They say the world of fashion photography can be a lethal and glamourous one — and if you're an outsider going by depictions from books and movies, popular opinion certainly sways a certain way. From the inside, its reality is far less glamorous, twice as lethal, but about a million times more rewarding. Case in point: Our fashion editorial for Buro in Nepal, where we scouted Nepali model Aastha Pokharel — who you might remember from Asia's Next Top Model Cycle 1 — roaming the streets of Kathmandu. Behind the lens is Kalimantan native, Singapore-based photographer Ivanho Harlim, a fashion editorial favourite who's shot the likes of models Zhang Ziyi, Alek Wek and Vanessa Axente, indie musicians Citizens!, the Ting Tings, Justice, Tom Odell and the Ed Banger gang as well as industry insiders Neil Barrett and the Dsquared brothers.
Although Harlim boasts an advertising background, it was a photography course in at the Photography Studies College in Melbourne and his grandfather's Hasselblad 500CM that got him hooked. Hooked to photojournalistic images after an introduction to the works of Henri-Cartier Bresson, Diane Arbus, Ansel Adams and Robert Frank, Harlim enjoyed seeing images in a layered manner, which employed the use of implicit metaphors in shapes and signs to give an image depth.
We caught up with Harlim weeks after the shoot back in Singapore to talk about his first time in Nepal, the importance of cultural sensitivities in photojournalism and what the photographer learned about himself during his time there.
What were the first things that struck you about Kathmandu?
Kathmandu has that old-world charm about it. When we first got to Patan in the early morning, we saw ladies clad in colourful saris walking in-between quaint stupas and statues, making offerings and religious gestures at the start of the day.
What do you think needs to be in a frame of a good photograph? What are your top tips for travel photography?
I don't think that there's a clear formula to it. I'm more interested if a frame contains elements that can be 'read' — an image is always going to be more interesting if it manages to say something more rather than it being a pretty picture.
Before you arrived, did you have a checklist of what you have to capture and set out to do?
Yes, I had a vague idea. But as always you have to work with the place and environment. A lot of it has got to do with being at the right place at the right time. I set out to look for images that would somehow relate to the idea of Kathmandu and Nepal one year on after the devastating earthquake.
What were you particularly mindful of when shooting Nepali people and their environment?
Because of photography's inherent voyeuristic nature, you're always going to invade on the subject's privacy to a certain extent. But I'm always mindful so that I don't cross the line, for example, I would respect restrictions at temples. With the fashion images, I have more reservations and careful about not making them suggest any kind of cultural appropriation.
What was it like working with Aastha Pokharel, and what did she bring to the shoot? What does it mean to you shooting a Nepali model in Nepal?
I like the fact that we worked with Aastha who's Nepali. Because of the earthquake, and also the fact that Nepal is a very poor country, I'm careful about not suggesting cultural appropriation with the images, especially because we're working with very expensive Western brands of clothing. There was lighthearted interaction between the model and local people, and we also incorporated Nepali accessories to help contextualise the images.
It's probably hard to choose, but could you pick out three of your favourite photographs from the series?
From the fashion images, it's got to be the group picture of Aastha sitting in the middle of the local men wearing traditional Dhaka topis (hat in Nepali) outside the Patan Museum. Then, there's that definitive picture of the two women laying bricks in front of a fallen Stupa. And the one of the man behind a Newar window, which to me suggests the idea of the country of Nepal poignantly looking out at the modern world.
What were the challenges you faced in this trip when it came to executing the shots?
In terms of the fashion ones, the challenge was getting access to spots like rooftops and temples, the language barrier, and also, possible interference from the public. But we had good help from Spandan Mocktan of Eleven11 Productions, our local producer, so these weren't of any concern at all.
For the photojournalistic shots, it was also the challenge of accessing certain places, and the corporation of the subjects to be photographed willingly. Luckily, I had a very helpful guide who took me through the village of Bhaktapur.
What was your choice equipment from Leica this time?
I used the Leica Q which is a mirrorless 'snap'-type camera with a fixed 28mm lens. I have used the Leica S for quite a bit for my fashion work. The Q is definitely more handy and lighter compared to the S. Although, the file size is 24MP, it was not an issue at all. I found the resolution adequate enough for the prints that we're intending them for.
The Leica Q which is a modern digital update to the legendary M series, is perfect for taking discreet observational images. There's some images in the series which won't be possible to be captured if not for the quickness of the Q. This discreetness has also helped with the fashion images as it allowed us to capture the images very quickly amongst the crowds.
Finally, what were the three things you learned about yourself when you were in Nepal?
1. That I'm physically unfit, and I need to exercise more in order to undertake more hikes to explore more of Nepal next time.
2. I can survive not having Internet for at least a day.
3. I'm a technophobe, I can't figure out how to use Google Maps.
HELP SUPPORT KIDS IN NEPAL
Limited prints of the photos will be available for purchase. As part of the #BuroGivesBack initiative in partnership with Leica Camera Asia Pacific, all proceeds from the sale will go towards helping underprivileged kids supported by Nepali NGO, Children & Youth First.
The #BuroInNepal photo exhibition is open to public and will be held at #01-18,
Leica Galerie Singapore, Raffles Hotel Arcade from 29 June to 11 July.