Directorate-General for Research & Innovation logo Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission logo
Receive our editor’s picks

Picturing the political imagination

Photography studios in Nepal use aspirational backdrops, such as an idealised landscape, to allow people to shed their day-to-day identities and imagine a different life. Image credit - Prof. Christopher Pinney/ PhotoDemos
Photography studios in Nepal use aspirational backdrops, such as an idealised landscape, to allow people to shed their day-to-day identities and imagine a different life. Image credit - Prof. Christopher Pinney/ PhotoDemos

Nepal’s 10-year civil war ended in 2006 but it still looms large in the political consciousness. Now, a new collection of photographs is exploring how people use the medium to express their political identities and their dreams for the future.

It may be the age of the selfie, but Nepal has around 6 000 photography studios left across the country. ‘Many people would find (this) surprising as the assumption is that mobile photography has swept them away. (But) they’re tenaciously hanging on,’ said Professor Christopher Pinney from University College London, UK.

He recently spent four months in Nepal exploring what we can learn about people’s political imagination – their aspirations and visions of the future – through the way they represent themselves and their lives in photographs.


Image credit - Prof. Christopher Pinney/ PhotoDemos

Many of Nepal’s photography studios have intricately painted backdrops dating from the time of film photography, which allowed people from rural areas to adopt different identities. Prof. Pinney discovered that studios are still used, particularly for official photographs.

‘The airport backdrop was in a small town at the far end of the Kathmandu Valley where the clientele seemed mostly to be hill people who wanted to participate in this cosmopolitan space of freedom and movement,’ said Prof. Pinney.

Image credit - Prof. Christopher Pinney/ PhotoDemos

Photographic portraits have long been interwoven with citizenship requirements such as passports or visas. Until 2008, men in Nepal posing for official images were required to wear a traditional hat known as a topi, which were often provided by the photography studio. Prof. Pinney says that studio props and backgrounds allowed ordinary people to try out different identities, perhaps acting out a desired persona or acknowledging their changing position in Nepali culture.

He added: ‘It’s not simply that you take a ready-made identity into the studio and the camera simply records what’s already there. It’s rather that something expansionary and creative happens in that performative space in front of the camera.’

Prof. Pinney’s work is part of the PhotoDemos project, funded by the EU’s European Research Council, which is looking at the relationship between photography and the political imagination in nine countries with a history of political conflict – Bangladesh, Cambodia, Greece, Nepal, Nicaragua, Nigeria, North India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

From 1996 to 2006, thousands of people were killed in Nepal’s civil war between the ruling government and the Communist Party (Maoist), who wanted to abolish the monarchy and establish a People’s Republic. ‘It was a high intensity conflict with many victims and it’s a conflict that still dominates the political landscape in Nepal,’ said Prof. Pinney.

Image credit - Prof. Christopher Pinney/ PhotoDemos

The Rana dynasty, which ruled Nepal from the 1850s to the 1950s, have been criticised for creating the hierarchical society that ultimately helped cause the insurgency in 1996. However, Prof. Pinney says their legacy is still very much up for political debate and Rana descendants maintain and protect photographs in order to promote their family archives and redeem their history.

‘(The Ranas) were, from the 1860s, very enthusiastic makers and commissioners of photographs, so there’s a huge number of early images of Ranas, so these enter the contemporary political landscape,’ said Prof. Pinney.

Image credit - Prof. Christopher Pinney/ PhotoDemos

During his time in Nepal, Prof. Pinney found that photographs can reveal attempts to unite a divided country and heal historical wounds. Many studios advertised their services through images of women wearing traditional cultural dress, echoing and intensifying the political prominence of indigenous rights. One organisation, the Udaaya Samaj, whose members come from nine different caste groups, created a calendar in 2017 featuring archival photos of the cultural groups that they are seeking to unify.

He also came across examples of what he called aspirational photography, which is used to imagine a better future. For instance, he met a shopkeeper in the small town of Bhaktapur whose shop and house were badly damaged in the 2015 earthquake. The man used photo editing apps on his phone to create images of himself and his family in distinctly different places than their current environment.

Image credit - Prof. Christopher Pinney/ PhotoDemos

The shopkeeper created a family tree alongside images of temples and cultural icons. ‘I thought it was a wonderful and amazing symbol of a desire to root oneself in a place that had become very vulnerable after the earthquake,’ said Prof. Pinney.

The aim of PhotoDemos is to produce an edited volume of photography and an exhibition. Nepal is the first country to be completed but by the end of 2018 the photos will be combined with those collected by researchers in other countries to enable comparisons to be made.

Prof. Pinney hopes that the work will not only allow researchers to explore the similarities and differences between people’s reactions to politically important events, but also bring a new dimension to the academic study of photography.

‘I hope the research will feed into what I call world system photography. Photography theory is still very markedly Eurocentric - it’s failed to get to grips with what world photographic practice has to teach it.’

If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.

More info