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

Upcoming Conference Examines Trans-Asian Indigeneity

Marking the ten-year anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), this year’s Asian Studies Summer Institute at the Pennsylvania State University will focus on the theme of “Trans-Asian Indigeneity.” The Institute, June 18-24, 2017, will be directed by Neal Keating, Pasang Yangjee Sherpa and Charlotte Eubanks.

Exterior of the Old Botany Building at Penn State University (Source: George Chriss/Creative Commons).
Exterior of the Old Botany Building at Penn State University (Source: George Chriss/Creative Commons).

For the Institute, we invite applications from the humanities, arts and sciences —anthropology, environmental studies, history, political ecology, geography, art and literature— that examine “Indigeneity” as a protean concept and lived reality in Asia, Asian America, and Asian diasporic communities across the globe. Applicants must have completed their PhDs between August 2012 and 2017, or be advanced graduate students who are completing their dissertations. Institute participants spend a week reading and thinking about the annual theme, as well as significant time workshopping their work in progress. Particularly strong work may be considered for publication in the “Indigeneity” special issue of Verge: Studies in Global Asias.

We are especially interested in attending to the concept’s travels between Asian and western settler societies, or those following the movement’s historical concurrence with the rise of neoliberal political economy and the onset of massive anthropogenic environmental change. We explore the possibilities of strengthening collective indigenous identities that are not antithetical to state sovereignty and citizenry, but nonetheless challenge the status quo of nation-states and finance capital to make political space for “other” peoples with collective human rights that are now recognized in international law. We are also interested in the current historical, political and ecological moment, and the growing realization of planetary limits to unchecked economic growth. New forms of human organization are becoming imaginable, and Indigeneity may be among the most sustainable of these. We encourage applications that connect discourses of ‘Asian’ indigeneities with the larger planetary flows of capital and people.

Picture of Bhote Khampas in Bajura, Nepal celebrating Lhosar 2016 (Source: Pasang Sherpa)
Picture of Bhote Khampas in Bajura, Nepal celebrating Lhosar 2016 (Source: Pasang Sherpa).

Participants whose work draws on any region in Asia are welcome. For the readers of GlacierHub, we note that the indigenous peoples of the high mountain regions of Asia represent a variety of forms of engagement with indigeneity. Lying along the frontiers of the former Russian, British and Chinese empires, they negotiated with rulers in distant capitals who applied different systems of classification to them, and who often ran borders through the lands of specific peoples. At this time, some indigenous peoples began diasporas that have continued to the present. Their encounters with independent nations after the end of these empires have also been complex and marked by a growing number of new diasporas. We note as well that the lower mountain ranges of southeast Asia and the easternmost Himalayas have been characterized as a large zone of peoples who resist state rule altogether, as James C. Scott argued in his 2009 The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.

Ordo Sakhna ensemble performing for the Kyrgyz community in Brooklyn, NY in 2010. (Source:

This Institute provides a venue to reflect on how far the indigenous communities on the frontlines of climate change in Asia have come in 2017, as we also mark a decade since the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). How are indigenous mountain peoples like the Sherpas dealing with threats from glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs)? How are Bhote Khampas adapting to the changes in the availability of forest herbs?

Penn State will provide a graduated travel stipend ($400 from the East Coast, $600 from the Midwest, $800 from the West Coast; $1000 from Europe; $1350 from Asia). We will also cover the costs of housing and most meals for the week of the Institute. To apply, please send the following documents in a single PDF file to by March 15, 2017.

  • A cover letter (up to 2pp) outlining your current career/research stage, and articulating a connection to the Institute theme.
  • A sample of your current work (10-20 pp). This need not be the piece you plan to workshop over the summer. It should nonetheless give the review committee some sense of your current and future work.
  • A current c.v.
  • Advanced graduate students must also include a letter from the dissertation adviser on academic progress and status. (This may be sent under separate cover, rather than as a part of the single PDF file for items 1-3.)

