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Seeing the invisible

Didier Mayhew's depictions of Nepal's impoverished are rich in empathy

Visitors viewing 'In Nowhere Land' at the Kathmandu Photo Gallery. Photos: Apipar Norapoompipat

Dishevelled boys having a heated conversation over a small campfire, a lonesome child pulling a makeshift toy on a littered camp ground, and the teardrops of a crying girl who has had an extra-strenuous day. Every day, we are bombarded with photographs of poverty -- but not every day do we get to see it through the eyes of someone who truly cares.

"Her name is Sadina," said Didier Mayhew of the photo of the crying child. "She's the oldest of the family. She takes care of her brothers. She does her daily chores. Sometimes she's very joyful. But sometimes life is more difficult, and this was a difficult day for her. She felt very lonely -- discouraged. It was a silent moment."

Running until April 29th, the Kathmandu Photo Gallery's latest exhibition "In Nowhere Land" by Nepal-based French-English photographer Didier Mayhew documents the lives of the overlooked and marginalised in Nepal.

Taking the classic documentary approach, for three years Mayhew followed itinerant families from the Terai plains between the Indian border and the Nepali Himalayan foothills; sharing their life, building their trust, and even supporting them when they required basic needs.

Thumb-tacked and clipped onto the walls of the gallery are 20 profound black-and-white photographs, depicting with heartache the emptiness, loneliness and silence these nomads and their children face daily.

The nomads, who live from one wasteland to another, survive by collecting cloth, repairing it, and reselling it.

"Every day, parents leave their children in the camp to find a means of survival," he explained. "So this series is about the lives of children waiting in the camp who have no schooling but are very brave, very inventive and very big-hearted. I've tried to depict their daily life."

Working as a social anthropologist before taking up photography, the soft-spoken 49-year-old made sure to not exploit the plight of these families.

"One thing important for me to say is that before taking any of these photographs, I lived with the people without taking any photos at all," Mayhew explained. "It was a long time before I started taking pictures. Sometimes never at all, with some people. I can't go to a place, take photos and go away. It's not possible with my approach.

"I am still in touch with these families. I like to be merged with people. I wrote a lot before -- I still do. But at one point, I felt the need to recount things differently, through photography. When you live among people for a long time, at some stage -- it may seem strange -- it gets even more difficult to talk about them. Not because you don't keep any distance, but because you feel words aren't enough. This is what I felt. I needed to find other means. I hope these pictures speak for themselves -- beyond the words I use, which are often not enough."

Following in the footsteps of the great classic photographers, empathy is the key to the power of Mayhew's photography. What Mayhew wants is for people to know these people exist.

"These people are very invisible. Very invisible," he repeats solemnly. "I want people to know that this is happening. This is more of my personal commitment. The work I have to do is to give visibility to these people. This is an example of families that are overlooked, that are invisible, and all my photographic work tries to depict the lives of them and others in this situation."

'In Nowhere Land' by Didier MayhewKathmandu Photo Gallery, Silom, BangkokToday until April 29, 2017Open Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-6pm Sunday by appointment onlyFree admission

Photographer Didier Mayhew talking to visitors at the exhibition opening on Tuesday. Apipar Norapoompipat

Sanika weeps over the departure of her father, who tries to comfort her. Jadibuti, Nepal. Photo courtesy of Didier Mayhew

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