Adventures in Nepal and the Unintentional Beginning of a Long-Term Project

Guest blogger

By U.S. Photographer Rebecca Gaal

Day 1: Hey! You remember as a child when your parents explicitly told you not to pet stray dogs? All the CDC warning about rabies? If your first reaction after breaking these basic rules is to sacrifice your trigger finger over your X-T1… there might be a greater issue then the inability to follow directions. The X-T1 was my camera of choice because I needed something as reliable as Imodium, yet flexible enough to condone creativity – all while still resembling the look of film. I mean, come on! When you’re worried about the possibilities of your body failing, health, or basic safety, you don’t have time to second-guess about gear.DSCF9419I’ll spare you the details about the sobering reality of needing to trade my personal snacks for battery space. If you’ve ever encountered the luggage scale of doom in an airport, then you understand the seriousness of airline weight restrictions. Now, imagine restrictions for a 4 or 6 seater plane and the tired muscles of the sweet mules that will inevitably carry the still-too-heavy load.IMG_0245Let me back up a second. Journaling is my way of processing overwhelming amounts of information. Figuring out what works and what does not work, and why. Last September I was lucky enough to join an incredible group of individuals from around the globe to set off on a month-long expedition in the lesser-known mountains of Dolpo, Nepal. The group, called the Nomads Clinic, was created by Joan Halifax and serves some of heartiest, most salt-of-the-earth humans who live in some of the most remote places in the world and are in need of medical aid. There was no set storyline or plan for photographs except to document the journey. It can be challenging to narrow down your focus when everything and everyone is interesting. It’s also tricky to think at high altitude (10-18,000ft) so doing a solid amount of planning and research ahead of time is an integral part of my process. There is a lot to be said about visiting a place and meeting the people before deciding what your story is truly about.

Just as an illustrator uses multiple pens or a chef has his favorite knives, cameras bodies and lenses are no different. Prior to this endeavor I made a list of criteria my gear must meet in order to have the best chance of success. The gear would need to be: lightweight, quiet, have a high ISO range, be durable and weather resistant, have external controls easy to change and most importantly all of these functions needed to come in something small and compact. The camera is a tool, a tool to think with, understand with, initiate conversation with, but it works against you if it’s intimidating or hinders maneuverability. The rotating LCD was also pivotal. Really. Just as the ability to shoot from the hip without it looking like your hip took the shot- fantastic! The X-T1 not only met my basic criteria, but also went beyond and far exceeded expectations.

Gear List

  • 2 Fujifilm X-T1 Mirrorless Bodies
  • 1 Fujifilm XF10-24mmF4 R OIS WR Lens
  • 1 Fujifilm XF18-55mmF2.8-4 R LM OIS Lens
  • 1 Fujifilm XF50-140mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR Lens
  • 12x Extra Batteries for X-T1
  • 1 X-T1 Vertical Battery Grip
  • 1 GoPro4, 8 batteries for GoPro
  • Started with 10, 34GB SD cards and bought more out of anxiety at every airport
  • Gorilla pod
  • iPhone6
  • Lens Cleaners
  • Two battery chargers with extra cords for both Fujifilm and GoPro.
  • Goal Zero Sherpa 100 solar charger w AC converter
  • Circular Polarizers and UV haze filters
  • Peak design backpack clip
  • LowPro pouches
  • 1 XS pelican case

Things Left at Hotel

  • 2 G tech portable HD’s
  • Card reader
  • MacBook pro

DSCF5942Day 17: The clinic is roaring! Mothers carrying infants and men of all ages waiting to be treated. Waiting to be seen. Be heard. Their bodies aged by years of physical labor, scorched, wind-whipped faces with lines as sharp and jagged as the mountains they live in. A baby calf is wailing for it’s mother, the air is starting to smell like rain and dark clouds make the dust start to churn. I tell you this to paint a picture, one that requires all of your senses and mental faculties to pay attention to the life, the art that is happening before your eyes and not a giant pelican case full of electronics.

