An ethics of seeingOf photography, essayist Susan Sontag wrote, “In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe.
Of photography, essayist Susan Sontag wrote, “In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe.” This she wrote in the 1970s, well into the entry of photography in mainstream commerce, but also long before the digital revolution equipped ordinary people with smartphones to shoot and social media to share. It is estimated that more than 1.2 trillion photographs were taken in 2017, with the number likely to increase this year. In her reflections, Sontag appears to be hinting towards the power that is inherent in the visual medium of photography. Now multiply that by 1.2 trillion. What happens to that power, then? Does it boggle our reality like it boggles the mind? Or does it get diluted, infinitesimally, until it is faded and forgotten?
As everyday producers and consumers of photographs, how much have we taken stock of what they can teach? What kind of visual code is dictating our wakeful, screen-infested days? What are the notions being deemed worthy? And what gets excluded, unseen? In the form of a photo festival, Photo Kathmandu acquaints the citizens of our historic city with the power of photography, to engage us with a visual code, to direct our gaze towards our notions, our values and what we take for granted, and, hopefully, to help us learn.
From the deliberately unlooked-at corners of Nepali society, this year’s festival gathers our collective and contentious relationship with gender, identity, patriarchy, sexuality and power and thrusts it in the purview of the public eye. It is helping to generate, to borrow Sontag’s words once more, “an ethics of seeing”, especially those things we avoid looking at.
Programming art into education
The arts and education programme is an integral element of Photo Kathmandu and lends itself graciously to the emergence of this ethics. It is what first caught my interest in the festival; a socially awkward yet endearing-once-you-get-to-know-it triad of the arts, education and this year’s theme was waiting to greet me. Sex. Rape. Sexuality. Queer. Gay. Assault. Incest. Lesbian. Molestation. Sexual Orientation. Desire. Transgender. Gender Spectrum. Consent. Domestic Abuse. Harassment. Words that we, as educators, religiously avoid in classrooms are contained in this triad. Here, they interact with another set of words. Justice. Equality. Intervention. Agency. Rights. Representation. Together, they make a heady cocktail that our school-going young adolescents deserve to taste.
As of now, in the classrooms and teacher workshops I have been a part of, I have witnessed a dual resistance at play. Both the arts and controversial social issues make teachers uncomfortable. The arts fall at the bottom of the hierarchy of subjects and are subjected to various misconceptions. Schools focus on passing on the technicalities of making art to their students, once a week or less frequently, but in a way that strips away its social relevance. Making a beautiful work of art becomes more important than making one that is conceptually strong and meaningful. Art is a passive object to be put on display, not an active and dynamic mode of communication.
“Artists have been reaching out to schools in multiple ways for long in Nepal, and they say young people do not seem to understand art,” said Sharareh Bajracharya, an arts educator and founder and director of Srijanalaya. She is also leading the arts and education programme for Photo Kathmandu this year. She shared what she has seen of students’ engagement with art-related spaces. “What happens typically in exhibitions is that students make one round of the gallery and they’re done. Teachers feel like they have done their work. Students get a break from their daily school routine. It all feels well managed,” she said.
However, according to Bajracharya, the students barely encounter art and the visit’s purpose remains unfulfilled. Engagement with art happens at a critical, not passive level. It is open to interpretation and fosters critical thinking. It is process oriented and helps generate questions. It can also initiate a dialogue among students. Having students be able to think and talk about art is important to Bajracharya. “We need to slow down this process,” she added,
offering what students should ask when they encounter works of art. “Why are we here? What is the art trying to say? We need to piece the story together, like puzzle pieces. And learn to speak about it in our own words.”
Educator Niranjan Kunwar, who is co-leading this year’s arts and education team at the festival along with Bajracharya, shared how he was inspired by the work done by the Lincoln Center in New York. Given the vibrant art community in Kathmandu, Kunwar felt inspired to emulate a similar model in Photo Kathmandu’s arts and education
programme. A strong educational component was then embedded into the very structure of the festival.
This is not an entirely new concept though. The 2012 Kathmandu International Art Festival (KIAF) was one of the first large scale art events to experiment with educational possibilities. Bajracharya, who coordinated the festival, said educational tours were added on an almost ad hoc basis after KIAF had already begun. Since then, she has seen to the successful run of arts and education programmes in the Climate Change exhibition (2013-14), the Kathmandu Triennale (2017) and previous renditions of Photo Kathmandu. “We realised it is indispensable,” she said about including an educational component to such events.
