Pahupati Briddhashram Social Welfare Home for the Elderly sits on the Outskirts of Kathmandu, near the grounds of Nepal’s most holy Hindu site of Pashupatinath. The home houses approximately 240 residents. These residents suffer from many illnesses associated with old age; including immobility, failing eyesight and deterioration of mental faculties. There are currently only 9 carers at the facility, who struggle to cope with treating even the most basic of ailments due to chronic shortages in food, medication and sanitation supplies.
Major political upheaval in Nepal has led to the near-collapse of a reliable healthcare system, especially in rural areas. Unable to deal with the complexities of their relative’s illnesses, families often abandon their elders who are then left to fend for themselves on the streets. In Nepal poor understanding of mental illnesses such as Dementia ultimately leads to conditions going undiagnosed and mistreated.
platformPHOTO: Hi Dan, how did you find out about the Pashupati Briddhashram Social Welfare Home for the Elderly and what made you decide to go there to document it?
Dan Giannopoulos: I have had a long interest in how the elderly are treated. Specifically those that are vulnerable. that suffer from physical or mental illness associated with old age. I had photographed my grandfather after he suffered a devastating stroke in 2008 which in turn triggered the onset of vascular Dementia. I watched a strong man reduced to a shadow of his former self and I documented the care that he was given. Since then I had been interested in exploring systems of care for the elderly in other countries (Though I was not in Nepal to specifically work on this particular project.)
I had been in Nepal for a number of weeks, having travelled to the far west of the country with the intention of working on a project on the remote communities along the highway from Surkhet to Jumla one of the world’s most dangerous roads. However my timing was inopportune and the bad weather had rendered the road impassable. So I was forced to return to Kathmandu.
I had visited Pashupatinath temple early in my travels and recalled that there was a home for the elderly within the grounds of the temple complex. The place had looked terribly run down and not fit for purpose. I was interested to find out how the residents lived. I visited over a number of days and was shocked to see the conditions within the home, and equally shocked to learn that this was seen as the best possible situation for them.
platformPHOTO: Why did you choose to shoot this series in Black & White?
Dan Giannopoulos: I naturally shoot in Black & White, For no other reason really than I prefer to shoot black and white. I honestly don’t have a great understanding what makes a good colour image. I find that colour distracts me from what’s important in an image. For me, black and white forces me to focus on the forms and what is going on in the image. The story. All of the photography that has ever had a lasting impact on me has been in Black and white.
platformPHOTO: Was it difficult to get permission to photograph? How did the residents respond to your presence?
Dan Giannopoulos: There was never an issue with photographing at the home. I spent a number of days there and a lot of the time I would just sit with different residents. There was an obvious language barrier but we would just sit and they would talk, and I wouldn’t know what it was that they said but it would be friendly and when they were comfortable with me I would take a couple of photos.
platformPHOTO: Can you describe the mental process that happens when you got the idea?
Dan Giannopoulos: I tend to work on an emotional level rather than mental – Though I think it’s important to constantly analyse and adapt the way I approach my work. I know that if something has an emotional impact on me then that emotional response in me is something that I aim to translate to other people. I had spent a number of years seeing my Grandfather suffer from a debilitating impact of dementia. But, as tragic as his illness was, he was fortunate enough to have a decent level of care provided to him and was surrounded by a devoted and loving family. I found it incredibly difficult to comprehend the situation for the residents of Pashupati Briddhashram. Many suffered from severe mental and physical illnesses. But there wasn’t even the most basic of comforts for them. Medication, a comfortable bed, good sanitation. Some residents would be laying, distressed, out in the bright sunshine covered in their own excrement, with no sign of any help from the carers. The issues with the home and care for the elderly in Nepal in general are complex and infuriatingly backwards. It’s difficult for myself as a westerner to not view this world through the prism how care is given in the developed world.
platformPHOTO: What sort of time-frame have you had to create this project?
Dan Giannopoulos: The work in this series was shot over 4 days and was intended as a starting point for a much more detailed exploration of life in the home. I am still trying to obtain funding to return to the home and work in greater detail to explore the lives of the residents and carers at the facility.
platformPHOTO: Can you give some information about a typical day shooting this series?