Day 18: Dolpo, like many other places people explore with cameras is a microcosm of issues and stories waiting to be told. There’s not only climate change but people change. Change in cultural practices, identity, wants and needs. Not everyone believes in climate change and that’s okay; maybe the climate isn’t changing, maybe it’s purely evolving as it has been shifting and morphing for centuries, since the beginning of time. This land is akin to the first camera and now I’m standing in a home with no electricity, no running water or toilet but the father of the dwelling has a smartphone and the children a TV to watch. What allows technology to grow here but not food?Nomads Clinic Dolpo Nepal 2015Day 19: Development is moving faster then the land can handle. There is no fossil fuel, no waste disposal methods; the first signs of growth came in the form of a handful of motorbikes, cup o noodles, soft drinks, beer and a various assortment of cell phones. There are a few crude health clinics, rarely staffed and stocked with outdated medications. Migration is increasing and thus the population is growing. Traditional annual migrations are being challenged due to severe weather and lack of food. No food for humans, no food for animals. Animals cannot transport goods and become ill. People lose money. People live in close proximity with animals and animals eat trash left by humans. Humans eat the animals. Imported and exported goods are slowed or stopped. Imported foods are primarily packaged increasing waste. New illnesses like typhoid and chicken pox are being introduced because of changes in the climate and migration, which has increased: AIDS, Hepatitis and STD rates. Increased births demand more food and water then the land can yield. Water is not sanitary because that is where waste is thrown and animals bath.  Children suffer from blistering lesions caused by lack of hygiene and the spreading of endemic skin diseases. Water scarcity, deforestation, below average snowfall, rainfall, drought, and bad soil, the burning of dried dung, smoke inhalation. A strong alcohol is made locally from barley. Everyone drinks. Muscular skeletal pain is common from hard labor started at a young age and injury, alcohol decreases their pain. Women drink during birth to ease the pain. Women drink during pregnancy causing birth defects. Diets are high in oils and spices and rock salt from Tibet. Stomach issues are common and everyone is dehydrated or has gastritis, hypertension and goiters. They seldom care about their health until it hinders their ability to perform daily functions. Or if they care, is there anything that they can do about it? Anyone to help them? All of these thoughts dance in my head as I try to sleep. 5 am comes all too quickly though and I’m soon reminded of the immense beauty here. The moment you realize you’re finally hydrated can actually have unexpected photographic advantages.Nomads Clinic Dolpo Nepal 2015Day 20: After a number of intense yak run-ins, I was ready for a little down time. I felt the need to make sure I’d backed up all of my images. Just in case. My incredibly patient and understanding tent mate made the remark that at dusk when batteries are charging and cards are downloading our tent resembled that of a rocket launching station. The launch pad was rarely needed however. Not dust, nor rain, freezing temperatures or scalding heat could interfere with the life of my batteries. They traveled between thick socks, down jacket pockets and sleeping bags. Just as I need my morning coffee to wake up, they would occasionally need a few minutes as well. Then we were off!DSCF8011Day 21: There are people on your right and people on your left, donkeys behind and cliffs in front, you can’t move yet everyone is standing in place photographing, you get this funny sensation… is everyone shooting the same thing? Or, is my gear properly attached? Did I drop something into the dusty abyss? A Peak Design backpack clip was the perfect solution. The X-T1 with my heaviest lens was light enough to attach to my backpack strap without hindering my questionable balancing abilities. In a pinch it could hang from my neck, be carried by hand or clipped to my hip without the feeling of being instantly obese on those skinny cliffs.Nomads Clinic Dolpo Nepal 2015Before I knew it: I was on a flight back home furiously downloading cards on my computer, backing them up and backing them up a second time, praying they were all there, feeling for my rescue recovery disk in my backpack just in case. Feeling the swelling in my knee caps and how difficult to impossible it would be to ‘re-shoot’ anything and how the moments never exactly happen the same way twice anyway. Dreaming about how the life of my cards would have been so much better if I only had a second card slot. And BOOM, the X-Pro 2 specs! DSCF8666Back at home: When a project starts to take on a life of it’s own… You’re driving to the market, driving to yoga, driving to work, sitting at the doctor’s office, sitting in bed, laying down in savashsna, and you can’t stop thinking about the place, the people, the culture, their needs, their dreams, and you’re mentally exploring various angles that would have better served your subject visually, how to show others everything you felt, everything you heard, how to more eloquently express the issues, tell the stories of the humans behind the faces, the smells of spices cooking. If I did this again would I change my gear setup? Telephoto? Prime? Zoom? One of each? Two of each? Same body? Different bodies? You get where I’m going with this. A project has begun. During the first two weeks I shot 2576 photos. I figure if I edit 5 or so a day you could potentially view them on my website in 2030. Right. Thank you Fujifilm for allowing this journey to begin.Nomads Clinic Dolpo Nepal 2015P.S. High performance mode makes a wonderful difference. Turn it on.

