Close-Up — Being a Photographer in Rural Nepal

Nani Maya photographs a customer outside her studio in Gothijyula, Nepal. Photograph by Monika Deupala, 2021.
Nani Maya photographs a customer outside her studio in Gothijyula, Nepal. Photograph by Monika Deupala, 2021.

She may not know how to read or write, but she makes a living taking pictures.

There is a wedding in progress in Jumla’s remote Sinja Valley, and even here guests with smartphones are filming videos for TikTok and taking photos of the ceremony. 

Even though everyone has a camera phone, the services of Nani Maya Buda are in high demand in the village of Gothijyula. She is attending the ceremony with her Nikon D80 digital camera as the official wedding photographer. Nani Maya never went to school, and cannot or read or write, but she is a self-taught professional photographer.  

In this culturally conservative society, women are usually seen at home, tending livestock, or toiling in the fields. But Nani Maya stands out for her entrepreneurship and self-assurance in her freelance job.

Nani Maya displays her Nikon D80 camera in her studio. Photograph by Monika Deupala, 2021.
Nani Maya displays her Nikon D80 camera in her studio. Photograph by Monika Deupala, 2021.

‘Could you please tilt your head a bit? Look at the camera. And we are done,’ she tells a customer in her makeshift studio behind her electrical shop. She then takes the memory card to her laptop, edits the photos and prints them out. 

It is a busy day at the studio, and customers are lining up outside for their turn. Some of them can be quite demanding, but Nani Maya is patient and tries to meet their requests. 

Gothijyula village is a local hub in Sinja Valley with government offices, banks, and a rural market. Residents of many surrounding villages travel there for official documents, to deposit money, and to do some shopping. 

A customer’s passport-sized photographs, taken by Nani Maya in her home studio. Photograph by Monika Deupala, 2021.
A customer’s passport-sized photographs, taken by Nani Maya in her home studio. Photograph by Monika Deupala, 2021.

‘I want sindoor on my forehead,’ says one. ‘Make my skin look smooth and less dark,’ demands another. And finally, ‘Can you get rid of the moles in my face?’ 

Nani Maya replies, ‘I will make you look like a heroine in a Bollywood movie.’ There are peals of laughter from the women.  

Nani Maya Buda has been running her small shop selling electrical goods for ten years. The shelves are filled with mobile phones, batteries, watches, flashlights, and other appliances. Seeing the demand for mugshots for citizenship certificates, bank forms and school admissions, her husband started the small photo studio.

Positioning a customer for a portrait photograph. Photograph by Monika Deupala, 2021.
Positioning a customer for a portrait photograph. Photograph by Monika Deupala, 2021.

After he found a salaried job, he got his wife to take over the shop, and also trained her to take and edit pictures in a rudimentary studio, which is just a white cloth hanging on the wall outside the shop where there is more sunlight. Customers sit on an empty oil drum, while Nani Maya tilts their heads just right. 

‘I learned quickly, but made mistakes at first,’ Nani Maya recalls. ‘Once, I accidentally formatted the entire drive and lost all data, and sometimes I waste too much paper while printing photographs.’ 

Nani Maya’s daughter died in an accident, and she now lives in a rented room with her husband and their younger son. The older son goes to school in Surkhet.

Nani Maya presents memory cards on her palm which are sold in her studio. Photograph by Monika Deupala, 2021.
Nani Maya presents memory cards on her palm which are sold in her studio. Photograph by Monika Deupala, 2021.

She is now well-known in the village, and the shop is usually crowded, especially at school admission time when she takes pictures back-to-back of young students. She is thrilled that they have a chance at education, something that she never had herself.

During festivals and religious functions, people in this region join hands and dance the Deuda. Earlier, Nani Maya would have joined them, but these days she is too busy taking pictures and videos. Some of the dancers give her their phones to take pictures of them.

After a day at work in her small studio when her husband comes home from his job, Nani Maya turns to her household chores: collecting firewood to cook dinner. 

‘I am still learning to take better photos for my customers,’ she says as she inspects a visitor’s Canon EOS. ‘I want to save and buy a better camera like this someday.’

Nani Maya prepares dinner for the family in her house. Photograph by Monika Deupala, 2021.
Nani Maya prepares dinner for the family in her house. Photograph by Monika Deupala, 2021.
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ArtIQulate is a publication associated with the Adenauer Fellowship, a scholarship programme by the Media Programme Asia, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Ltd.
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Monika Deupala

My name is Monika Deupala. After working for four years for a weekly English newspaper, I am currently working as a freelance journalist specialising in text and visual mediums.

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