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Photo Kathmandu adopts an artistic approach to Nepal’s post-conflict, earthquake revival

Photos of the mighty Himalayas and mythical temples and monasteries that dot the once forbidden kingdom have long encouraged thousands of thrill-seeking and soul-searching tourists to make a pilgrimage to Nepal. When the country opened to tourists in the 1950s, early photographers documented everything from mountains and mountaineers to Hindu monks and Western hippies mingling euphorically during the height of Kathmandu’s hippie days in the 1960s.

In later decades, photos of the armed conflict between the government and Maoist guerrillas contrasted with pictures that imagined Nepal as a Shangri-La-like destination.

And then, there was the devastating earthquake last year.

For a country that thrives on tourism, photos of flattened mountainside villages and temples, shared millions of times on the internet, hammered an industry that provides livelihoods for thousands of people.

But amid the rubble, a group of young Nepalis including Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati aim to reconstruct Nepal’s image using the same medium that showed the disastrous aftermath of Nepal’s biggest tragedies since the 1934 earthquake.

The event was planned before the quake, she says, but was later focused to help put Nepal back on the tourist map.

“A lot of image of the damage was seen in photos,” says Kakshapati. “So we wanted to use this medium to recover Nepal’s image and send out a message that Nepal is still standing.”

A year after deadly earthquake, impatient Nepalis take rebuilding into their own hands

Six months after the April earthquake, Kakshapati, with an army of artists, photographers, curators and volunteers pulled off Photo Kathmandu. It was Nepal’s first international photography eventthat turned the crumbling historic quarters and alleyways of Patan, a suburb of Kathmandu, into an artistic experiment. Archival images were shown with post-earthquake photos, framed a vantage point for locals and foreigners to navigate the country’s past and present.

It was taking photography out of the white cube galleries and creating models of engagement at a community level says the festival’s 33-year-old co-founder.

Alisha Sett, a Mumbai-based writer who flew to Kathmandu last year, says each exhibition – from history to heritage and a look at the life of the last nomads of Nepal – in the week-long event “felt like a slow unravelling”.

“It was an extremely intimate way to immerse myself in a place I was just getting to know,” she says.

While Photo Kathmandu 2015 concentrated on exploring the fabric of Nepali society, Kakshapati says this year’s event, scheduled for October, will reflect how the country has revived in the past years. especially after the decade-long ‘People’s War,’ that ended in 2006 in which more than 17,000 people died and 1,300 are still missing.

Ten years later, Nepal has seen revivals on many fronts. However, economic woes and unemployment have driven thousands of young Nepalis abroad in search of better opportunities, which will be one of the key elements to this year’s exhibition.

Robert Godden, director of campaigns and communications for Hong Kong-based non-profit Rights Exposure, who is also curating a photo slideshow and chairing a discussion on the issue this year, says photography can help people understand the phenomenon of migration, and break down stereotypes and misconceptions.

“Public events like this bring photos to an audience that may not usually engage with photography,” he says. “In doing so it can inform them and make them question their assumptions, which can help change attitudes.”

And while Photo Kathmandu partly serves as a platform for social issues and promote Nepal as an international art venue, drawing from previous year’s experience, Kakshapati says the event is also looking to benefit Patan locals.

Restoring Nepal’s earthquake-hit monuments is a ‘race against time’

In 2015, with more than 52 international artists from 17 countries the festival generated income for local businesses that were reeling from a prolonged trade blockade, she says. Through an online campaign selling archival prints, it raised US$12,000 to rebuild Patan’s crumbled paatis, the communal spaces that are linked to the community’s heritage.

This year, continuing its pledge of giving back to the community, Photo Kathmandu has started online crowdfunding to train and employ local youth for the 2016 event, which organisers hope will have a positive impact on Patan.

“Last year, we were able to show the world what was happening in Kathmandu beyond the earthquake,” Kakshapati says. “Locally, the festival brought a sense of possibility to the streets. This year, we are hoping to tell nuanced stories that will present Nepal in a new light.”

Photo Kathmandu 2016 will run from October 21 to November 3 with works from photographers from Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, Iran and Nepal, among others. It is also accepting photography and multimedia submissions for “Moving Asia,” a slideshow that will focus on labour migration in Asia until September 15.