07 Apr 2017
9 min read
If you can tell a story in an elegant way, no matter the medium, people will pay attention. Ace photographer Mani Lama is one such eloquent storyteller, and his three decades of work is a case in point. Known for his Postcards of Nepal, the coffee-table book Nepal: The Himalayan Kingdom, and his work done for various organisations, the maestro of the lens has built a legacy of photos—in black and white and in colour—from all over Nepal. In this interview with Alok Thapa of M&S VMAG, Lama shares his passion for his art and talks about how travel, for him, has become a strategy for accumulating photographs and vice versa.
How would you define photography?
In photography, as in life, you have to be open to different possibilities. So I click anything that catches my attention. I would say that I’m a painter who uses his palette of light to paint the subject. I’ve always been fascinated by the play of light and its reflections in the minds of the onlookers.
Paint us a picture of your background.
I’m the son of Chini Lama, the protector of the Boudhanath stupa. I’m told that my great grandfather came to Nepal during Janga Bahadur’s reign. Apparently, my grandfather was dwelling in one of the caves around Pashupatinath when he was arrested by authorities who thought he was a spy from Tibet. Later, he played an instrumental role in many official works, and was honoured as the protector of the Boudhanath stupa, Lumbini and Swayambhunath. I think this was too much of a responsibility for one man to handle, so he decided to settle for the title of the protector of Boudhanath. Coming from a Chinese background, he’s always had a huge family, and most of our family’s social functions were done on a large scale. Even my father had multiple wives, and I had 13 siblings.
Any childhood incident that has had a major impact on your life?
I had a happy childhood, and most of my days were spent outside the home, playing with friends. I had the opportunity to study at a good school—I have fond memories of attending St. Xavier’s School in 1954 with my brother—and had a good family. But then, when I was 12, my mother passed away. I couldn’t see her during her last moments or even attend her last rites, and this plagued me for the longest time. That incident helped me understand the Buddha’s teaching of non-attachment, and it has stayed with me since. I also learned that even if someone has been taken away from you, a part of them will always live with you in your heart.
How were you exposed to photography?
I was studying in Mahendra Ratna Bhawan when I was introduced to photography by a couple of my friends. The prospect of capturing a moment in time and telling a story about the characters and places intrigued me. But I think I really got into it because of an American couple who had come to Helumbu to conduct research on the Bhubani Plague, which had killed many people in Jumla. My grandfather had asked me to help them as an English-to-Nepali interpreter. We went to places like Gosaikunda, Jomsom and Muktinath in search of parasites found in wild animals. (I even helped them find a new genus of tick—the Anomalaya Lama tick; it’s been named after me). The best part about the trip was that I was able to take a lot of pictures, and it was during this time that I discovered my true passion for the art form.
How did agriculture fall into the scheme of things?
Seeing how agriculturally dependent our country was (and still is), I seemed to have developed the notion that I would be able to do something meaningful with my life, and for this country, by getting into the field. I got the opportunity to study agriculture along with photography at Merced Junior College in California. After that, I went on to study at Fresno State University and completed my BSc. I was really serious about my career in agriculture, but it all came crashing down when I returned to Nepal five years later. I had to deal with so much bureaucracy, and after searching for a job for more than two years and getting nowhere, I just gave up.
How did Postcards of Nepal start?
I’m an avid clicker, and I would take photos of anything and everything as long as the subject appealed to me. A lot of my photographer friends suggested that I sell some of my works. So I did that, and to my surprise, that went well. That’s how I got the idea of starting a postcard series that depicted Nepal through various subjects like festivals, temples and portraits, as opposed to just mountains—I’ve always tried to reflect the culture and beauty of Nepal through my photography. When I went to Singapore, I got 18 varieties of postcards printed, and it sold like hot cakes. I still meet people who remember the series, and it feels good to know that my photos are used as bookmarks in their books.
Why did you decide to stop the postcard series?
I guess every good thing has a shelf life. Sales of my postcards suffered when the 1989 embargo imposed by India hit us. Then there was the unrest followed by the 1990 democracy movement. Also, during one of the monsoons, my place got flooded and more than half of my postcards, got ruined. With dwindling tourists and less business, I had no other option but to end the postcard project.
And then your next phase as a photographer for various non-governmental organisations started.
One has to make a living, and in my case, I was lucky to get paid for doing work that I loved. During my postcard project, many organisations came to know about my work, and soon, I started receiving assignments from them; I have worked extensively with UNICEF. Of course, I made sure I never let go of my creative side, so even when I was taking photos for their developmental projects, I would try to be creative. So my work during this time included the girl-child series, where I showed, through my photographs, the daily routines of girls of Tamang, Tharu, Gurung and Rai origin. There were others too. One of my most controversial photos was that of a 14-year-old pregnant prostitute; I think that picture jolted a lot of people and made them aware of the situation of impoverished girls in the country who were forcefully sold for sex, among other things. It’s this power of photography to make things visible, and to document the unseen and the unknown aspects of our world that still gets me excited.
What has your career given you?
It has given me an identity, and also many reasons to travel. One of my fondest trips was my visit to Mt Kailash, in 1987, via Pakistan. I have travelled extensively across Nepal, and those experiences have been priceless. Learning to travel mindfully and click photos to capture those particular times and places has enriched my life like nothing else.
Appreciate the work of others. The more you look at good photos, the better you’ll get at studying the world through your viewfinder
What are you currently busy with?
I’m working on a book that depicts the renovation and restoration of Boudha. Nobody will forget the events that unfolded on April 25, 2015, and I was right here when it happened. The stupa suffered some great damages, and it was heartening to see the locals come together to preserve the piece of relic that unites us culturally and traditionally. I have been taking photographs since the day they started putting scaffolding around the pinnacle of the stupa.
Your suggestion to other photographers.
Appreciate the work of others. The more you look at good photos, the better you’ll get at studying the world through your viewfinder. Learn to see the composition—how photographers go about choosing the subjects, the play of light and shadows. I’m always vigilant and click anything that catches my fancy, and I always feel like my best shot is still waiting to be captured.