This month, Emory Hall debuts her first Boulder show, “Stories from a Mountain Kingdom: A Photo Exhibit of Nepal,” in The AKA Gallery and Wonder. The show opens November 3rd from 6-9 p.m. in The AKA Gallery in The Boulder Creative Collective warehouse and runs through January 2019. A colorful collection of tales from her travels, her images offer an intimate connection to the East.
Here, she lets you in on her journey…
What all led up to this project?
It’s actually been almost a decade in the making. It kind of all started in Boulder – I did my first year of college at CU, took a year off, and ended up going to Nepal through a program called “Where There Be Dragons.” I flew back to the States after spending a semester there and immediately turned around and got back on a plane. It just totally stole my heart.
What about Nepal do you feel so connected to?
Of course, there are the Himalayas - the temple of snow. They’re the tallest mountains in the world, so the landscape itself is something that just takes your breath away. But with Nepal, I always say that it’s the people that keeping bringing me back. The spirit of the people was something that I hadn’t really found before in my life, and it amazed me – that way of life, that way of being a human – it’s just so vastly different there, and it shocked me and made me think about the way I live my life.
Mainly, it’s their connection to Spirit and their connection to one another. Nepal is like one big village – they’re a giant family – and I think that we’re missing that in the West. We live hyper-isolated lives, (whereas) in Nepal, it doesn’t matter that I’m a westerner or stranger walking into their country – they just bring me into their homes, offer me their beds, cups of tea, and plates of food without any questions. That hospitality and love - that purity of connection - was something that not only hooked me, but taught me a lot.
It’s not surprising to hear you say that because when you look at your work, you see a lot of faces. Is that something that starting coming up more in your photos once you traveled there, or have you always been taking portraits?
It’s funny because when I first went to Nepal, I didn’t even consider myself a photographer – I just brought a camera because that’s what you do when you travel. I started in high school in the dark room, but I never thought I would make a career out of it. Next to writing, photography is the most natural way of expressing myself. It’s another way to communicate the things I often can’t find the words for. And since in Nepal it was the people that stole my heart, that’s what I ended up having photos of – because that’s my way of sharing the stories that touched me.
Nepal is not only the seat of my heart, it’s the seat of my career. I came back with photos and shared them with people and eventually, seven, eight years later, it’s my work – it’s my life.
It’s clearly a very personal place. For those who haven’t experienced it in the way you have, what do you hope they can take away from your photos?
I almost always pair my photography with writing, my other great passion, and that’s where a lot of the magic happens for me. I think that it helps take the viewer on a deeper journey. Maybe that photo is just a picture of a man, but when you read the story behind it, you come to learn that it was the first photograph ever taken of this man and that he’d never seen a camera before. So, while it can be a deep interaction visually, I try to bring it even further with words. Whatever people want to take from it, I’m happy. I don’t try to attach a specific experience or lesson on my work. Just sharing the stories and putting them out there – wherever they go, that is beautiful to me.
This show is my ode to Nepal – it’s my reverence of that culture and those people – and, if anything, I hope people walk out of the room with a feeling of love or of deeper connection.
Let’s talk about your process. You mentioned there was a man who had never seen a camera before. How do you overcome those social barriers?
I always ask before I take a photo. Knowing the language helps. But the thing with me is that I never set up shots. I generally always connect with the person before I take their picture, and I navigate it all by feeling. Some people I choose to just have that experience with them and walk away without a photo of them, and other times, we get into this beautiful thing of me taking their picture and then showing them. It just depends. One thing that is really important to me is to bring the photos back to these people, which can be really difficult in one of the most remote countries in the world. I’ve gone to multiple villages and walked back in with just a plastic bag of printed photos, hoping to find that person – sometimes even five years later.
This past trip, I’d taken some photos back with me – some of which that will actually be in the show – of a group of shamans that I’d traveled with a year prior up on a pilgrimage to a holy lake. I went back to the same area where their village is just hoping to cross paths with them. And as I was walking out, I saw this man coming down the path, and I thought, “I know that face.” It was one of the shamans.
I handed him a stack of like, 80 photos, and he was so overjoyed he said that night he was going to have everyone over at his house to look at them.
That’s a big difference from our culture, which has smartphones and social medias filled with pictures of themselves. What was it like to see someone have such an emotional reaction to your photo?
You realize how quickly everything happens here. Things are so instantaneous, we don’t even think about it. I remember one time I went back to a village in Nepal that I had stayed in 5 years prior. I arrived at the house I had stayed in to find that it had been demolished by an earthquake. Not only that, but the mother I stayed with hadn’t seen her husband in two years because he was working in Dubai. And she just burst into tears seeing the photos I took of her and her husband in a house that was now gone. In that moment, you can really see the power of photography … Here, in the Instagram world, you can so easily miss it.
What is your favorite photo in this exhibit?
There’s one from last summer that I took of all the shamans. They are all dancing at a spot that we arrived at during our pilgrimage to take rest. It’s a black-and-white image, and it’s going to be one of the biggest images of the show – it’s over five feet wide. It’s one of those images that, when you look at it, you’re like, ‘This could be from a thousand years ago.’ There’s so much emotion in their faces, their robes, the bells – I really can’t wait to show that one.
Your photos are normally very vibrant – why black and white?
It’s just what the photo asked for. Something happens when I sit down to edit a photo … The image almost guides me. For that one, the shadows, the lighting, the faces, and the mood - they just called for black and white.
What else should Boulder know about you?
This is home now, and I’m hungry to step into the art scene here, meet other artists, and share my work, my art and my love - whatever I can - with the community.
An edited version is published in Boulder Lifestyle, November 2018.