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No man’s land: when nature and politics collide

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Prasiit Sthapit visited a Nepalese village in limbo after a river shifted course, leaving its people adrift and at the centre of an international boundary dispute.

This article was originally published in issue #7883 of British Journal of Photography magazine. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here

Visiting the village of Susta in southern Nepal is no simple feat; when photographer Prasiit Sthapit first ventured there in 2012, he had to spend two days on the road travelling from his home in Kathmandu. The last leg of the journey is the most difficult, especially in monsoon season, and necessitates crossing the Narayani river by boat.

The river, called Gandak in India and Narayani in Nepal, was formerly the border between the two countries. Driven by the warming climate and changes in the monsoon, according to records, about 210 severe floods with serious consequences have occurred in India during the 30 years from 1966 to 1995, and since the floods of August 1977, the Gandak has shifted its course. This has left the Nepalese village of Susta stranded in disputed territory, India insisting the new river direction is the international boundary while Nepal contends otherwise.

Heavy winds are very common during March and April and in Susta winds carry dry sand from the river banks making the whole of Susta dry and dusty. Farmers gathering their mustard harvest during such an event. Susta, Nawalparasi, Nepal. April 6, 2016.

Sthapit was still a student on his initial visit, but he began his project, titled Change of Course, looking at the impact on a community when nature and politics collide. He has since gone on to be recognised internationally for his work, receiving a Magnum Emergency Fund Grant in 2016, and also being selected for the World Press Joop Swart Masterclass in Amsterdam.

The incentive for this series came out of a workshop jointly organised by Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, Photo Kathmandu and Oslo University College, taught by Philip Blenkinsop. “I was really into street photography at the time. I packed my bags and headed for Susta immediately after that workshop, full of energy, knowing exactly what I wanted to achieve,” recalls Sthapit.

Workers dragging the boat with sugar cane to where the water level is high enough to be taken to the otherside where it is loaded on a truck. Boats are the major means of transportation to and from the village. Susta, Nawalparasi, Nepal. Feburary 28, 2012.

The reality of what he had undertaken soon grounded him; the only way to access Susta from Nepal is across the river, as the village is bordered on its other three sides by India. “When I first visited Susta, people were sceptical of me, I was an outsider, they thought I was a spy,” Sthapit says. “The locals immediately took me to the police station. They questioned me about what I was doing, and for the next few days everyone was very suspicious of me.”

This first visit lasted six days and Sthapit was to return to the small village another nine times over the next few years. On his second trip he arrived with a bag full of photographs he had taken and sought out his subjects to distribute their prints to them. “This small gesture,” he tells me, “was a way to get into people’s hearts. What you have to understand is that village has no electricity, and that some people had never seen a photographic print of themselves previously. It’s incredibly remote.”

The throne of Lord Brahma outside a shiva temple in Susta. Although the majority of the population are muslims there are two temples and the two communities live in harmony. Susta, Nawalparasi, Nepal. Feburary 26, 2013.

“When I first visited Susta, people were sceptical of me, I was an outsider, they thought I was a spy. The locals immediately took me to the police station”

Erosion is a very common scene during the monsoon and even when the water level subsides. People say that around 100 m of farm land has been breached by the river this year alone. Susta, Nawalparasi, Nepal. September 7 2014.

In the first few trips Sthapit stuck to a tried-and-tested street photography approach, utilising high contrast and dramatic compositions. A turning point in his process came when he was reflecting on something Bangladeshi photographer Munem Wasif had mentioned to him. “Munem kept talking about this Japanese photographer, Rinko Kawauchi, and pushing me to study her images. I looked up her work online and just didn’t get it, but then months later, as I was shooting in Susta, I slowly started to see her aesthetic and to imagine how I could use that influence.”

This visual nod to Kawauchi’s use of light and colour is important as it brings to the fore a sense of a community in limbo. The village is perched on an edging of dirt neither in India nor Nepal, and its inhabitants feel disowned and largely forgotten. Sthapit’s photographs construct a narrative of a population in a trance-like state, being from no place, and being unsure of what comes next. The dreamy figures in his images appear to almost perform this state perfectly; they go about their daily lives, fishing, farming and riding their bikes, but somehow also appear strangely disconnected from the landscape. There is a theatre to these images that is disconcerting.

Heavy winds are very common during March and April and in Susta winds carry dry sand from the river banks making the whole of Susta dry and dusty. Farmers gathering their mustard harvest during such an event. Susta, Nawalparasi, Nepal. April 6, 2016.

For Sthapit, the experience has become much deeper and more personal than he ever could have expected. “Although it’s surrounded by land on three sides and water on one, there is the sense that Susta is an island. After visiting a couple of times, I was accepted wholeheartedly by the community of this island. Walking down the street with my camera I would be beckoned into a family home, to find the entire family dressed up ready for a formal group portrait!”

The issues that face Susta don’t look likely to change – a bridge was planned to reconnect Susta back to Nepal, but work on it has never commenced, and electricity and access to formal education are just two of a number of issues facing Susta’s inhabitants.

On Sthapit’s last day in the village, a policeman who was stationed there gave him a poem, the opening lines read: “We once were Susta and Susta we stayed/But lately we feel more like an outsider/Narayani blows a whistle and grants us neither/Shawl nor shame, all the same, we feel betrayed.”


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