it was the right thing for him. I don’t know why these children are joining today, but I am grateful to be present for a small part of their journey.
Moti Maya was only seventeen when she experienced her first earthquake – an 8.4 magnitude shock that struck Nepal on January 15th, 1934. Eighty-one years later her home was destroyed by another massive quake that also killed four people in her small village. After two months of living in the destruction with very little food, Maya Moti left everything she knew and went by helicopter to start a new life in Dhola with fifty five other families from her community.
She spent the last year living in a tent, but remains in good spirits. She finds all these changes in her life exciting and says nothing remains for her family in her old village. She expects she will die soon but is pleased that her daughter, son, and grandchildren will soon have a safe home to live in. Moti Maya’s wish is that her community will live in harmony while undertaking their project of building their 55 homes.
The community of Dohla is in the final stages of building their homes. The members of the community have worked daily with support from Shenpen to rebuild their homes. They have been homeless for two years. They need your help to finish the project.
The community of Dohla is in the final stages of building their homes. The members of the community have worked daily with Maya Tamang is 32 years old. Before the earthquake she had never carried rocks, sand, or rods. She didn't know about building houses. But she has learned to do all these things and take care of three children on her own.
On the day of the earthquake she was working on the ridge of the mountain. She rushed home after the shaking. Her house was gone and her children were terrified. Her husband never came home that day, and they never found his body. He had gone into the forest to collect wood; the entire area was covered in landslide.
She stayed in her old home for over a month before she was moved to Dhola with 55 other families. She is doing outdoor work for the first time in her life. She cooks, gather woods, and water. It is very difficult, but she is happy to be part of the community effort to rebuild their homes. As of December, she and and her children will have been homeless for over two years.
support from Shenpen to rebuild their homes. They have been homeless for two years. They need your help to finish the project.
Pashupatinath Temple. Kathmandu, Nepal.
Pashupatinath is a famous, and sacred temple located on the banks of the Bagmati River. It is considered one of the most sacred temples of the Hindu faith. The temple serves as the seat of the national diety, Lord Shiva. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Pashupatinath is a sacred place for Hindus to be cremated and open air cremation takes place daily. The eldest son of the deceased shaves his head and completes the burial rites.
The banks of the river are lined with ghats (bathing spots) for use by pilgrims. Arya Ghat is of special importance because it is the only place where holy water for Pashupatinath Temple can be obtained and is where members of the royal family are cremated. The main cremation site (pictured here) is Bhasmeshvar Ghat.
Ride Bicycles Not Elephants: Chitwan Nepal
I spent July 4 celebrating not only the independence of America but also Tiger Tops, the first lodge to allow their elephants to go chain free and eliminate the practice of elephant rides.
The process of obtaining and training elephants for elephant rides is truly terrible, and their lives after they’ve been trained aren’t much better. Tourists who choose to ride elephants help promote unethical practices and mistreatment of elephants.
So when the opportunity came to go to Tiger Tops and support their efforts in ethical tourism, I was all in. I wasn’t disappointed. While we didn’t ride the elephants, we spent time with them as they took their baths and walked through the jungle with them while they ate. We also visited them in their specious, chain-free enclosures.
This year, I’ve had several opportunities to put my tourism dollars towards organizations that are doing good in the world. And I believe that post-earthquake Nepal needs tourism more than ever. Tourism provides jobs and opportunities to advocate for people and creatures alike. Search out the right opportunities, and you can make some change in the world.
I’ve been dreaming of going to Bali since I first watched Eat, Pray, Love in college. This year for our seventh wedding anniversary, my husband and I flew there to spend ten days in the beach and the jungle.
These types of adventures make me grateful for the transient life that we chose. I will never forget this trip and I’ll be forever grateful for a partner who values experience the way I do.
Fishtail. Annapurna Base Camp, Nepal.
This year, Dashain, the holiest festival of the year in Nepal, coincided with my 34th birthday. My husband proposed that we start my newly minted year off with some adventure: eight days of trekking to the foot of Annapurna I, the 10th tallest mountain in the world.
On our fourth morning, we got up before dawn to hike from the base camp of the holy mountain Machhapuchhre to our final stop at Annapurna Base Camp. In our final ascent we ended up at about 13,500 feet, far short of the 26,545 foot peak. But from our vantage point we were on top of the world! As we walked on the path through the dark, stars twinkled around Annapurna I, and then the sun crept over the mountains to take our breath away.
