Based in Quebec, Hans Lucas photographer Renaud Philippe has worked independently in countries such as India, Haiti, Kenya and Tunisia with the aim of unveiling the hidden world of those affected by precarious circumstances. Blink’s Kyla Woods caught up with Philippe to speak about covering the earthquake in Nepal, limitations of working in the country, how to create an in-depth photo essay in a disaster stricken area and what it was like as a freelancer covering the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Aerial view of the city of Barpak, epicenter of the earthquake of 25 April 2015 in Nepal. The 1500 houses in the village are almost all become shapeless masses after imploded. "Only 20 of them have more or less survived the impact," explains Narayan Prasad, an inspector from the Nepal Police.

Aerial view of the city of Barpak, epicenter of the earthquake of 25 April 2015 in Nepal. The 1500 houses in the village are almost all become shapeless masses after imploded. “Only 20 of them have more or less survived the impact,” explains Narayan Prasad, an inspector from the Nepal Police.

KW: Were you near Nepal when you heard about the earthquake?

RP: At the time, I was in a remote place in Quebec and on May 2, I was initially meant to leave for Japan to do a personal project. I had no reception, and on April 25, I received an SMS from my brother asking if I had seen what had happened in Nepal. After two days I decided to change my original plans.

The mountain roads are cracked on the path of Baluwa, where the road is cut, to Barpak, instead of the epicenter. The impending monsoon fears landslides.

The mountain roads are cracked on the path of Baluwa, where the road is cut, to Barpak, instead of the epicenter. The impending monsoon fears landslides.

KW: What supplies did you take with you?

RP: Mainly batteries, as well as two camera bodies and two lens; a 35 mm and a 50 mm. But the real problem was that there was hardly any Internet reception. When the second earthquake hit, I was only able to send two photographs that took about six hours to send. The only way to send multiple, high-res files, was to walk back to Gorkha, and that was a two-day trip.

KW: Did you have contacts in Nepal before you got there?

RP: Not really. I do have contacts who work in NGO’s based in Nepal, but they were all busy. The only person who I worked closely with when I arrived, was a journalist Sarah R. Campagne who also works for Le Devoir,  which is the same newspaper that had agreed to publish “Barpak”. She happened to be there by accident, as she wasn’t supposed to work on the earthquake, but instead on an archive subject. I met her at her guesthouse in Kathmandu. To get to the area affected by the earthquake, we either used local transportation, such as buses, motorbikes or trucks; though at one point we did hire a jeep.

Barpak village, a woman mourns the death of his son in the earthquake of 25 April.

Barpak village, a woman mourns the death of his son in the earthquake of 25 April.

 

KW: Was it difficult to get to Barpak?

RP: Yes. Barpak is about a six-hour drive from Patan, which is the closest city to the airport. On the way, we stopped in Gorkha. We talked to numerous people; journalists, NGO employees, volunteers and they all told us that we could only get to Barpak by helicopter. The only problem was that no one could point us in the direction of a pilot – even NGO’s weren’t able to access Barpak! We thought there must be a way, despite what NGO representatives were saying. And, after four days of searching, we finally found a route. We arrived in Barpak by night, but there is a five hour walk to the entrance of the city. What greeted us- shocked us! Behind the “Welcome to Barpak” sign was just a pile of rocks. There was nothing left.

KW: Did you and journalist Sarah R. Champagne work together throughout your stay?

RP: Yes. It was refreshing because I could focus on the photographs. She was very methodical; she took notes, names, and wrote detailed accounts of the events following the earthquake. Actually, Sarah and I didn’t know each other before this. She is a freelance journalist who works for the same newspaper as me, Le Devoir. Le Devoir is the reason we connected.

The Bauda Himal mountain watches over the village and its breath breeze. Below, Barpak is a large sunken wreckage by stones. Even dust can not hide the confusion on the faces of Nepalese.

The Bauda Himal mountain watches over the village and its breath breeze. Below, Barpak is a large sunken wreckage by stones. Even dust can not hide the confusion on the faces of Nepalese.