Five out of the 14 exhibitions on display this year have been selected to be part of their programme. An orientation workshop I had the chance to attend last month was meant to enable educators to get ready to conduct the tours. Bajracharya and Kunwar both facilitated, taking help from others for ice-breakers and energisers. While the workshop centred around postcards from the five exhibits, the facilitators incorporated movement, theatre, singing, reflective sharing, and video screening, bringing to life the term ‘arts’ in all its plurality. There was laughter, conversation, a lot of listening, and careful, engaged seeing. Our conversation spilled beyond the contents of the workshop, trailing after us as we parted ways. Thoughts and questions from that day did not leave me for days. Had these facilitators done to us participants what they hoped we would do with our students?
Learning to see
A bilingual learning kit has been prepared for volunteers who will give guided tours as well as for teachers to use independently when taking their students for a gallery visit. The tours themselves have been designed in a workshop style with three distinct components—the pre-viewing, the gallery walk, and the post-viewing. “People say not everyone understands art. But this is a misconception. There is a need to prime one’s mind, to help build excitement, so that viewers anticipate the actual viewing,” said Kunwar, who has been involved in prepping volunteers. “This pre-watching primer then allows you to take that viewing experience to a deeper level and to interact with the exhibition.”
As if to demonstrate what this means, Kunwar picked up a postcard during the orientation workshop. Gathered in a circle, we picked up the same postcard from our own dockets—A Robin Hammond photograph of two women in an intimate embrace, part of his Where Love is Illegal exhibit. “What do you see?” Kunwar asked, letting participants have a go at answers. Some saw these women’s different hair styles, others the red nail polish, one noted the lack of smile on either of their faces, another even spotted fingers peeking from the corner of the photograph. At this point Kunwar stressed on what it means to ask a question like that, how it allows for multiple answers, simple answers, obvious answers, and opens up even more questions. “The point is to not let any student feel unintelligent,” he shared. The point is to prime the audience, and to begin a conversation.
In the context of a Nepali classroom, conversations around alternate sexualities barely exist. Teachers adopt a prudish attitude and silence is the best and most tolerant treatment of an issue like this. Bajracharya noted that it is
important to work with teachers. Her team has integrated teacher education into the festival programme, with workshops catering specifically to school teachers, especially from government schools. “We have tried to focus on the teacher, to help her build the language to talk about gender and sexuality,” she said. Vocabulary is indeed important if conversations are what we seek to generate and questions what we seek to raise on issues that have so far remained silent.
“The publicness of the photographs excites me,” shared Yukta Bajracharya, a poet and educator affiliated with the American Embassy’s Book Bus, who was also present at the orientation. She will be giving guided tours of The Public Life of Women: A Feminist Memory Project and is looking forward to how audiences will react to witnessing a women’s history of Nepal they have been unaware of. “We might assume that something hasn’t happened because we can’t see it and don’t remember it from our own lives,” she said. “But now, the exhibition is putting it in our faces.”
Yukta previously participated in the arts and education programme during the 2016 Photo Kathmandu. She remembers distinctly how students in her tours received stories about women and the Dalit community with surprise. “Many students feel like these are things of the past, but here they learn otherwise,” she said. I am reminded of my own students who believe they live in a progressive, liberal, just world where everyone is equal and free. Are all students as apolitically unaware of their privileges and position in society?
The festival aims to draw students from private and government schools alike so that the exhibitions reach a wider audience, helping them explore the photographs in relation to their own realities. This is important for Nasala Chitrakar who will also lead guided tours for students. She asserted, “Having a range of students from different backgrounds attend the festival will be important to me as an educator.”
Not only will this democratise the festival, turning it into a non-exclusive space that people from all kinds of backgrounds will have equal access to, but it will also strengthen the purpose of the festival which is to reach out to a diverse audience, and to do away with the misconception that art is understood only by a few. The festival has in many cases done away with a gallery space altogether, putting up selected works in communal spaces in the old Patan and Kathmandu areas. Common streets and houses hold contemporary photographs, punctuating the daily life of passersby, blending in with the surroundings like more traditional forms of art. The publicness of it all, indeed. Students who attend guided tours will see their own bustling, imperfect city become part of these exhibitions that often broach curious taboos, hidden secrets.
In the coming month and a half, what will the young of Kathmandu see? How will they choose to see it? What will they make of what they see?
“The arts community is an important learning space,” said Bajracharya. But what kind learning is to take place here?
