I Heart Kathmandu
October 7th, 2010

Lighting Butter Candles — Boudha, Nepal

The other day a reader of David duChemin’s blog left a comment in which he stated that David’s “angst is exhausting”. David had blogged about how difficult it can sometimes be to wrestle with and search for one’s vision. The commenter’s implication, particularly when he mentioned “exotic locations”, suggested to me that he believes that simply because David is fortunate enough to be in exotic locations that he has no right to struggle with his vision—that an exotic location alone were a sort of magic elixir for compelling photography. It’s as if an airline could transport one directly to a land of photographic nirvana. It just doesn’t work like that.

It is no easier to create compelling photographs in Kathmandu than in Kansas City. Sure, one can point a camera at something exotic and wow friends and family back home with the exoticism, but exoticism does not make a photograph compelling. It is at best a crutch for a lack of something truly compelling. It’s a smoke screen, snake oil, sleight of hand…call it what you will, but it’s not compelling. It’s just exotic; more precisely, such images are striking simply because they capture the unfamiliar. Is that, however, all we wish of our photography, a record of the unfamiliar?

Photography isn’t easy. I’ve been here in Kathmandu for nearly a week, and I too am not pleased with the abandonment of my muse. I see exotic structures, objects and people everywhere. I love this place for that, but I know that that is not enough. I need more for my photography. I need this place to get under my skin so that I can truly understand it…so that I can, hopefully, then convey in my photography how Kathmandu feels in my soul. It’s a struggle. I’m not going to beat myself up about it as I’ve known since I began that photography is often a struggle. I don’t expect it to be easy. Sometimes one manages to be in a sort of photographic, or vision, groove, and things just seem to work. At other times, one just struggles and struggles and then struggles some more. That’s a good time for a glass of chai. I’ve had many.

David isn’t a harbor of angst. He’s simply honest about the very real struggles of creating compelling images that match our vision. For anybody who thinks that’s easy—always easy—well, kudos to you. I certainly don’t.

Nonetheless, I love Kathmandu. The Nepali are gracious, kind and truly wonderful. I knew that already from those I’ve encountered back home, but here they are at home, in their environment. I haven’t figured out how to capture what I feel about Kathmandu yet, but I am also not yet certain what I actually feel about Kathmandu. It’s not as if I can photograph “I heart Kathmandu” and leave it at that. I wish it were so easy. Well, actually, no I don’t. The struggle is part of the growth.

Well, OK, that’s my little rant. I feel better already. :-)

16 Responses to “I Heart Kathmandu”

  1. Jeff says:

    Thanks for the post. I think the value of David sharing his struggles with us is that those of us learning photography realize that even the “pros” like David and yourself struggle to make good photographs. I don’t know about everyone else, but, personally I’d have thrown my camera away long ago if I didn’t know that this craft was hard for everyone, beginners and advanced alike.

    Safe Travels,

  2. Sometimes, the muse just isn’t there no matter where you are. I live in what most would call an exotic location but it doesn’t magically mean I create good photographs. Over time, the exotic becomes the every day.

  3. Amen! I agree, for you to find your muse, let the culture-no matter where that may be-get under your skin. I appreciate what you say and you are exactly correct. I’ve been thinking about how we often just need to begin where we are, there are compelling stories all around us, if we care to see. As I said on David’s post. The Great Masters in art all experienced angst and if you’ve ever studied them, you can see the changes in their “vision,” if you will, and body of work as they found their muse. Struggles are a part of everyday life, no matter who you are or what you do. As an artist, it may require a bit more contemplation and inward search before you can move forward. May Kathmandu get under your skin and into your heart and bring about another wonderful body of work!

  4. Vivian says:

    I have never been to Kathmandu. But, I look at the picture above and I see a wonderful serenity in the face of the person lighting the butter candles. I may be missing your point about the struggle to understand a place and express it in images, but for me, a viewer, you have captured a beautiful moment that gives me great pleasure.

  5. jilske says:

    Sometimes making pictures of a strange place is even harder, because you have to dig deeper to get past the ‘exotic’ layer and take time to really know and see it.
    Having said that, I am beating myself up over the fact I’m beating myself up. I keep on expecting it is easy…yet I feel it never will.
    Perhaps that is what the original poster meant by it being exhausting? As you already know there will be a struggle, so why bother getting frustrated about it. Which is what you said as well. I think I need to bring one of those Tibetan CD’s home to get me in the zone or Hanuman’s pipe ;-)

  6. CJ Kern says:

    You are so right, this photography thing is not easy! In some ways I’m glad for that because when our muse does dance with us to me it makes it all the more wonderful. I’ll meet you at Flavors later for some chai.

  7. Rosa says:

    Hi Jeffrey,

    I certainly think that anyone who has ever tried photography a bit seriously knows that an exotic place in its own does not make good photographs. And that’s pretty easy to prove: me walking next to you or David, same camera, same gear, same everything… who would have better photos? Hey, I am working at it! One day I hope to get to your level guys :-)

    The honesty with which David expresses his feelings around photography is what keeps me hooked to everything he does. And it’s also one of the reasons why I keep taking photos despite the struggle. Reading many blogs, I once thought that I was the only one for whom taking photos was so hard. I am glad to have people out there to remind me that after the struggle usually comes the absolute happiness for having a decent photo that expresses how I feel.

    One thing I often wonder is why a comment from one reader can get so much into you and David when so many of us love to read you in the good and in the not so good muse times.


  8. This way of thinking is very common because I believe people will always associate the ability to capture great photographs when you’re on somewhere abroad. To me that comes across as an excuse for them not putting in the effort to create something meaningful regardless of where they may be.