Sunita Ghale, from Barpak, lived for nearly 10 years in Singapore with her husband who works for the Army. A week after the earthquake, Sunita temporarily returned to his home village to see the damage and take care of his family.

Sunita Ghale, from Barpak, lived for nearly 10 years in Singapore with her husband who works for the Army. A week after the earthquake, Sunita temporarily returned to his home village to see the damage and take care of his family.

KW: How long did you stay in Barpak?

RP: A total of two weeks. During that time, we did go back to Gorkha and ventured to Laprak. This village is about a four-five hour walk, and most of it was destroyed by a landslide. In most parts of the village, there was nothing left. The people who lived there felt that it was too unstable, too unsafe to reside there anymore. As a result, most of the residents camped at a higher altitude, on the mountain. Last week, we received news that the living situation had not changed; many people are still living in tents.

KW: Before arriving in Nepal, did you have any concerns?

RP: There’s always a lot of pressure, especially when you go to a place on a whim. You need to do a great job, get close to people and try to connect with people on an intimate level. As far as navigating my way through Nepal, I wasn’t too worried because I was familiar with the country – previously, I worked around Damak and the Bhutanese refugee camp. This was, however, my first time working in the Gorkha district. The only aspect of life that surprised me in comparison, let’s say to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, is that there was no violence that followed the earthquake.

In Laprak, it became impossible to live in the village because it is feared landslides. The people recover materials and join one of the three IDP camps to build temporary shelters, 900 meters up in the mountains, on flat terrain.

In Laprak, it became impossible to live in the village because it is feared landslides. The people recover materials and join one of the three IDP camps to build temporary shelters, 900 meters up in the mountains, on flat terrain.

There are only 20 houses standing on the 1,400 that were Barpak. Entire families are crammed under tarpaulins or tents, in fear that the ground shakes again.

There are only 20 houses standing on the 1,400 that were Barpak. Entire families are crammed under tarpaulins or tents, in fear that the ground shakes again.

A house wall still stands to Barpak and shows off the thick walls. The houses in the area are usually simply constructed with stones and mud.

A house wall still stands to Barpak and shows off the thick walls. The houses in the area are usually simply constructed with stones and mud.

Some families had still not been able to recover their property in the rubble, nearly three weeks after the earthquake. The scattered textbooks, schools destroyed, education also suffer from the disaster

Some families had still not been able to recover their property in the rubble, nearly three weeks after the earthquake. The scattered textbooks, schools destroyed, education also suffer from the disaster

KW: Do you use Blink?       

RP: I’m a relatively new user, but I did use it while I was in Nepal. I made sure that I tagged my position regularly. I was also included in the weekly Blink newsletter in which they list vetted photographers to cover breaking news stories.

KW: You went there as a freelancer – were you concerned about having these photographs published?

RP: Yes. The main concern is that as a photographer, you want to know that your work is useful, that it’s relevant. When you notice that well known publications, like the New York Times and Le Monde, send photographers to ground zero, you, as a freelancer, have to be aware that you need to tell a different story, one that is timeless, and that surpasses surface of the natural disaster and unearths how people cope with the aftermath. Questions you need to ask yourself as a photographer, or as a storyteller, is “what is the life after like what is the trauma?” Or “how is life a year later?” and “what is the long term effect of the earthquake?”

Pushpal Ghale helps her family clean their home for nearly six days. "It's over for all these houses," she repeated, shaking her head.

Pushpal Ghale helps her family clean their home for nearly six days. “It’s over for all these houses,” she repeated, shaking her head.

"Thoroooo!". At least 25 people stick together under a tarp, shout and clap on the back of a woman designated by tying a rope around her neck. Laugh, sweat, and rice in Figure tent. "The death went on his way, those who are alive will continue theirs then they must be protected," says an observer Anil Gurung, resident Laprak.

“Thoroooo!”. At least 25 people stick together under a tarp, shout and clap on the back of a woman designated by tying a rope around her neck. Laugh, sweat, and rice in Figure tent. “The death went on his way, those who are alive will continue theirs then they must be protected,” says an observer Anil Gurung, resident Laprak.