Along the way we met people from all over the world. Our fellow adventurers were Nepali, American, British, Dutch, Swiss, etc. People of every age are drawn to this magnificent hike. At one point, we were told by an intrepid hiker, “I’m seventy seven years old, what’s a few more hundred stairs?” I hope that I can apply his philosophy throughout my life. You’re never too old for another adventure.
Boudhanath is an ancient Buddhist stupa and one of the largest in the world. I’ve been documenting the site on a monthly basis since my arrival and am struck by both the serenity of the place and a feeling of constant motion.
The first piece of advice I was given about Boudha was never walk counter clockwise around the stupa. This Buddhist practice known as circumambulation. Circumambulation is the act of walking clockwise meditatively around an object of veneration-three times or more as a gesture of respect. Doing so reminds Buddhists to keep the Buddha’s teachings in the center of their lives.
The stupa was damaged significantly during the earthquakes of 2015. The temple was rebuilt this year by a team of volunteers and workers. It was incredible to document the devotion to this sacred space.
Thank you all for coming along for the journey and following my work. I look forward to 2017 and all it brings. May you have a wonderful holiday season!
In February my husband and I went to a Joss Stone concert in Kathmandu. I hadn’t heard her songs in years. What were the odds of her being in Nepal? Regardless, she came and we went. The concert included a pre-music dinner. And while we were eating a nice couple from Montreal asked if they could join our table. We agreed. At the time I didn't know that Joss Stone was going to pave the way for me to do great work for an amazing cause.
I learned that Mélanie is the director for ShenPen, a Buddhist organization that has a large number of projects for a small but mighty nonprofit. Over dinner, she told me about a Tamang community that had been displaced from their village after the earthquakes of 2015. I learned that the community was working tirelessly without pay to build a set of 55 homes on a piece of donated land. Shenpen was supporting them by providing materials, transport, and the support of engineers and architects. The nonprofit was starting a fundraising campaign to try to finish the project and needed someone to help them with storytelling.
I was still trying to get permission to work in Nepal. This project landing in my lap seemed like exactly the kind of thing I should put my energy toward until I got my paperwork settled. I decided that the Build Homes, Heal Hearts campaign would be a good fit for a pro bono project.
I traveled with Mélanie to Dhola. I met the entire community. I interviewed single mothers, carpenters, monks, and a resident who was over ninety years old. I slept in a tent and ate the food that they carefully prepared. It seemed that very little in their life had improved. It's been over a year since the earthquakes but most of the world has forgotten about Nepal. I was witness to a community trying to do one thing– survive.
Since that visit, Shenpen and I have worked together to create videos, written stories, photos, and social media posts to share the stories of Dhola with the world. I’d like to ask you to check out the campaign on facebook. If you’re inspired and want to do something that helps this community– donate here. If you can't donate please post a link to this blog on your social media accounts so we can share this story with the world.
Check out the first video I made for the campaign to learn about how the community started their life over in Dhola.
I’m so thankful that I had this opportunity to learn more about Nepal and to meet the community of Dhola. I can't help but want to do as much as possible to help them. It seems to me that shelter should be a basic human right. I'd be grateful if you could do what you can to help the community of Dhola.
Two weeks ago, I photographed a group of children who left their homes to join the monastery. They are between six and ten years old.
Over the last few months, I’ve begun building a relationship with a Tamang community that was displaced after the earthquake and one of the nonprofits that is helping them. Their homes and livelihoods were destroyed and there was no hope of rebuilding. The community has been living in tents for over a year and the monsoon season is coming. Their lives are far from easy, which is why I joined a project supporting them in building new houses.
I want to better understand why such young children are joining the monastery. I try to keep my own judgments at bay. I ask a lot of questions and I learn that there are a variety of reasons that children come to the monastery. For some, it means a roof over their head, food on the table, and education. For others, it is truly an honor to their devout families to have a Buddhist monk in the family. I realize that almost every family in the community has sent at least one child. There are also more nefarious reasons that drive children from their communities. In many rural communities, child trafficking has increased since the earthquake and families may feel that the monastery is simply a safer place for their children. One monk tells me that he joined at 14 because he knew it was the right thing for him. I honestly don’t know why these children are joining today, but I am grateful to be present for a small part of their journey.