Risking and reflecting
Answers come in unlikely places. Digging through my inbox, I found an email thread between educators from May 2014, right after an educators seminar organised by Bajracharya and her team for the Climate Change exhibition. The highlight of the exhibition for many had been an installation project titled ‘In Search of the Sacred River’ by artist Hitman Gurung and his team. The project spilled on us the secrets our ‘sacred’ Bagmati River holds—empty cans, dead infants, used condoms to name a few—that compelled us to see our Kathmandu in a different light.
In one of the emails from that thread, I found an introspective Reshu Aryal Dhungana in whom the work had triggered emotions, thoughts, questions. As an educator reflecting on her own role in students learning, she was already asking these questions.
“Should we as educators desire for certain kinds of responses as opposed to others?” she asked somewhere in the middle of her long email. “No,” she pointedly answered. “We can deliberately discuss and bring to the fore a variety of responses people have to different kinds of art and encourage people to develop an appreciation for multiple perspectives, but everyone can express how they feel and make their own conscious decision about how they want to be, post a potentially rich educative moment created by engagement with the arts.”
I found this idea echoed in Yukta’s words when she said, “My expectations are that students pay attention to stories in these photographs. Even if they don’t agree with the stance of the festival, or the artist, or the work itself. Listening and being open-minded, and trying to understand that perspective, that is important.”
In approaching these photographs wide eyed and open minded we may run the risk of seeing things that we find painful, disgusting, inappropriate, joyful, illuminating. In bringing our adolescents in contact with these photographs, they run the same risk. It is the risk of letting them know of the power of photographs and of the ways it has been manoeuvred. It is the risk of engaging in an ethics of seeing. In a world of trillion plus photographs, that is worth trying.
- The arts and education programme at Photo Kathmandu will commence with a Teachers’ Seminar today. Regmi is a Kathmandu-based educator.
Where Love is Illegal
Robin Hammond (United Kingdom)
The Where Love is Illegal project is an ongoing documentation of the lives of LGBTQI individuals from around the world and the way their sexuality is confronted by the laws of their nations. Portraits are accompanied by personal testimonies that speak of the oppression, violence, and fear they live in. Critical issues that can be explored with students: gender, gender stereotypes, identity, sexualities, LGBTQI rights, marginality, law/criminalization, homophobia and heteronormativity
Venue: Tumbahal, Patan
Exhibition Dates: 26 Oct – 16 Nov
Exhibition Hours: 11 am – 7 pm
The Public Life of Women: A Feminist Memory Project
Nepal Picture Library (Nepal)
Curated by Diwas Raja Kc & NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati
This project has archived photographs that tell an alternate history of Nepal through the everyday lives of women.
The exhibitions are organized around women’s relationship with public life and highlight feminist experiences in Nepal. Critical issues that can be explored with students: women’s history, women’s rights, femininity, feminism, mobility, citizenship, education and sexual violence
Venue: Patan Durbar Square/Dhaugal/Nakabahi, Patan/ChhayaCenter, Thamel, Kathmandu
Exhibition Dates: 26 Oct–16 Nov
Exhibition Hours: 11 am–7 pm
Bunu Dhungana (Nepal)
Through Confrontations, Dhungana explores how an individual arrives at a disfiguring sense of womanhood in a patriarchal society. In a highly conceptual series, she experiments with herself through self-portraits and makes art with menstrual blood. Her work strives to strike a direct conversation with the audience. Critical issues that can be explored with students: women’s rights, patriarchy, power, property, the female body, menstruation, culture, social taboos and non-conformity
Venue: Khapinchhen, Patan
Exhibition Dates: 12 Oct – 16 Nov
Exhibition Hours: 11 am – 7 pm
The Lightning Testimonies
Amar Kanwar (India)
The Lightning Testimonies is a multi-channel video installation that chases after the silenced history of sexual violence in the Indian subcontinent. Critical issues that can be explored with students: historical narratives, communal violence, sexual abuse, memory, minorities, trauma,
Venue: 6th Floor, Chhaya Center, Thamel, Kathmandu
Exhibition Dates: 12 Oct – 12 April 2019
Exhibition Hours: 11 am – 7 pm
There are No Homosexuals in Iran
Laurence Rasti (Switzerland)
In 2007, during a trip to the US, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad proclaimed, “In Iran, we do not have homosexuals like in your country.” Turning his statement on its head, the Swiss-Iranian photographer’s work depicts the invisiblised lives of Iranian homosexuals that is at once playful and poignant. Critical issues that can be explored with students: gender, identities, sexualities, LGBTQI rights, marginality, law, homophobia, outing/coming out and heteronormativity
Venue: Pimbahal, Patan
Exhibition Dates: 17 Oct – 16 Nov
Exhibition Hours: 11 am – 7 pm