Decisions will be made by the first week of April 2017. Other inquiries regarding the Summer Institute may be directed to Charlotte Eubanks (

‘Sherpa’ Soars as Documentary of Life on Everest

In June of 2015, I watched Sherpa, a new Discovery Channel documentary, in my quiet living room in Seattle. I had never experienced anything like it before.

One of the sherpas in the film. Courtesy of Discovery.
The star of the film, Phurba Tashi Sherpa. Courtesy of Discovery.

Right afterwards, I felt that it was one of the best portrayals of the Sherpa story on the mountain I had seen. I thought that it captured the sentiment of the Sherpas, and the messiness at base camp, very well. It laid out everything for the audience to decide for themselves— what the costs, benefits and motivations of the people involved are. I felt that it was a well-researched, emotional, and beautiful gift that will aid in raising awareness about safety concerns on the mountain and fairness in the mountaineering industry in Nepal.

A shot from below a ladder used to cross fissures in the ice and snow. Courtesy of Discovery.
A shot from below a ladder used to cross fissures in the ice and snow. Courtesy of Discovery.

One year later, I have had some time to think about the documentary and watch it a few more times. The documentary follows Phurba Tashi, who has climbed Mt. Everest 21 times. Phurba’s next climb will make him a world record holder with the highest number of successful Everest ascents. Phurba Tashi’s captivating story of going to the mountain, and his family’s emotional reaction to it, always leaves me wishing there was a better occupational choice for many like him. The tears that roll on the face of Karma Doma, Phurba’s wife, reminds me of how cruel reality is for Sherpa women, who wait not knowing what their fates will be.

Going on an Everest expedition is not an easy choice, the documentary shows. Sherpa or not, one has to weigh their decision of going to the mountain against many factors. For Sherpas, sometimes, it might mean pretending to their families that there is no risk in what they do. For the mountaineering clients, it might mean investing every single penny to make their dream come true.

Sherpa soars in its presentation of the human story on the mountain. It shows the Sherpa mountain workers moving rocks to set up luxurious camps filled with books, a television set, and comfortable chairs. It also shows them singing and laughing, and then shaken and disturbed, following the tragic accident in Khumbu Icefall, in which 16 Sherpas died in 2014. The clients are also shown being excited, and jovial as they gear up for their ascent. After the tragic accident, the clients are shown being devastated by the loss and also finding out that they will not be climbing that year.

Mt. Everest. (Photo by phobus via Flickr)

The documentary captures frustration at Everest base camp, with some never-before-seen clips of a brawl that took place in 2013. It is this part of the film that makes many of my Sherpa friends uncomfortable. A relative told me after a screening in New York that the documentary was good, but if only it could leave the scene of Everest brawl out, it would have been better. At the 2015 Kathmandu Film Festival, a representative from the mountain workers said that the brawl as shown in the film was a biased depiction, which did not show the whole picture of how the Sherpas were mistreated leading up to the incident. This part of the documentary definitely leaves a bitter impression, and one has to wonder how this particular story embedded in the larger mountaineering mess could be told some other way.

Nevertheless, Sherpa is truly a gift for the Sherpas to have their story heard and seen like never before. Director Jennifer Peedom has created a magnificent documentary, with an exceptionally well-researched script. The film successfully raises the issue of fairness and safety on Mount Everest on a global scale.

Dr. Pasang Yangjee Sherpa is a post-doctoral fellow at the India China Institute of New School University.  Born in the Sherpa ethnic community in Nepal, she holds a PhD in anthropology from Washington State University. She has written about Nepal previously on GlacierHub in posts on earthquake recovery and glacier lake outburst floods

Nepali Villagers Trapped Under Threat of Glacier Floods

One month after the first of two major earthquakes in Nepal, 38 villages, 834 households and 4600 people continue to wait for substantial relief efforts and remain uncertain about the future.

The first earthquake, which hit on April 25, severely damaged villages in Pharak, in the southern part of the Everest region in Nepal. When the second earthquake hit on May 12, what remained of villages after the first quake was destroyed.

