Ever since I arrived in Nepal in 1975 as a Peace Corps volunteer, I have been taking photographs of the country and its people. In the 1980s, I traveled across Nepal by foot with a tripod-mounted camera. The photographs I took during this period captured village and farm life continuing much as it had for centuries. Nepal has since been transformed by three decades of infusion from foreign development aid; remittances from the millions of Nepalis living abroad in South Asia, the Middle East, and beyond; new motor roads built into the mountains; the 1996-2006 civil war; decades of political instability; and finally, the devastating earthquakes of Spring 2015.
As soon as I heard the news of Nepal’s first major earthquake on April 25, 2015, I knew I had to get back there as soon as possible. I have lived and traveled throughout the country, including in three of the districts devastated by the quakes. In the wake of this natural disaster, deeply saddened and dismayed, I needed to continue documenting Nepali life.
On May 12, the day after I purchased my ticket to Kathmandu, a second earthquake hit, this one centered further east, bringing more aftershocks and anxiety. Two weeks later, I boarded the plane from Doha to Kathmandu. Aside from a handful of international relief workers, migrant Nepali workers on their annual trip home from their work as construction workers and domestic and service workers in Qatar filled the plane. A sense of nervous anticipation pervaded the journey. The Nepali passengers were returning to a transformed country, and many of them would find their villages shaken to rubble. As we descended through heavy, cloud-filled turbulence, passengers grasped their seat arms tightly. Nothing appeared unusual as we approached the runway. Newly constructed concrete buildings stood. Traffic filled the roads. But soon enough, I could see dozens of large pallets piled high with relief supplies under thick nylon straps. The ride from the airport to Patan seemed normal, too, until we got into the old city. Flimsy wooden splints and buttresses held up old brick house and temple walls, on the edge of crumbling.
Nearly 9,000 Nepalis were killed in the earthquakes. Hundreds of thousands were displaced. Through June and July of 2015, I watched the seasons transition in Nepal, from the blasting sun of the pre-monsoon weeks to the hard rains that come without fail at night and, without warning, during the day. And yet, even then, there were signs of recovery. Schools began to reopen. Groups of young men and women came to Kathmandu and other localities to work, breaking down damaged buildings for the equivalent of seven to ten dollars a day.
The slow work of reconstruction and rebuilding continues. Now, more than two years later, some people are still living in temporary shelters and many continue to suffer the long-term effects of these natural disasters and their human-made consequences. Nepal still needs financial assistance, and visitors, tourists, and trekkers are very welcome. Nepal remains an emerging constituent democracy. Monuments and houses may have been lost, but the country is rebuilding and there is much to learn by experiencing the enduring generosity, resilience, and beauty of the human spirit that continues to thrive.
I brought with me both a Canon 5D digital single lens reflex camera with which I made high resolution color photographs, and an iPhone with which I made square black and white photographs. Even with the iPhone, which almost fit into the palm of my hand,
I framed images carefully with the intention of creating strong compositions. Both the color and black and white images are distilled abstractions and representations of the actual lived experience that Nepal and the Nepali people endured through the aftermath of the earthquakes.
This photo story was originally published in HIMALAYA, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies: Vol. 37 : No. 2 , Article 5. Available at: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/himalaya/vol37/iss2/5 . This work is licensed under CC -BY-NC-ND 4.0.