Extreme exposure

10 min read
03 May 2017
10 min read
1787 words
From the Archive (Sept, 2016): Jagdish Tiwari talks about how for those who are artistically inclined, there isn’t a better place to be born than the photogenic country of Nepal.

In a conversation with M&S VMAG’s Alok Thapa, Tiwari talks about how for those who are artistically inclined, there isn’t a better place to be born than the photogenic country of Nepal.

What does photography mean to you?
It’s an amalgamation of technology and art. I take what science has to offer, and use my creativity and artistic inclination to produce images that capture the mood of a time and place. If an image can induce happiness and wonder in the viewer, that to me is the hallmark of a good photograph. You don’t need an expensive camera or a reputed photographer to make people go, “Wow.”

Do you remember the first time you saw a camera?
An American Peace Corp Volunteer had come to stay at our place when I was 10 years old. We shared the same room, and it was he who introduced me to photography. As a village boy, I was fascinated to learn that it was possible to freeze a slice of time. When he left a couple of months later, he gifted me a little pocket camera, and the rest is history.

How did it feel seeing the world through a viewfinder?
My eyes were always drawn to light and structure, but seeing the world through the little viewfinder of my pocket camera completely changed the way I saw the world around me. I would take pictures of everything, and eventually became “the boy with the camera” in my village.

Tell us about your childhood.
I grew up in a farming family in Tanahu. I went to a small village school, and like any other local kid, would tend to the fields and herd cattle in my free time. I spent plenty of time surrounded by nature, and it was this kind of upbringing that would later go on to define me and my photography.

When did you decide that you wanted to pursue photography seriously?
I came to Kathmandu in the 80s after joining the army, and started getting recognised as a photographer since I always carried my camera with me. I was eventually summoned by Commandant Kedar Bahadur Singh who asked me if I could really take photos. In the army we are taught to never disagree, so even though I was only comfortable operating my pocket camera, I told him “yes.” Next thing you know, he gave me a Fuji DSLR with a couple of lenses and told me to start clicking.

How did you fare with your newfound toy?
It was a scary situation. I told my Commandant that I could operate the camera but feared something might go wrong. After a few trials and errors though, I finally got the hang of the DSLR, and my life hasn’t been the same since.

What went through your mind when you decided to quit your job to become a photographer?
I was uncertain, but elated. Because I came from a humble farming background, people thought that my living in a city where I didn’t know anybody, quitting a stable job and dreaming of becoming a photographer meant that I had lost it. For a young lad who didn’t even know how to dial a telephone, and didn’t have the money to afford a camera, photography was an audacious career move; maybe I was a little crazy. But then, I guess that’s what’s so magical about your youth—that’s when you think anything is possible.

How did you convince your family?
When you’re passionate about something to the point of madness, you don’t have to convince anybody. It might sound a little selfish, but the happiness that comes with following your passion outweighs everything.

What was your main struggle then?
My main struggle was to become a good photographer. Initially, it was something I did in my free time; then I had to excel in it because my livelihood depended on clicking photos. I also started at a time when photography was considered just a hobby for the rich and famous. These financial, societal and familial pressures were difficult to deal with, but if you’re passionate about something, nothing can deter you from your path.

How did you learn photography?
I am a self-taught photographer, and though this might sound absurd, I began by stalking tourists with cameras, observing how they took photos, and the kinds of lenses they were using. I come from a time when a Re 1 note had much value, and I would invest my savings to buy photography magazines that cost over Rs 250. Then I’d wait for three months to actually get my copy and go through it religiously.

Do you think formal training in photography is important?
Absolutely. I am also a huge believer in the value of good mentoring. Choosing the right mentor can be a vital decision in one’s career.

More than 30 years of photography—why did you choose landscape?
Although I have done different types of photography, capturing landscapes satisfies me the most. When I started doing nature photography, I actually began noticing my own work. Also, growing up in a village, for me, nature was always an intrinsic part of my life. Now, I exclusively do mountain photography because I have an unreasonable fascination with snow. I’ve spent around 25 years capturing the mountains, and I still feel like there’s always one more gorgeous picture to shoot.

Have there been instances when you felt like giving up?
If your question is regarding photography, never. During my photo shoots, though, there have been times when I’ve thought to myself—“this is it.” Life is uncertain in the mountains. I have spent freezing nights in Kala Patthar observing Mt Everest at dawn. Once I made a navigational error and ended up walking in circles the whole night, only to be chased by wild yaks later. The journey of a landscape photographer is filled with tales of suffering, especially those instances when you’re trying to get the perfect picture. I visited Kala Patthar nearly 30 times, and Annapurna Base Camp almost 15 times before I got the desired frame.

Your portrait of Sagarmatha was sold for a record Rs 700,000. How do you feel about selling your photographs?
An Italian had shown interest in that particular photo of Sagarmatha, and since I was in need of money, I agreed to sell my photos, including the copyrights. As a professional photographer, I do make a living by selling my pictures, but being a photo lover, it is sometimes difficult to let go of my work. Every picture has a story behind it—miles of walking, climbing, waiting, and suffering to be in the right place, at the right time. These journeys help me forge a special bond with every picture.

Who has been your biggest influence?
Nature is my biggest teacher. I am also inspired by the works of my juniors. Besides that, I must mention the Japanese photographer Siro Sirahata. It was his 1983 hardcover book ‘Nepal Himalayas’ that left a lasting impression on me. His colour photographs of the Himalayas made me so jealous that I thought to myself, “If a Japanese guy can come here and take amazing photographs of our mountain peaks, why can’t we?” In a way, his photos helped me push myself to take risks—I sold my house, travelled to Germany and bought the Linhof Master Technika ‘Classic’, which cost me around Rs 17 lakhs.

You seem so satisfied with how your life has turned out; do you have any regrets at all?
Although I have no regrets, I do get disheartened by the way the state dismisses the photographers and photojournalists of our country. If we are to see the development in this field, it’s time they acknowledged us and invested in proper infrastructure for upcoming photographers. Our leaders shouldn’t forget that photographs have played an important roles in their lives too—it was the photojournalists who brought their struggles, their fights, and their victories to the public’s eye through photos. But sadly once our leaders get comfortable in their positions, they seem to forget our contribution.

Would you consider your photographs to be entirely decorative?
Photography has given me an opportunity to put forth my beliefs and ideas through photos. Every click requires a lot of thinking, and I consider my photographs a visual manifestation of my thoughts. That’s why I don’t consider photographs just objects of decoration. Every single frame and every observation is unique because everyone interprets the world in their own special ways.