The boys unload off the bus. They walk into the monastery with khatas tied around their neck, uncertainty on their faces, and their parents by their side. They line up for a group photo and sweetly greet the camera with a namaste. Then they rush over each other to get to lunch.
Afterwards the monks lead them down a set of steps to the water pump. Here they will have their heads shaved for the first time. They rinse and shampoo their hair and wait in line for an free monk, razor in hand. The older monks meticulously shave all but one small bit of hair, leaving this final, holy task to lama Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. He will remove that last bit of hair when the boy Monks take their initial vows.
As I photograph this small part of their ceremony I sense the comradery between them. One boy assists his friend whose arm is in a cast with removing his t-shirt. A mother gently wipes water from her six-year-old’s shoulder. While the boys are leaving the home and the life they know, they are doing it as a part of their community. I gather them together for one last – and this time hairless – group shot.
A few days later I see them in their red monks’ robes – the boys from Dohla, still hanging together.
I love a good story. It’s only recently through my story research that I’ve come to realize that most of the stories I love center on a strong protagonist. I identify with strong women characters like Cheryl Strayed, who writes about her thousand plus mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mohave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State as she deals with the death of her mother and the end of her marriage.
While our life situations are vastly different, I understand Cheryl’s need for space and silence as she figures out who she is. I relate to her as a woman, and as an adventurer and that is enough to bridge the gaps between our lives. My recent move to Nepal and interest in trekking doesn’t hurt either.
A compelling character is the showpiece of storytelling that nonprofits often leave out when telling their stories. Nonprofits value facts, experts, and infographics as means to show the impact of their work. Many are afraid that if they stick to a single character, their viewers won’t understand the scope of the problem or the magnitude of the services they provide. Statistics trigger the mind's calculator; stories, which are best told visually, trigger the heart. Donors give when they have an emotional connection to an organization and its work.
The story of one, or of the individual, is the most powerful tool that nonprofits have in their communications arsenal. A story about and images of a single person have enormous power. This is most evident in fundraising. We live in a word where Kickstarter sells the stories of individuals and small teams, not products, and Watsi has met incredible success by connecting individuals needing medical care to interested donors. These organizations are harnessing the power of individual stories for the greater good.
The reason why people will connect with your nonprofits story is the same reason that I connect with Cheryl Strayed. We have a physical response to good stories, and once we’ve seen them and connected with them they become a part of us. It’s not hard for us to create parallels between our story and the stories of others.
So when you’re deciding which stories to tell, think about the people in your organization who inspire you. Your stories can be about beneficiaries, employees, volunteers, or board members. But the most important thing is that the story of whomever you choose creates an emotional connection for those who you want to inspire.
This piece was originally written for www.ngostorytelling.com where my friend Laura Pohl and I share our stories, skills for nonprofit communicators, and nonprofit jobs around the world. I thought it was an important part of my journey this year to learn more about storytelling and wanted to share it with you.
After the earthquake, I put my camera down and I didn’t know if I’d pick it up again. I had spent years and many thousands of dollars becoming a photographer and none of it mattered to me. I had recently married to an American diplomat and was living with him in Haiti when the earthquake struck. I passed the days after assisting in the disaster relief in whatever way I could: cleaning toilets at the embassy, tracking down diapers and baby formula, cooking for more than twenty exhausted embassy employees who paused at my home for a quick bite and some shut eye before heading back to work. I put all my energy into helping Americans leave Haiti and tried not to think about the devastation I’d seen outside of the embassy walls.
I remember getting an email that said, “The photos you will take from this experience will make your career.” The photos I eventually made in Haiti did not “make” my career, but they started me down a path that changed the way I saw photography and development. I didn’t know it then but my choices in the weeks after the earthquake gave me some important clues about the work I should be doing. I learned that I was not capable of picking up my camera when life and death was on the line. I learned I was more humanitarian than photojournalist.
This is my story, and one I am only just beginning to share. I’d always thought of my reasons for joining this line of work as personal. Besides, why would anyone care? But last week while attending The Storytelling Nonprofit Virtual Conference, I was confronted with the idea that our individual stories hold power. I tend to think of stories from a nonprofit’s point of view, so it was an aha! moment to realize that every single person connected with an organization has experiences worth sharing. And I am one of those people as well– my story is also important. But more importantly, understanding my story allows me connect with the stories of others. We are all influenced by stories and each of we can influence others through our personal stories.