Woman stands in front of a makeshift shelter, salvaging her belongings. She is worried about how she would be able to provide for her family now that she cannot return to her home. (Photo by Pasang and Un Sherpa)
Woman in front of a makeshift shelter, salvaging her belongings. She is worried about how she will provide for her family now that she cannot return to her home. (Photo by Pasang and Un Sherpa)

Pharak lies within Chaurikharka Village Development Committee (VDC) – the local level administrative zone – in the Solukhumbu district. So far, the government of Nepal has not listed Solukhumbu as a priority district, and major relief operations have been largely absent.

In addition to experiencing continuous tremors, villagers in Pharak are also shaken by rumors of that Imja Tsho, a glacial lake upvalley from the village, could burst and flood villages below, as it had thirty years ago.

The thought of a potentially catastrophic flood wiping out villages continues to keep villagers away from their homes and gardens where they live in tents. On May 25, a sudden concern about a glacial lake outburst flood drove hundreds of villagers to higher ground, fearing for their lives. Though Imja Tsho did not burst, there are reports that another glacial lake may have released its waters, creating high river levels downstream. According to local sources, water levels on Imja Tsho appear safe as of May 26.

Immediately after the first earthquake, I traveled to Nepal, where I joined my husband Un Sherpa, a medical volunteer, and Krishna Bhetwaal, an engineer volunteer, on a visit to Pharak to assess the community’s needs.

I am an anthropologist. I was born and raised in Kathmandu, but I often visited my mother’s home village of Jorsalle in Solukhumbu, where we would stay with her mother, who lived there. I now live in the United States, where I teach anthropology at the Pennsylvania State University.

 Dr. Krishna Bhetwaal, engineer volunteer, and I assess damage caused by a falling rock inside a home in the village of Jorsalle. After the first earthquake a giant rock rolled into this house leaving a huge hole. After the second earthquake, this house is completely damaged and uninhabitable. (Photo by Un Sherpa)
Dr. Krishna Bhetwaal, engineer volunteer, and I assess damage caused by a falling rock inside a home in the village of Jorsalle. After the first earthquake a giant rock rolled into this house leaving a huge hole. After the second earthquake, this house is completely damaged and uninhabitable. (Photo by Un Sherpa)

When I returned to Nepal after the earthquake, I visited over 200 houses in 30 villages and found that help is urgently needed.

The villages of Jorsalle, Bengkar, Gumela, Thado Koshi and Chaurikharka, to name a few, have been severely damaged with nowhere for residents to live. Families are living in crowded, cold and wet temporary tarpaulin shelters, schools are struggling to stay open, and health posts are waiting for medical supplies and staff.

To date, villagers have received tarpaulins, tents, rice, oil, salt and some cash from multiple sources. All of this, however, remains insufficient. In the region, the supplies – which have come in groups of tens or hundreds – are not enough to help the thousands in need.

Based on our assessment, there are two most vulnerable groups. The first group is the families of migrants who came to Pharak from other regions looking for better economic opportunities, and the second is the economically disadvantaged families, who did not have much to begin with even before the earthquake. Both of these groups are unseen, voiceless and without strong social networks to rely on.

House in the village of Rangding. (Photo by Pasang and Un Sherpa)

In the absence of major relief efforts and attention to the region, community members have stepped up to volunteer and exhausted their limited financial and social capital. Neighbors are lending blankets and food, while they themselves sleep outside in cold makeshift shelters. Community members are donating their own money and putting together impromptu relief efforts to help one another.

It is clear that in order to recover from this disaster and rebuild in a sustainable way, the efforts of many will be needed.

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Flooded with memories in Nepal

Trail in Pharak. (Pasang Sherpa)
Trail in Pharak. (Pasang Sherpa)

I was born and raised in Kathmandu but Monzo has always been the place I call home. Monzo is where my paternal grandmother spent all of her life tending our fields and looking after our ancestral home. Monzo is also the place where my father was born and raised until he left for Kathmandu to attend school. I visited Monzo with my brothers every year during our school breaks.

