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Pietro Lo Casto explores social and environmental issues while touching on humanity, nature and spirits in his graduate project, To Search the Secret of the Forest

There are many paths into photography. Some people go to school, some are self-taught and some fall into it. Italian-born, Thailand-based Pietro Lo Casto, a recent graduate of the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, learned his craft through all of the above. Documenting Tangia Basti, an off-grid and isolated village in Nepal, began as an idea for his graduate project. It became one of his most important lessons.

In 2017, Lo Casto left an eight-year career in marketing in search of something new. This led him to embark on a three-month journey across South America, beginning in Argentina and ending in Colombia, where he spent three days with an indigenous community and began to develop a fascination with spiritual customs.

As his practice developed, Lo Casto relocated to attend the Pathshala Institute in Bangladesh and while studying, started to take an interest in Nepalese forest shamans called Ban Jhankri. In pursuit of research for his final project, Lo Casto travelled to Nepal for five months to find them. But along the way he happened upon an article about the decades-long plans for Nijgadh International Airport – a proposed construction in Nepal that would destroy surrounding forests, including a secluded village called Tangia Basti. He decided to investigate.

Tangia Basti is home to around 7000 people, composed of different castes and ethnicities, including Tamangs, Magars, Dalits, Chettris and Brahmins, while Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity are the prevalent religions. Commonality is found through tradition and the village’s resident Ban Jhankri shaman. With help from the forest itself, the local shaman is the villagers’ first call for ailments, such as allergies, insomnia and even possession. Villagers, whose spiritual connection to the ecosystem is fundamental to their being, provide offerings to trees to deter evil spirits.

From To Search the Secret of The Forest, 2020 © Pietro Lo Casto.

“The people have been there for so long, traditions are passed down, and it’s all going to be removed for a globalised airport”

Tall trees, thick mist and expansive farmland characterise the landscape. The village is surrounded by dense forest which, according to locals, houses spirits. “My interest in spirituality comes out in the work,” Lo Casto explains. “It’s something mystical.” If Nijgadh Airport is built, the forest will be cut down, and the village lost.

There have been plans for the airport since the 1990s, but issues of large-scale deforestation and mass displacement had delayed the process, until now. In recent years, the plans have been revived, with construction set to start by the end of the year. If built, Nijgadh Airport would be the largest in southeast Asia, providing increased international flights to and from Nepal. “[Tangia Basti] is a very old, very spiritual village,” Lo Casto says. “The people have been there for so long, traditions are passed down, and it’s all going to be removed for a globalised airport.”

From To Search the Secret of The Forest, 2020 © Pietro Lo Casto.
From To Search the Secret of The Forest, 2020 © Pietro Lo Casto.

Lo Casto spent two months in the village. A local guide was to take him through the forest track, but Lo Casto rented a motorbike and made the journey to the village himself. He photographed, interviewed and dared himself to go deeper. “I got lost a couple of times in the forest… an unusual, but also quite a scary place,” he says. He became part of village life, gaining the trust and friendship of the locals. Eventually he would stay the night there. “The time I spent with these people is the connection – I just took the pictures as well,” he says. “In a way, it became a second home to me.”

His project, To Search the Secret of the Forest, explores how the people of Tangia Basti interact within their environment, and vice versa, as the threat of destruction constantly looms. “This village taught me a lot,” he says. “It slowed me down in a way that made me a much more easy-going, relaxed, patient, reflective person.” But with the Covid-19 pandemic, returning there has become impossible. “The secret hasn’t been found yet… I need to be there,” he says. “I see this project in the long-term, a work that builds on the sketches of my first few months, and that will span several years.”

From To Search the Secret of The Forest, 2020 © Pietro Lo Casto.
From To Search the Secret of The Forest, 2020 © Pietro Lo Casto.
Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.

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