Photographing Transformation and Ethnographic Predicaments in Nepal’s Himalaya

In an exhibition titled “Belonging, Transformation, and Ethnographic Predicaments in Nepal’s Himalaya,” a team of artists shared stories of their Himalayan experience through a collection of photographs. The exhibition was held at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver from February 1 to April 30. A closing reception, followed by a discussion of changing ethnographic practices, was hosted by the university April 23.

The exhibition highlighted many changes, which the artists—Yungdrung Tsewang, Tsering Gurung, Yeshi Gurung, Kory Thibeault, and Emily Amburgey—noticed while in Lower Mustang.

“The signs of transformation are hard to miss,” the artists wrote in their collective statement. The bulldozers and road construction teams, the newly constructed hotels and guesthouses, advertisements of hot showers and free Internet, the fallow agricultural lands, and the empty houses—these are the easily visible signs of transformations.

Photo by Yungdrung Tsewang

Less obvious, the artists pointed out, are “the class divisions that allow certain people to migrate while others stay behind, the decreasing numbers of practicing Buddhist monks, and the lack of spoken Tibetan among the younger generations.”

Photo by Yungdrung Tsewang

Embedded in the photographic depiction of transformations in this exhibition were questions of belonging and ethnographic predicaments. It is here that Emily Amburgey, whose photographs were not included in the exhibition, quietly shines. Amburgey said that she did not want the exhibit to just focus on the finished research products, “but to problematize the often complex and ongoing relationships between ethnographers and those they work with that make projects like these possible.”

Amburgey is a doctoral student of anthropology at UBC and her research focuses on labor migration and environmental change in Nepal’s Himalaya. The exhibition was a culmination of her different collaborative projects with friends from Nepal and the United States. Over the course of four months, Amburgey and Yungdrung Tsewang had come to the realization that the impacts of labor migration and climate change were radically transforming the human and nonhuman landscape in Mustang.

Tsewang was Amburgey’s research associate while she conducted fieldwork for her master’s program. During that time, together they organized a PhotoVoice project with the intention to work closely with the fellow artists Yeshi Gurung and Tshering Gurung, two women who are actively engaged in their community. PhotoVoice is a digital storytelling platform that seeks to inspire positive social change, enhancing the visibility of social issues through partnerships with community organizations using photographs as the medium.

Kory Thibeault, the fourth artist, is a friend from California, who came to help Amburgey shoot a documentary about her research. His photographs were taken during his stay in the region. The shared space of this exhibition highlighted the situated and overlapping perspectives of the different artists, expanding the notion of “belonging.”

When one belongs, the drastic consequences of ongoing processes become visible. Unpredictable weather patterns, extreme events, new diseases, and relocation of settlements, which might seem natural in harsh mountain environments for a passing visitor, become more than that to those who care to see. These are the new climate realities in the mountains.

Photo by Yungdrung Tsewang

“I believe that when Ladakhi elders talk about the fate of the glaciers of Ladakh, they are also reflecting on their own fate as their presence and influence decrease amid the dazzle of a new era,” Karine Gagne wrote in Caring for Glaciers.

The same could be said about Humla or Mustang or Khumbu, where the glaciers recede deep inside the valleys. The receding glaciers are entangled with the economic, socio-political, cultural, and generational changes. It is the dazzle of a new era that have now left those who remain in the villages looking toward the road.  

Photo by Kory Thibeault

The exhibition was curated by Rosaleen McAfee. It was co-sponsored by the Himalaya Program (funded by the Institute of Asian Research) and the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia.

Following the closing reception on April 23, Emily Amburgey invited Mark Turin, an associate professor of anthropology at UBC, and I to join her for a conversation on the changing practices of ethnography and the position of an ethnographer in the Himalayan context. The conversation continues.

A photo essay version of this exhibition was published online at Himalaya: The Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies. It can be viewed here

Read More on GlacierHub:

The Dead of Mount Everest Are Seeing the Light of Day

Photo Friday: The Shrinking Glaciers of the Altai Mountains

Asia’s Water Supply Endangered by Third Pole Warming

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