From my village in Monzo in the Sherpa region in northeastern Nepal, we need to walk at least a day, depending on how fast we go, to get close to the glaciers higher up in the mountains. Because we can’t see the glaciers until we get closer to them, we don’t talk much about them. But we sometimes talk about glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs).

In 1985, the year I was born, a high mountain lake, Dig Tsho, flooded. Although the flood came long time ago, I know about it from the stories I have heard throughout the years. My father always talked about it as we passed through the scars from landslides and the places where there were once villages, including my maternal grandmother’s natal village.

Rock painting in Khumbu. (Pasang Sherpa)
Rock painting in Khumbu. (Pasang Sherpa)

Often times, growing up, I would hear my grandparents say that some things are nomdok (inviting misfortune). Talking about bad experiences like the Dig Tsho GLOF was definitely one of them. It destroyed houses and fields, took lives and caused great distress. So, talking about GLOFs is not the most appropriate cultural thing to do from my grandparents’ perspective. But it is my hope that having conversations about them will let us prepare for an uncertain hazard-prone world of changing climate and bring us good karma in the long run.

After finishing high school in Nepal, I left the country to continue my education. Several years later, I returned to the Sherpa region to conduct research for my dissertation at an American university. During that time, I asked my aunt—actually a friend of my parents from Monzo who I called “aunt” –whether I could interview her about her experience with the Dig Tsho flood. She agreed to talk with me, but at first did not remember the event. She had not spoken about the big flood with anyone for many years, because it had happened far in the past, and there was no need to recall those stressful moments of her life. But when I persisted in asking about the big flood that came many years ago when she was young, she opened up. She was with her mother in their potato field weeding the bean plants when she heard loud noises that sounded like the thunder that lightning produces.

Rock painting in Pharek. (Pasang Sherpa)
Rock painting in Pharek. (Pasang Sherpa)

She said, “I remember the villagers calling us to come up and see what was going on on the other side of the Dudh Koshi [the major river in the region]…It was like a movie. People were running up the hill as the water below engulfed trees and rocks…so fast.”

Unlike other villages in Pharak in the central part of the Sherpa territory, Monzo is not close to the Dudh Koshi, which is fed by the mountain glaciers up north including Dig Tsho to the left and Imja Tsho to the right. So, my aunt and her family were safe but they were terrified by the experience. After the flood, her family and neighbors took shelter under a giant rock and stayed for several hours. Under the rock, they cooked potatoes, shared tales of what they saw and heard. They returned home only when the night came.

Planting potatoes. (Pasang Sherpa)
Planting potatoes. (Pasang Sherpa)

Nowadays, many people in the Sherpa region talk about the potential Imja GLOF. We have heard about the expanding Imja Tsho and the destruction it could cause to our villages. Most of this information comes to our villages from the media, the scientists and NGO sponsored projects that organize workshops there. When there is heavy monsoon rain, my maternal grandmother and her children, my uncles and aunts, worry about the rising water levels in the river. They live in Thumbuk, a village below Monzo, which is close to the river. The discussions about Imja Tsho flooding that have now spread throughout the villages leave the villagers more with a sense of dread than with a feeling of preparation.

Several years ago, my uncle and his wife found themselves running for their lives along with other villagers after they received a phone call from their friends in a different village that told them the Imja Tsho was flooding. This was later found to be a rumor spread by some people from Khumbu, a much higher Sherpa area close to the Imja Tsho. They were alarmed by a recent information-sharing workshop that discussed the potential Imja GLOF and showed its likely path of destruction, including several middle-elevation Pharak villages that would be directly affected. Among the people who fled was a young mother with her newborn child. They found refuge in their wet potato field on that cold, rainy night. The great discomfort that they experienced brought to mind my grandparents’ concern that talking about misfortune was nomdok. Even well-intentioned discussions can create misunderstanding, confusion and fear, and lead to harm that might otherwise be avoided.

This guest post was written by anthropologist Pasang Yangjee Sherpa of Penn State.  If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at or @glacierhub on Twitter.