“Between Grief and Nothing” is a fictional documentary series residing at the intersection between mythology, symbolism and performativity. The series mixes various means of storytelling in order to more effectively depict the dystopian state of mind caused by last year’s twin Nepal earthquakes that killed nearly 9,000 people and affected another 2.8 million. The loss of family and habitat shook the country deeply; the 300+ aftershocks exacerbated the people’s ongoing sense of fear. Extreme stress and trauma created a dark psychological crevice that was difficult to portray and understand from the outside.
In a study, the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at Oxford University wrote, “Sleeping after a traumatic event or even going to bed angry can make bad memories and flashbacks worse, substantially augmenting the possibility of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder settling in.” Indeed, trauma interferes with our processing of events, thus corrupting our memory.
Even photography is not innocent. As writer David Campany cautions, “the photograph can be an aid to memory, but it can also become an obstacle that blocks access to the understanding of the past. It can paralyse the personal and political ability to think beyond the image in the always-fraught project of remembrance.”
This series attempts to represent and convey the feelings of fear felt in the aftermath of the quake. It is not a journalistic representation, nor a documentation of the cause and effects. As academic and theoretician Allan Sekula wrote, “Documentary has amassed mountains of evidence. And yet, in this pictorial presentation of scientific and legalistic ‘fact,’ the genre has simultaneously contributed much to spectacle, to retinal excitation, to voyeurism, to terror, envy and nostalgia, and only a little to the critical understanding of the social world.” These photographs hope to change that narrative and the common body of representation, if only be a little.
To produce this work, I researched local iconographic codes, and used Lakhey, a demon god from Nepal’s (Newari) mythology as an anthropomorphic form. In my depicted version, he becomes the symbol of destruction: the red from his mask, hair and clothes projects onto the landscapes, rivers and even faces of the people who daily live through traumatic flashbacks. The red is contrasted with psychedelic midnight blues, the mind’s journey into that bottomless chasm of paranoia and nightmares. The series rests between dichotomous elements situated in time and space. For example, while the subjects appear to be sleeping, they are, in fact, continually struggling to sleep. And even once they have descended into dreams, the ominous Lakhey emerges.
By exploring an alternative approach to Western iconographic systems, the series uses photographs to comprehend a dystopian state of mind and offers a new avenue into understanding the recent Nepalese tragedy. By rooting the event in local folklore and cultural imagination, we can hope to better envision the traumas of the aftermath without letting descriptive images further corrupt our collective memory.