Back to Kathmandu, Part I

I think it’s really where I’m going to
If I ever get outa here
I’m going to Katmandu –
Bob Seger, Katmandu, (1975)

My first return to international travel after the global pandemic started in early 2020 was slated to be the trip of a lifetime. A new tour launched by my good friend and international travel tour leader Nathan Horton was scheduled to begin in Kathmandu Nepal. Then, via a short airplane jump followed by multiple days in Jeeps we were scheduled to travel up the fabled Mustang Valley eventually to arrive at our final destination close by the Chinese border, the legendary kingdom of Lo Manthang. I never made it out of Kathmandu.

Departing Salt Lake City on a Friday, arriving in the capital of Nepal on Sunday, we had one day of exploring and photographing Kathmandu on Monday before I booked a ticket to return home on Tuesday. My mother had been ill but we thought we had a treatment regimen in place and certainly did not expect her to pass away whilst I was in Nepal. However after speaking with my wife at 3 AM Tuesday morning it was apparent that my mother was fading rapidly and I needed to cut my trip short. I arrived home on Thursday six days after I had left Salt Lake City and she passed away a week later. Before she did she told me she was sorry that I came home but also glad that I did. And so was I.

Though in retrospect I never should have gone on this trip, I did, at the least, have one day of photography in Kathmandu, a bustling, friendly, enigmatic city with photogenic people and tasty food. Let me take you through that one day with words and some images (see gallery below and click on thumbnails for full view).

Nepal and Kathmandu are split — though not evenly — between the two great Indian religions: Hinduism and Buddhism. In the morning, before sunrise, we went to one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world, Boudhanath. Pilgrims, monks and tourists alike clockwise circumambulate the large structure, sometimes muttering the sutras, often fingering prayer beads. It is fascinating to watch and a challenge to photograph especially trying to isolate individuals from the crowd whilst they’re all moving. There is a monastery on the outer periphery of the stupa that has large rooms for puja ceremonies but also smaller rooms with very large colorfully decorated prayer wheels. There is also a room with hundreds of butter lamps that pilgrims light to gain merit, one of the key goals in Buddhism. The challenges photographing at Boudhanath are: the aforementioned isolating individuals from the background; capturing the stupa itself in some dramatic but contextual fashion; photographing dark places such as the butter lamps room; and creating dynamic motion images, as with the prayer wheels.

Boudhanath is a beautiful structure in and of itself, especially if the light is right. Pre-sunrise or just post sunrise are the best times to be there due to much fewer crowds and the stunning light. The first Boudhanath shot is “just” a pretty image with the Buddha’s serene but somehow fearsome looking eyes looking down upon us mere mortals, and the sun just getting ready to peek above his right shoulder. The second image – a three shot vertical panorama taken from an apartment balcony a few floors up – is more of a contextual image showing the pilgrims below and the dawn above.

Isolating the pilgrims is a way to photographically personalize the experience by ever so briefly telling their story. In the first image I saw the gentleman approaching me spinning the wall-mounted prayer wheels and I started talking images, at just the opportune moment he looked up and I caught his eyes. I usually want to be unobtrusive and not overly “invade” their world, but sometimes it works when eye-contact is made. The added bonus was the hazy sun in the background. In the second image, two penitents are making their own individual, personal offerings in a small alcove of the stupa. They are each in their own world. The smoke adds atmosphere to the scene. Hanging out in places like this can be very photographically rewarding. BTW: I cropped the image pano-wise because there was too much ground foreground in the 24mm frame.

Tripods, though not forbidden, are awkward to use in both tight places like the monastery rooms and certainly in the midst of the moving stream of the faithful. So, perfecting one’s hand-held abilities becomes crucial for locations and settings like Boudhanath. I took quite a few shots in the butter lamp room with focal lengths from 10mm to 60mm, apertures ranging from f3.5 to f5.0, all at 400 ISO. The two images here tell different stories. The first, taken at 60mm, f5.0, 1/80sec, clearly focuses on the two visitors lighting a lamp with the monastery watchperson in the blurred background (he is there to ensure no accidents happen that might cause a catastrophic fire). The second image – my preference of the two – is shot at a more dramatic angle, with a wider focal length (18mm) and a larger aperture (f3.5) but faster shutter speed (1/160sec). Due to the aperture more of the image is soft, including the two penitents. I don’t mind that as I am looking more for a mood here than a super sharp documentary photo.

The two large prayer wheel images show two different approaches to the subject. Both have people in the shot, though in the one they appear as mere ghosts. For the first shot, I crouched in the doorway so as not to block any of the already feeble amount of light there as well as to permit entry by pilgrims. Then I just put the camera on burst mode and rattled off 25+ images as the pilgrims walked in a circle spinning it. The image here is the best of the lot as the two women are wearing traditional garb (men often don’t), they are nicely blurred as is the wheel and yet the background murals are sharp. Settings are: 24mm, ISO200, f2.8, 1/13sec. The second shot is the result of 40 images stacked and blended via Photoshop’s Scripting and Stack Mode. There are at least four people circling the prayer wheel but they become very transparent. It is about the wheel. Tech details: 40 images, 10mm, ISO 800, f4.5, 1/40sec.

After the light went flat, and crowds began increasing, we departed for lunch and individual wandering in town. In the afternoon we ventured into the Hindu world of Kathmandu…more on that in Part II.

Jeff Clay
WCC Board Chair

Image Gallery