KW: What are some of the limitations of working as a freelancer in a place like this?

RP: Perseverance. As a freelancer, access is incredibly crucial to the development of your story. When you need a helicopter to get you from one place to another, you really need to know the right people. The first thing we did when we arrived in Nepal is talk to people and figure out where you can go, where you can’t, etc. to understand the situation and take decisions.

KW: Are you returning next year?

RP: Both Sarah and I are planning on going back in April.

Ram Bahadur Gurung, displaced from Laprak. He lives under a tarpaulin with his wife and their animals. His son Anil is a mountain guide and several of his colleagues were killed on trekking routes because of the earthquake and subsequent avalanches.

Ram Bahadur Gurung, displaced from Laprak. He lives under a tarpaulin with his wife and their animals. His son Anil is a mountain guide and several of his colleagues were killed on trekking routes because of the earthquake and subsequent avalanches.

The Laprakis must climb to the top of the mountain, a walk 30 minutes to get to capture a cellular signal. Immense rhododendrons just finished flowering.

The Laprakis must climb to the top of the mountain, a walk 30 minutes to get to capture a cellular signal. Immense rhododendrons just finished flowering.

 

Part of the village of Laprak was completely destroyed by the earthquake. Almost all of Laprakis deserted the village for three camps in height because of the threat of landslides. It surrounds the shelter of branches of rhododendrons to retain the plastic sheeting.

Part of the village of Laprak was completely destroyed by the earthquake. Almost all of Laprakis deserted the village for three camps in height because of the threat of landslides. It surrounds the shelter of branches of rhododendrons to retain the plastic sheeting.

 

Sorting rocks into dust.

Sorting rocks into dust.

KW: Were there any cultural traditions that surprised you, or influenced how you worked?

RP: The Nepalese are very superstitious, and after the earthquake people were scared to walk at nighttime because they believed that the ghosts of those who died during the quake would be wandering the streets. This was something very important to know as a journalist. We want to respect their customs because it is an important part of the overall story. Another thing to be aware of is that the Nepalese don’t express their personal feelings the same as, let’s say, a westerner might. You can’t ask, “How do you feel?” and expect a deep response. This is where imagery comes into play. Particularly after the second earthquake, you could see the lines of worry and trauma etched into the faces of the villages. Since I have been to the country I felt confident as I began to understand the culture, love the country and its people. I worked with my heart. The only advice I have for someone who is working in a new place, is know the culture and the way of living.

 

KW: You’ve worked in areas that have been affected by disasters. What makes working in Nepal different?

RP: Less social tension in Nepal. Because everything is destroyed, the story became inaccessible. Press photographer’s who had to tell an overall story moved via helicopter. There were some places in Nepal that NGO’s couldn’t even enter, so they dropped food by helicopter. I believe this is still the case, especially near the border of Nepal and Tibet.

Water sources have fortunately been preserved to Laprak and pipes damaged repaired quickly. We lined up for supplies.

Water sources have fortunately been preserved to Laprak and pipes damaged repaired quickly. We lined up for supplies.

Often 50 kg on the back, the carriers are those delivering aid to the remote villages of Barpak and Laprak, epicenter of the earthquake in Nepal.

Often 50 kg on the back, the carriers are those delivering aid to the remote villages of Barpak and Laprak, epicenter of the earthquake in Nepal.

Grace and beauty in destruction on top of the world. Children playing with wooden pillars of future temporary shelters.

Grace and beauty in destruction on top of the world. Children playing with wooden pillars of future temporary shelters.

It will take years to rebuild Barpak, that will never quite what it was.

It will take years to rebuild Barpak, that will never quite what it was.

KW: It’s interesting; in your other bodies of work you seem to have like a very continuous theme of exclusion and displacement. What draws you to those subjects?

RP: It started when I visited India in 2006, and I was shocked by the situations people were born into. Although I’ve been to places that have had natural disasters, it is more the stories of the people who have been affected that I am most interested in. These people, their stories, they need to be told so that the world can understand what is happening.

 

***

Share this post
Share on Facebook0Share on Google+0Share on LinkedIn1Tweet about this on Twitter