After the earthquake, I eventually returned to my camera. I took my first workshop on photographing for nonprofits. I flew from Port-au-Prince to Uganda. I was recovering from an earthquake. Uganda was recovering from war. This trip was the best therapy I could’ve done for myself. I worked with organizations that were helping people by providing food, education, and women’s empowerment. My photos were helping contribute to the greater good and I felt something that I hadn’t felt in many months: hope. I returned to Haiti and did several projects with local nonprofits supporting those affected by the earthquake.
You already know what came next. I’m still a photographer today. I am living and working Kathmandu, Nepal. But I’d like to think that I’m staying true to my humanitarian roots. Every day I learn to strike the balance between telling stories and giving people the dignity that they deserve.
It turns out that I’m not very good at murder. I don’t know if it comes more naturally to some people than others. But instead of taking the kill shot, I went all chainsaw massacre. It’s messy. I don’t recommend it.
It’s my second week settling into Kathmandu, Nepal. And I’m making good on my story research. Today, I’m watching the PRI series on Ira Glass. Ira talks specifically about the challenges of finding great stories and how it's the storyteller's responsibility to know what stories to kill.
Ira says that he kills fifty percent of his stories. And I hate to point this out but…he’s IRA FRICKIN' GLASS! He’s been creating stories since he was eighteen years old and runs what is arguably the best radio storytelling outlet in America. I don’t know how that pans out for the rest of us, but I think I’ll borrow O.J. Simpson’s gloves and start plotting my next murder.
My last story didn’t go so well, but there is always room for improvement. Last year, I decided that I wanted to add a maternal health project to my portfolio. I do a lot of work around women’s issues and seemed like a natural progression to the work I had already done. It doesn’t hurt that my mom is a midwife and a mother of seven, and that maternal health has been part of my life for as long as I can remember.
Creating this story was deeply personal to me. I threw myself into research and found a grassroots organization helping Rwandan women who had little access to quality care. I met with the founder. I made a plan. I wrote a photography brief.
I even went so far as to show that photography brief to my photography hero, Ami Vitale, at a portfolio review to get her take on it. She was excited by the thought of project and asked me to keep her posted on my progress. The stakes were high! And I was pumped to get the party started.
I shot once a week for three months. I wanted to identify one or two women whom I could follow in their daily lives and document the care they received. I spent a fair amount of time getting to know the women before making my move. But then I ran into a road block. And then another. And then another.
I was on a short timeline before I was due to leave the country and the project was falling apart. Did I do the right thing and put the story out of its misery? Absolutely not! I NEEDED the project. I had very important people to impress. So I propped it up that story Weekend at Bernie’s style and demanded that it become what I wanted it to be. I edited and re-edited. I tried to get back into the organization to shoot more footage. Despite my best efforts at resuscitation, my maternal health story breathed its last dying breath and face planted.
It didn’t become the story I envisioned. And I spent countless hours on a story that simply wasn’t that interesting. There wasn’t a charming anecdote, no compelling series of events to intrigue my viewers. I ended up with a lot of pictures of women waiting around on benches, having basic checkups, and few nice portraits.
The truth was that I should've shot down that story executioner-style within the first month. It was an ok idea that had limited narrative support. Ira is right: life is too short to make mediocre stuff. So when it turns out you're working on a story that isn’t interesting, let it go. Move on. Failure is a big part of success.
I’ve been studying the craft of photography since I was eighteen years old. I’ve spent (and still spend) lots of time becoming the best photographer that I can be. I wrestle with perfect exposure, swear at my gear on the days when technicalities get me down, and work with the light that is available to me. I’ve taken thousands of terrible pictures. And all those terrible pictures taught me how to make amazing photographs.
I love photography. I love reading about it. I love talking about. Mostly, I love doing it and learning from it. I love every part of the process from shoot, to edit, to digital asset management. (Yes, I just said that out loud). I geek out over this stuff because it’s so amazing!
But this year, I am challenging myself to do more than make pictures. I’ve seen myself as a storyteller for quite some time. But I must admit that my priority has been on photography not on story. And the more I shoot, the more I realize that without the story the photograph looses its power.
Why does everyone want to know the story behind a photograph? They want to understand what that person is feeling or living or doing. They want to see themselves. They want to be a part of the action. Without the story, there might be beautiful colors on the page and tac sharp focus but there is no connection until someone can relate to what is happening.
