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

A Collaboration on Mustang, Nepal: Capturing Its Culture and History in Black and White

PLATE 23 CHUKSANG Even in stillness, the memory of wind Image# 1227 (Source: Kevin Bubriski/Mustang: In Black and White“).

Forty-three years ago, Kevin Bubriski joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Nepal. He’d recently graduated from college and was looking for adventure, yet was unaware of the lifelong relationship he’d develop with the country. Over time, his infatuation with Nepal grew into a deep attachment to its culture, language and geography, with a special interest in the far northwest of the country.

Through his travels— Bubriski visits Nepal yearly, often for months— he’s witnessed significant changes in the landscape and culture due to climatological shifts, including deglaciation and a nearly 25 percent reduction in Himalayan glacier mass over the past 30 years. A professional photographer, Bubriski’s primary focus has been capturing the lifestyle and experiences of the Nepalese people within the context of climate change. His work exposes a raw, organic and moving perspective of the people who inhabit Nepal.

PLATE 52 GHAMI TO DHAKMAR One chörten of many in a field of merit Image #1998 2 (Source: Kevin Bubriski/”Mustang: In Black and White“).

It was a fateful email sent to Bubriski from Sienna Craig, an associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, that inspired a new collaboration between the two on Nepalese photography, culture and history, “Mustang: In Black and White,” published by Vajra Books in 2018.  

Their book displays Bubriski’s artistic and antiqued photographs juxtaposed with Craig’s poetic and evocative text. Much of Craig’s research has focused on Nepal and the Tibetan areas of China, where she studies “traditional” medical systems and their cultural meanings. Bubriski’s framing of images exposing the intimate spaces of Mustang elucidate Craig’s cultural and historical framing in the text.

Alluding to the interplay of Bubriski’s photography and her own research in Mustang, Craig writes, “When you enter the inner passages of this place, you are framed by history.”

PLATE 66 TSARANG Fluted cliffs hang like a canopy above the village Image# 2584 (Source: Kevin Bubriski/”Mustang: In Black and White“).

When Bubriski first began photographing Nepal, he documented his travels with a conventional 35mm black and white camera, eventually moving on to a much larger 4×5 inch format in the 1980s. By 2015, though Bubriski’s photographic style remained consistent with his past work, he’d embraced new technological advances in photography: he began using an iPhone.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Bubriski said much of his invariable photographic style, as expressed using multiple photographic methods over time, was driven by how the eye views composition and arrangement naturally; how the eye is accustomed to the square and how he intends his photographs to contain an “interplay between all parts of the image area.”

Reflecting on his previous photographic methods, Bubriski recounts, “Upon returning to my darkroom in the United States, I would see the images on the film brought to life through the tedious meticulous development process.” Alluding to the transition from one process to another, he writes of his conversion to the iPhone, “Now we have the incredible magic of the smart phone delivering our photos to us as we make them.” Seizing on the immediacy made possible by the iPhone, for this new book, Bubriski set out to photograph Nepal once again, mimicking the style of the old, with the technology of the new.

“Virtually every object in Mustang bears the sign of ritual activity: from hand-dug cave systems to ruined hilltop castles, from densely clustered villages to isolated temples, from propitiatory piles of yak horns to the sophisticated cosmology of the chorten.” — Robert Powell, Earth Door, Sky Door: Paintings of Mustang Image # 1176 (Source: Kevin Bubriski/”Mustang: In Black and White“)

Historically, Mustang used to be a kingdom unto itself, maintaining its own governance and monarchy. In 2008, the monarchy of Mustang, historically called the “Kingdom of Lo,” was abolished by the government of Nepal when the country became a federal democratic republic. Despite this change in status, the people of Mustang revere their history and culture of independence. They now exist at the border between their old world and the new one thrust upon them.

Of this cultural duality, Craig writes “there is an unevenness to this part of Mustang, a feeling of liminality and insularity. Perhaps this sense is some affective correlate to geographic and social reality.”

This theme of connecting time and space is also drawn out in Bubriski’s photography. He admits to being fascinated by photographing ladders. He says ladders “thematically connect space,” and we see in one photo how the ladders connect the inner world of the cave, up to the outer world of the community. Much of the mountainous geography of Mustang, Nepal, is accessed and bounded by ladders in and out of different spaces— just as the community moves in and out of cultural spaces forced by changing politics, changing borders and changing climate.

Up and through an ancient cave complex. Image #3149 (Source: Kevin Bubriski/”Mustang: In Black and White“).

Bubriski and Craig’s journey, recorded in text and image, implores readers to reconsider how they see the world. Nothing is lost through their colorless photographs and text. Instead, much is revealed. Through the absence of color, we become privy to a secret world colored by the minds of its readers.

Their book can be ordered from Vajra Publications.