    The real difficult part of photography isn’t knowing how to make the picture but in determing what picture to make and with that comes deciding what your real commitment to becoming a better photographer is. Being somewhere exotic will undoubtedly induce inspiration that wouldn’t normally get while just being in your neighborhood but in reality it’s all about choosing to see things differently.

    The photographs that draw me in are generally always the ones accompanied with a good story. These are the ones that have subtle and surprising details throughout it that lead your eyes in new directions with every glance.

  9. Matt Welsh says:

    Thanks for posting this Jeffrey. I experienced the same lack of vision on my last trip to India and was very discouraged that things were not going better. By the time I was boarding the plane for home I was sure I’d shot thousands of images I’d never even show to family. I settled in trying to make myself feel better by reminding myself that even if the pictures didn’t come out well, at least I’d made new friends and experienced things that I would remember forever.

    When I got home and looked at the photos, I was disappointed at first just as I thought I’d be. But after letting them sit for a week, I went back and looked at them and realized my muse hadn’t abandoned me after all, but had simply been taking me in a different direction that I’d imagined. Many of the photos turned out to be worthwhile and even good.

    Setting out to create great photos puts a lot of pressure on us, especially people like you and David who are expected to be able to conjure the magic on-demand. When as humans that magic seemingly fails to appear, it can be emotionally taxing as David so honestly described.

    The two of you talking openly about photography being hard work are doing a service to those who look at your photos and think “It must be so easy for them…”

    I applaud both of your honesty.

  10. Wayne says:

    Sometimes we lash out at those we envy – and the web provides a ready shield. I identify with David’s angst. I dream of visiting places like Kathmandu, I dream of making images that are as compelling story tellers as you and David produce. But right now I struggle to to find my muse in my own mundane world.

    Does that mean I envy artists such as David? Yes. Do I think that he has it any easier? No. Visual storytellers like yourselves have to struggle to find new “angles,” new ways of telling the story so that it is uniquely compelling and evokes an emotion that has not yet been triggered.

    I will continue to dream. I will continue to admire. I will continue to learn.

  11. Jeffrey Chapman says:

    Thanks all for your comments. I’m pleased that, unlike over at David’s blog, that all of you here remain civil and constructive. :-)

    Places like Kathmandu are catalysts–or can be, but they’re never magic solutions. There are no magic solutions.

    Jeff, great to hear from you, but it’d be better to see you!

    Craig, exactly! One person’s exotic is another’s mundane.

    Dru, thanks. No mater what, I’m enjoying Kathmandu. It’s a great place.

    Vivian, I’m pleased with this photo. If I weren’t I either wouldn’t post it or would post it in order to discuss my displeasure with it. The evening it was taken was a bit of a turning point for me, but I’m still not in the groove.

    Ilse, you’re doing some excellent work here. I was thrilled yesterday to see how you interacted with the sadhu and how you are approaching your project.

    CJ, always a pleasure to share a table with you!

    Rosa, I understand exactly what you mean. Blogs have brought me into a much richer world of photography than I ever imagined. It’s a brilliant community of which I’m proud to be a small part.

    Jorge, you are 100% right. It’s always the vision stuff. Sure, one has to learn the technical aspects, but it doesn’t take long to master those. It takes lifetimes to master the vision stuff.

    Matt, sometimes, often actually, it’s useful to put some time between creating our photos and editing them. We see them with different eyes.

    Wayne, live the dream! Kathmandu awaits you! Make a plan–as long term as necessary–and make it happen.

  12. Doug says:

    Hi Jeffrey,

    I’m sure your images from the homeland are very inspired, as you suggest exotic location is not the source of artistic muse for the photographer.

    Love to see three or four of yours…..from good old North America.

    It’ll give you the opportunity to add some crediblity to your dialogue presented here.

    Looking forward to seeing some of your homeland images on your next blog.


  13. Jeffrey Chapman says:

    Hi Doug, geez; that sounds like a challenge. :-) There is an abundance of photographers who create extremely compelling images in North America – often in their own backyards. That’s not where I find my own personal inspiration as those are not the stories I strive to tell, but that is part of the subjective nature that makes us all unique. My goal is not that of creating compelling images for the sake of having created compelling images. My goal is to tell the stories that interest me; photography is the medium I prefer; I’d like my vision to aid in that endeavor. Anyhow, you may very well see photos of North America here in the future. Well, actually, there are already a couple. There may be more in the future, but certainly not in my next blog.

  14. Doug says:

    Hi again Jeffrey,

    One might view your response as a contradiction to the philosophy put worth in your blog post. Rest assured I don’t read it that way!

    I’ve been a photographer and photojournalist long enough to understand that everyone is inspired by places that are special unto themselves and what they do.

    Hope you keep up all your good work as a photographer, writer, one of the driving forces behind IGVP and your selfless work with refugees (which I noted in your Bio).

    I’m off in 9 days to one of MY major sources of inspiration…South America for three months.

    BTW my initial comment was not meant as a challenge (although I wouldn’t mind if you took it that way)… consider it more like an in-depth analysis. LOL

    Back to packing and my huge to-do list.

    Take care over there!

    Doug Pyper

  15. Lisa O says:

    I thought it was quite interesting that David revealed what he did in his blog, I felt he was just being honest. Just goes to show it can happen to anyone, hopefully it is just a temporary setback and the creative juices will soon return.

  16. Some see photographers as merely chauffeurs of the camera. In making those comments, the commenter reveals that he doesn’t understand craft, vision, art, or the genius of photography. Perhaps they believe that separates themselves from Cartier-Bresson is a time machine and a passport.

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