 

Backpacking India with Danny Fernandez

By Danny Fernandez
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During the first half of 2014, I decided to pack my bags, say goodbye to what I knew as ‘life’ and spend 3 months traveling around Northern India. This blog is to share my journey with you. All my images were shot on the FUJIFILM X100S and processed in Lightroom.

Varanasi, or ‘the holy city of India‘ sits on the banks of the river Ganges, in Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi (or Banaras) is known for being the most spiritual part of India, and this is reflected by the amount of devotees attending various religious ceremonies every day. Some Hindus believe that death at Varanasi brings salvation. It became my home for 6 weeks, and this is my experience of it.

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My entire trip was somewhat based around a 6 week stay volunteering in Varanasi. Allow me to backtrack for a moment and explain:

A year before arriving in India I was going through a bit of a rough time, and decided that I needed something to focus on; something new, exciting and adventurous. It had been 5 years since I had last strapped on my backpack and been for a ‘big trip’. As I had always wanted to visit India, and always wanted to volunteer, I began googling ‘volunteering in India’. After getting over the shock of the extortionate price asked by many charities to volunteer, I added in the keyword ‘Free’ to my Google search. After reading through a few posts, I found an article titled ‘top 1o places to volunteer for free, in India’ (or something along those lines). At last I found a company called Fairmail. In a nutshell, Fairmail works with children from disadvantaged backgrounds, trains them in photography, encourages them to explore their creativity and take photos which are in turn made into greeting cards and sold worldwide. The children receive a percentage of the sales, which pays for their education, housing, medical etc.

I applied to become a volunteer there, and joined the 12 month waiting list.

Fast forward 12 months and I step off an 18 hr train journey tired and hungry (I had forgotten to bring snacks so had bought some spicy bombay mix which served me as lunch, dinner and breakfast).

I was met by Dhiraj, a former student and one of the managers of Fairmail Varanasi. As we were driving to my guesthouse, the first thing which hit me was the apparent lack of any kind of road rules. I had felt the same way when I first arrived in Delhi, but this was next level when it came to driving. The roads were a mess of rickshaws, excrement, bikes, potholes and goats.

It took quite a few days to adapt to the pace of Varanasi. I remember constantly being on edge as I walked around during the first few days, as at any one time you could: Get charged by a cow/get run down by a car, motorbike or rickshaw. This was mixed with the constant loud noise of the traffic,  the ceaseless bombardment of flies, and the heat (which reached a scorching 47°C while I was there. Let that settle in for a moment. Forty seven degrees). Varanasi is not the place to go and relax.

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I’m aware that I may be sounding negative, but for all the stresses and difficulties faced, there were many moments of beauty.

The city sits on the banks of the ‘holy river’ – the Ganga. Each morning devotees awake early to bathe in the river and each night, Aarti is performed, where priests perform music while burning incense in front of the eyes of hundreds of followers. It is truly a beautiful sight.

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The first 3 weeks of my stay were spent in a guest house in Assi Ghat (Ghats are essentially temples, which line the Ganges river). During my last 3 weeks, I decided to move into the Fairmail office, in Nagwa (a village to the south of the Ghats). My experience here was great, as it allowed me to glimpse into the lives of those living in this area. As I was living in the office, I was also able to spend much more time with my students of Fairmail.

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My experience volunteering at Fairmail was also excellent. Alongside other volunteers, we taught the students lots of useful tips for taking better photos. One thing which I contributed was the use of flash photography in their work.

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The locals rightfully say “Full power, 24 hours”. Truer words have never been spoken.

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I highly recommend a visit to Varanasi for anyone visiting India. Be prepared for a total bombardment of all your senses, but once you adapt to the pace of life, you might learn to love it.

See more of my work here.