Priya Gurung knows at least ten people who left her village to work overseas. Today, the young are no longer happy living traditional lifestyles, instead they dream of the success the modern world promises. In the rural mountain villages of Nepal, very few people remain. What were once thriving, autonomous villages only 30 years ago, are now filled with abandoned houses and uncultivated fields. The tragedy is that the traditions that helped these communities survive and flourish for centuries are at risk of vanishing, taking with them the vast archive of knowledge, expertise and imagination that make up the complexity and diversity of their culture.
Until the end of the 18th century, stateless people (those who are autonomous and not governed by a political power) occupied the greater portion of the world’s landmass — wild forests, steppes, deserts, rugged mountains and other inaccessible remote areas. With the advent of the industrial revolution, state powers needed a large supply of laborers to produce and maintain the products necessary for amassing state revenues. Thus began a large enclosure movement that would eventually enroll the stateless people on the periphery of state control. In Southeast Asia, including Nepal and India, this enclosure movement took place in the late 20th century. The state powers’ strategies were more about “soft power” than coercion, inveigling stateless people (including subsistence agriculturalists) with distance-demolishing technologies — all-weather roads, railroads, airplanes, electricity, telephones and now modern information technologies. The oldest state-building strategy has been establishing permanent settlements that pay tribute or taxes to the political center, usually under the guise of “civilizing” the nomadic barbarians. It would appear that in our modern era this activity has ended, yet if we substitute other words for it, like “development,” “progress” or “globalization,” then it’s apparent that the political agenda of the past is still alive today.
My photographic interests are centered on the diversity of people and how they express their unique cultural identities. This project is important to me because it shows some of the hidden costs of modern industrialization and its accompanying lifestyle. It demonstrates that there’s a price for progress, not only of the waste it generates, but also its impact on cultural traditions and identity — in particular, the loss of diverse artistic, intellectual and spiritual expression that collectively defines the human experience as lived until now.
Light is the most important aspect of photography. Yet, the vocabulary we use to describe light is quite limited, unlike the two large sensory industries of wine and perfume, which is highly evolved and sophisticated. In addition, some light is considered more attractive or desirable to most photographers, for instance light from the “golden hour” — the approximate time of day when the sun is low and bright, just after sunrise or just before sunset. As a result, our prejudices about good or boring light follow a path that the majority follow. Is that what we want as photographers, to follow the herd?
As photographers, we are bound to light — sometimes waiting for the right nuance of light to cross the path of our subject, or other times frantically chasing after it. When we wait for light, it is because we know what to expect, we are able to anticipate the peak moment when the light and the subject converge to form the best possible photographic experience. We can make a plan of how to approach the situation and when to capture the best possible image. However, when we are chasing light we are looking for those special unpredictable moments that instantaneously coalesce. Knowing how your equipment works is imperative to capturing this fleeting, unusual moment. This is the light that can change the ordinary into the extraordinary, the mundane into the magical. Photographing these fugitive moments of light requires a very active and reactive response, not only from your equipment, but also from your mind-set. Here you need to rely as much on instinct as on experience.
In this series, I have included imagery that captures light at the beginning of the day. I have tried to demonstrate the vocabulary of light rather than write about it. It is my hope that these images will inspire you — wherever you are in the world — to sometimes rise up early in the dawn and explore the infinite variety of light as it first washes down on the earth in subtle nuances of tone and color.
Since the beginning of my career, I have occasionally made photographs that appear less like a photograph and more like a painting. Although my work would mainly be categorized as “documentary,” there were other images that I captured while in the field that clearly did not fit into the “documentary” paradigm.
The other photographs all seemed to have something in common — an unusual quality of light. Eventually, in 2012 I asked: How could this machine, the camera, produce something from reality that transcended the moment depicted and resemble an artist’s painted rendition of it instead?
The Painting Light series is a demonstration of the thoughts that have evolved. As I began to seek out this special kind of light and play with it through numerous experiments, I learned that the quality of light I captured in the camera which rendered the best painterly effects depended on the convergence of a few different aspects: the color of the ambient light; its direction in relation to the subject; its intensity; and the camera/light source axis. As a result, I have discovered several ambient light situations where the likelihood of producing a painting-like photograph is quite high.