In 2018 I had the opportunity to work with the Nepal Picture Library alongside a team of 16 fellow researchers as part of *Doing Visual Politics. For the initial three days, we sat in a room exploring the digital archive, enquiring and delving. This was a crucial act of slowing down.
I was able to reflect on my need for tactility, and my unease in the face of purely abstract ideas. I began to grasp at digital surfaces, searching the archive for physical damage. We found scans of a family album riddled with water damage and mould. It happened that this album was owned by Chandra Kanta Devi Malla, the woman who opened the first school for girls in Nepal. We had found our thread.
Chandra’s life had been little documented, overshadowed by those of her brothers. My collaborators and I became researchers for the archive. Dear Chandra includes my field notes in the form of a letter to Chandra. (See below)
We will never know Chandra. Her image floats in space to be lightly grasped and recontextualised. Equally, this object cannot convey the multiplicity of my experience, and the team’s collective experience. The work is a meta narrative of its own creation, a fragment. Something is always out of frame, lost to oblivion.
In search of absence, I asked an archive if they
had any images made primarily of physical
damage. The archive showed us images of one
of your photo albums. We saw that so many
photographs were damaged, and this, to many
of us, was not a hindrance but a gem.
Then we learnt that this album belonged to you,
and began to learn more about your life. My
search for damage transformed into a collective
search for you. Who were you?
We wanted to see this gem for ourselves. Your
Grand-Niece Meenu was in possession of the
album and potentially more information about
you. We invited her to speak with us through
translation. On her arrival she revealed that she
had removed the images from the album and
thrown away its pages because it had become
too damaged. She had reshaped the fragments
into a much less linear form. Meenu had also
thrown away some images because they were
too damaged. She had the power to, and had
indeed deemed them unworthy to continue
Today we went to the Martin Chautari library
to find more written information about your
life. We found three books of relevance and
three poems written about you. We wanted to
collect all the information we could, but the
library rules forbid copying entire books. We
had to be selective about what we collected. It
was now us who had the power to decide what
was worthy of transmission; what was import-
ant to learn and what to leave behind, untrans-
lated and unread.
A woman working at the library very gener-
ously and patiently translated the short chapter
names from Nepali to English. From these
small fragments, we had to imagine entire
chapters. And from these imaginings we had to
determine which were to be left behind. When
we left the library, we left some information
Now we await translation of the poems and
writings we have found. Our search for you is
slow. We don’t have the tools to understand the
writings we find, and are thus ever-reliant on
layers of translation. Our pace is slowed by this
reliance, and this pace gives us space to medi-
tate on our reliance, to meditate on each layer
of translation, the inadequacy of representation
and the empowerment attached to the tools of
communication and understanding. Through
circumstance we’ve been forced to slow down,
this requires an unlearning, as it is in opposi-
tion to our urge to rush, to be busy, to achieve
and attain as quickly as possible.”
This project was developed in conversation with Nepal Picture Library, Kelly Hussey-Smith and Rosângela Rennó, and initially exhibited in Patan, Nepal as part of Doing Visual Politics, 2018.
Dear Chandra was exhibited again in March, 2019 as part of A Sense of Kathmandu, Webb Gallery, Queensland College of Art, Meanjin(Brisbane), Australia.
Photographs in header are by Pranabesh Das
Here is a picture of the team I worked with in Nepal, minus Rosângela and Vida.
Image: Rahat Ahmed
All the Doing Visual Politics 2018 researchers, from Nepal, Bangladesh, Australia, USA, Canada, Brazil, Indonesia, Slovenia and many more places.
Image: Samagra Shah
*”Doing Visual Politics is the most recent symposium + workshop + festival project developed by the Nonfiction Visual Storytelling Network -an international, interdisciplinary group of scholars, practitioners and students seeking to expand the practice and discourse of documentary photography by questioning the assumptions of the discipline.”