Dan Giannopoulos: I would usually visit the home in the morning and spend about 5 hours walking around and sitting with people. I spoke to carers and took notes. On a couple of my visits, one of the carers, who was an English speaker, would speak to me and tell me about the home and the problems that they faced, be it funding issues, issues related to mobility and access to areas of the home, sanitation and an array of other issues. He would also speak to the residents on my behalf and I would take notes and I would sit and occasionally take photographs.
platformPHOTO: What do you hope your photographs will highlight and accomplish?
Dan Giannopoulos: It was important to show people the truly poor conditions in which vulnerable people can live in. I was profoundly disturbed by the conditions for residents at the home. My intention was to convey this starkness to other people. To people who I know back home that complain about ridiculous and trivial things as though they were amongst the world’s most unfortunate. Complaining about the mundane and irrelevant is something quite unique to western society. Privilege and opportunity breeds this spoil kid attitude in which even the most insignificant of issues will be expounded relentlessly through social networks. It’s quite difficult to avoid this culture in which people only seem to be interested in celebrity and the superfluous. We’re in the middle of an age where the mainstream media are more like arms of government and their sole purpose seems to be to placate populations by giving them these trivial pacifiers that draw their attention away from real important issues. I want to show that there are real issues in the world, and real struggles going on, real tragic situations that need resolutions. Issues more important than the dog dying on Family Guy, Miley Cyrus having a meltdown or how big Kim Kardashian’s arse is.
I don’t believe that I have succeeded in making a change to any of the lives of the people in the photographs, and this is something that has left a bad taste in my mouth. Many of the people in the images may have already passed away. And my taking their photograph is unlikely to have done anything to have changed the tragic situation in which they lived out their final days. The difficulty for me, as I’m sure it is for many others, will always be finding the ways in which there is a direct benefit to the people who graciously opened themselves up to being documented.
platformPHOTO: What has inspired you to become a photographer?
Dan Giannopoulos: At first photography to me was about adventure. Most of my life I have craved adventure and to be traveling. Exploring. I started out studying filmmaking and wanted to be a film director. But in my early 20s I abandoned that and decided to travel. Photography naturally became a way of documenting the journey and it grew into something that is now a major part of my life. Now photojournalism means something entirely different to me. I look at the world with a different, more cynical eye. I’m not sure my photography changes anything or makes people take action on issues. At the most I think it has stirred an emotion in somebody. It’s up to them to do the rest. To take some kind of action. This is not to say that I doubt that photography can effect significant change. I just don’t think mine does. I’d like to prove myself wrong. Now I mostly take pictures because it helps me understand the world, it helps me start to make sense of things I don’t quite get. and if it helps me then maybe it will help others.
platformPHOTO: How often are you shooting new work?
Dan Giannopoulos: I constantly plan and shoot work but I it takes a lot for me to be happy with the work I do. So I have many projects that stay unpublished, unfinished and unshared. Some work I’ll go back to from time to time and see if there are ways to re-work it and build upon it, other times I will never look at the work again. I have recently begun to transition back towards filmmaking which I’m really enjoying.
platformPHOTO: Thank you so much for your time today Dan, we have one last question for you. If we sent you to a desert island and allowed you to take only one picture with you by another photographer, what would this image be?
Dan Giannopoulos: The most significant photographic influence on me is not so much a single photograph but an essay I remember watching a documentary about Larry Burrows on National Geographic channel many years back now and they showed a screen grab from his landmark essay “One Ride with Yankee Papa 13” the image was the Life magazine cover showing machine gunner Farley standing distraught over the dead body of his friend after an ambush of their helicopter. The Image by itself is one of the most striking I have ever seen but it’s power is amplified a hundredfold when put into the context of the larger essay. Farley goes from being a wide-eyed young soldier to a haunted and aged man over the course of one day.
I have 2 copies of the original life magazine framed on my wall at home. As a reminder of the power of that work and of how my love of photojournalism started.
To view more work from Dan Giannopoulos, visit his site: http://gianphotography.com/