There are many photographs that I could give as an example of the connection phenomenon but the one that comes to mind is Steve McCurry’s image called the Afghan Girl, which appeared on the cover of the National Geographic issue in June 1985. The girl, Gula, attended a informal school in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp where McCurry photographed. You can read more about Gula’s story but this photo sparked the imagination of people around the world and eventually Steve McCurry returned to photograph her in January 2002. Gula first saw the famous photograph of herself seventeen years after it was taken and yet it is one of the most recognizable images in the world.
This is why I am challenging myself to study story as deeply and as passionately as I have studied photography. I believe that our photographs or videos alone are not enough to truly touch people or motivate them to action. It is only when they connect with the story of a beautiful image that that image holds power.
I’m sure that if you are in the nonprofit world you know that storytelling is being heralded as the next best thing since sliced bread. You are probably sick of photographers throwing down that gauntlet and asking you to get excited by it.
Perhaps the biggest problem with storytelling is that we haven’t learned to differentiate between the mediocre stories and the amazing ones. Instead when we’re told to create a story, we fall back on the formula that we all know: Person A has a problem. Nonprofit B helps Person A with that problem. Then Person As life improves.
This story is the one I see the most often and I wonder if we’ve become immune to it. I wonder if it’s our fallback because we think it should motivate others to action. Just because a story exists doesn’t mean that it's good. It doesn’t mean that people will find it interesting or compelling. It doesn’t mean that it will motivate people to take action. There are a lot of boring stories out in the world and just because storytelling happens to be the latest, greatest thing doesn’t mean that it is.
So this year, I’m asking myself one tough question. Am I willing to put the same amount of study into the story building process as I have into photography? Every storyteller from Shonda Rhimes to Joseph Campbell use formulas to tell a story. And certain genres like to stick to certain formulas. But I am interested in all the formulas. I’m interested in telling incredible stories.
I’m talking about stories that knock your socks off. Stories that make your donors want to give you a million dollars. Stories that turn your video into an Internet sensation because people cannot deny the power it holds.
I believe that it’s possible that if I spend the next year looking at stories, storytellers, and story formulas that I might stumble on some magic. I might discover the secret sauce. If I can understand what makes people tick or the psychology of why they give and how they connect then I can not only create incredible images, I can use those images to tell stories that create change.
I am an empathetic person. I cry during movies. You might even see me shed a tear when a commercial pulls at my heart strings. I feel things deeply, and there's nothing I can do about it.
My empathy turned into a problem when I was a graduate student. I was told that I wasn’t tough enough to be to be a photojournalist. I’ve been shooting for fourteen years (albeit I prefer documentary photographer to photojournalist). My compassion allows me to connect with people around the world and to tell their stories.
Sometimes my compassion and intuition tell me to put the camera down. I can feel if my subjects are uncomfortable and I am duty bound to do what is best for them. Sometimes I choose to put the camera down so I can share experiences over a cup of tea. There have certainly been a few lost photographic opportunities. But I'd choose human connection over a spectacular photo any day. And I appreciate a spectacular photo.
I spent the last few years working exclusively with nonprofit organizations. It’s a magnificent way to see the world. But there are heartbreaking moments in between. I have come to discover that my job is not just to show up with my camera. My job is to capture reality and stay within the bounds of human dignity. My job is building a story that does not reduce my subjects to one-dimensional sad victims of life. My job is to use the human connection to dig deeper into the narrative.
My method requires time. It requires cultural understanding, curiosity and being open to where the story leads me. My life is surprisingly similar to the people I meet. No matter what their life story. We are all just people living our lives.
Even the most vulnerable people that I photograph seek understanding. They have the capacity to improve their lives, they simply lack resources. I believe that compassionate storytelling holds the key to connecting vulnerable people with those resources. I hope my stories will inspire others to act with humanity, kindness, and purpose.
I look at the world, and I realize that I lucky enough to win the genetic lottery. I get live where meals are plentiful, health care is available, and I go to sleep at night feeling secure. I’d like to think that it is because of my hard work. But I was born a leg up in the world. So I try to take all that I was given and give back in some small way. So I tell stories. I meet people. I strive to understand the world beyond my own reality. But most of all, I try to have compassion and empathy for all the things I can't possible understand.
My empathetic connection with humanity isn’t a weakness. It’s a superpower.