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A Blog About Culture

Recognition, Situation, Identity, Reality

Category Archives: Media Analysis

 

I already wrote a ton about cultural representation on a fairly recent (and by “fairly recent” I mean “last year”) post about fashion photography in Nepal, so you probably won’t be too surprised that I have an opinion about the faces chosen to represent Nepal in this video by photographer Jeremy Snell.

I don’t know too much about his end goal for this project, but this is what he said in the description: “The beauty of the Nepali people shown through an array of video portraits. These type of portraits involve a certain amount of trust between those being filmed and the filmmaker. Such portraits bring an intimate and human perspective towards complete strangers.

So, yeah, he did portray that sense of trust. It was a nice feeling, realizing that these people were standing and waiting for their pictures to be taken. They took time out of their days to stand there and try to look normal. The only issue that I have is that most of the portraits show the “exotic” Nepal, the people of a spiritual, simple past, or whatever it is that tourists think of when they think about Nepal.

Yes, there are ascetic yogis and women in rice paddies and monks in maroon. Yes, there are smiling children running around without pants and there are elderly homeless men wearing the traditional topi hat. But this project included maybe only three portraits of “modern” people in Nepal, and you can only really tell that much because they are wearing nondescript clothing. Where are the youths going to school? Where are the businessmen riding motorcycles to the office? Where are the brides buying makeup for their big days? Where are the hipsters with the cigarettes and skinny jeans? Where are those faces of Nepal?

But this is not what I wanted this post to be about.

The majority of the portraits in Snell’s video are of children — toddlers, specifically — and elderly. There are some adults, of course, but I felt that these two categories made up the most of the photos.

What struck me was the universality of the portraits of children versus the culturally-specific shots of the elderly.

What about those portraits of the elderly were so saliently Nepali? What screamed Nepal to me? I think that they displayed several cultural markers that expressed a traditional Nepal (perhaps also what made them so appealing to the photographer). First of all, most of them wore traditional and maybe even ethnic-specific clothing and jewelry. Then, some of them also engaged in poses, like the namaste gesture, that are learned expressions of identity (whether consciously or not).

The children don’t have those. Many of the kids in the portraits here are wearing clothing from all over the place, Western in style as well as traditional Nepali. They are also just doing whatever they feel like doing, which is pretty true of children all over the world. 🙂

So maybe the point of this blog post is to make a case for culture as a learned construct. Over time, does it become so ingrained that it imbues the very essence of who we are? Yeah, I think, but I also think that those markers don’t necessarily define who we are. They express a part of a whole. They’re paintings, not the image. They’re the markers, not the idea.

I have one more thought about “Faces of Nepal.” I love the first few shots of the video. The first few show perspectives from behind the subject of the shot, so it is like the viewer is in the same vantage point as the subject, experiencing the same world at the same time. I would love to see more of that.

I first wrote the following onto Facebook, but then realized that it was way too long to include on my graduate studies’ Facebook group. As it is entirely my own opinion and discussion, I figured it would be better to include in this blog, which I had kind of forgotten about. I guess my intention was to ask questions on the group page to see what my classmates also had to say, but if you are reading, feel free to comment here. Or there. Wherever you choose. Or don’t. Just watch the video.

Here’s something. Watch the video if you’re interested. My cousin Riju is a budding fashion model and actress in the “Kollywood” (Kathmandu) scene, so I follow a few Nepali fashion pages, etc. The Himalayan Times recently released an article covering a photo shoot by Leila Hafzi, a Norwegian wedding dress designer who has published a new line called “Flying Silk.” The article describes: “Inspired not only by Nepal’s rich natural beauty, but also by its colorful, intricate culture and people, fashion designer Leila Hafzi spent fifteen years developing ‘Flying Silk,’ a line of ‘high-end ethical & eco conscious’ wedding dresses crafted to embody the Nepalese spirit.”

You can imagine my excitement. I am sharing the following behind-the-scenes video with you for several reasons. 1. So you can see some of the reasons I love going back to Nepal. 2. So you can see pretty women in pretty dresses doing some cool shots. (Standing on ledges? Standing on boats? Crazy.) 3. So you can understand my (slight) frustration with the editorial.

I think the project has great potential, but why were all the models white? And why were all the Nepalese people Photoshopped out of the final copies of the photos? Maybe it has to do with the target customers, but if you’re really going to be interested in “trans-cultural collaboration,” as the website claims, you can’t just pick and choose the cultural markers that you want. As I discussed in my Capstone, you can’t just continue to perpetuate a false reality of what Nepal is.

I’m thinking about my vastly different reactions to these photos vs. Jimmy Nelson’s offensive “Before They Pass Away” photography. I think we can recognize that they come from different intentions, and that makes me more inclined to think positively of Leila Hafzi’s marketing work. Maybe I just like the pretty dresses.

 

Edit:

You know, upon a second viewing of the video, towards the end there are a few shots with people in them. My favorite is the one of the girl in the wedding dress standing in the middle of a party of women clapping and dancing. I thought that of all the photos, that captured the best reality.

I suppose the main point I’m thinking about has to do with the intentions of each campaign. Obviously it is impossible to control the objectives of every entity, especially those with capitalistic goals, but perhaps there are ways to achieve those goals while in partnership with others. I think that is what excites me the most. I’m very critical of advertising everything, but I think it comes from an excitement and a need to improve.