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Story Behind the Story: Ethos Magazine Guest Post

Ethos Magazine recently published my second guest blog for them since I graduated from the University of Oregon. The article titled “The Responsible Traveler: Understanding Beauty and Ugliness” explores what it means to understand the good, the bad and the ugly while touring a foreign country. I wrote about how before I came to Nepal I pored over magazine articles and the Lonely Planet guidebook pictures and formulated a kind of image of Nepal that was completely idealistic and overly majestic. How could I not? The Lonely Planet showed pictures of the Himalayas and small rural villages, Buddhist monks and Hindu city shrines. I came to Kathmandu expecting all these things. I found them, but I also found another side of the picture: glue-huffing children, trash everywhere and extreme poverty.  (Please read the full story to find out more.)

For my Ethos, I also must provide pictures to accompany my articles. I wanted to provide a picture of the “ugliness” that I am taking about in my article, i.e., extreme poverty or the glue-addicted children. As I wrote about on a recent blog, I am opposed to taking pictures of people living in extremely poor conditions or in fragile situations, like beggars, because usually I find that sort of thing to be patronizing and inappropriate. So, I suggested to my Ethos editors that we use a Creative Commons picture of a beggar on the streets of Kathmandu instead. They replied that it would be better if I took my own pictures. I rationalized that taking photos of the homeless children would be okay for journalistic purposes because I was trying to bring awareness to the problem, so I equipped myself with my Canon and hit the streets. I think I was originally resisting taking my own photos of the homeless kids because I was intimidated. As I walked from my home in Sanepa to Thamel, where most of the homeless kids congregate, I tossed around the idea in my head. I wondered why I was intimidated by these kids, because after all, they were just that: kids. But the homeless, glue-huffing boys always exude a sort of hard outer shell, that is often aggressive. Their sickly condition is also so startling to me that I shy away, avoiding their eyes and their pleas for money or food.

I arrived in Thamel, took a deep breath and surveyed the scene. I quickly approached a homeless 11-year-old named Suraj who was stumbling around high on fumes. Although he was one of the homeless gang, he was perhaps the least sickly looking one of the bunch, therefore, the most approachable. He still looked like an innocent kid, while many of the others who are slightly older have a disturbingly hard look in their face and in their eyes. I struck up a conversation with Suraj and asked if I could hang out with him for a while and snap some photos. I told him that in return, I would buy him a meal. Suraj and I roamed around together for a while and he introduced me to a few of his friends, also homeless boys who were permanently attached to their glue bags. I didn’t want to prolong the whole event, so I took some photos of them and did a few short interviews. After I decided I had sufficient material to accompany my article, Suraj led me to a local supermarket so I could buy him some biscuits, as he requested. His friend came along too, a 13-year-old who looked especially gaunt and unhealthy, and I told him I’d treat him to some food also. At first the boys asked for biscuits and I told them to pick out which ones they’d like from the supermarket. I was surprised that when I allowed them to pick out what they wanted for themselves, instead of picking out biscuits, they headed straight for the bags of milk powder. The only thing they asked for were large tins of powdered milk, which I purchased for them. I’m not sure if they knew that powdered milk has at least some nutrients, or if it makes them more full for longer than biscuits, but they obviously had some reason for picking out the stuff.

I waved goodbye to them and they very politely said thank you and requested that I come again whenever I wanted to. The two sauntered off down the street, cradling their powdered milk in one hand, huffing glue from bags in the other hand. I watched them go and felt a heaviness in the pit of my stomach. After three years of traveling and living in Asia, I feel that I’ve gained a certain hardness or immunity to things I see, but no matter how many times I see these sickly, young homeless boys, I feel an indelible wave of sadness.

Although I was dreading this assignment when Ethos asked me to take my own photos, it ended up being just what I needed to prompt me out of my comfort zone. Photography is still an art that I’m learning, but I think good photographers are adept at being out of their comfort zone all the time. With a camera, you are inherently crossing a personal line and stepping into someone’s life and often into someone’s problems.
Above: Suraj, the 11-year-old boy I followed for the afternoon, huffing on the streets.

Above: Suraj and his 13-year-old friend beg outside a supermarket in Thamel. They say their main complain is hunger and safety concerns when sleeping on the street at night. Because of their young age, they are often targets for robbery or violence by the older, stronger homeless people or gang members on the Kathmandu streets.