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Photography by Tirtha Lawati

Tirtha Lawati’s vivid, dreamy photos of Nepali youth

The photographer’s new personal project, Homecoming, documents the Nepali diaspora in Britain and beyond

Like many of us, the last few years brought about a deep reflection for British-Nepali photographer Tirtha Lawati. When an exponential pace was broken by the pandemic, life slowed down and Lawati began to look more closely at his work, and more importantly, why they were making it.

This time brought about a personal reckoning, and the realisation that the work they were making was, in his words, “meaningless and empty”, would lead to great, lasting change. Instead of continuing a career of shooting to create “aesthetically pleasing” fashion photographs and simply building a portfolio – lensing what they believed would be a hit with his audience – Lawati dove inwards, shaking off expectations of his work or its trajectory to explore his own identity.

In 2019, Lawati embarked on a project that would encapsulate everything he was searching for in his work. Returning to Nepal – where he was born before immigrating to the UK – set in motion a desire to document the Nepali diaspora back home in Britain. The time that lockdown freed up allowed Lawati to fulfil the series, Homecoming, which you see here. The resulting photographs are a meditation on what it means to be Nepali today. Below, Lawati tells us more about finding themselves through his work.

Where did the idea for ‘Homecoming’ come from? 

Tirtha Lawati: When I was studying photography, I was just trying to get enough editorial work to build my portfolio geared towards fashion. In the past few years, everything slowed me down and I found myself questioning my relationship with the subjects of my work. 

There was a deep sense of detachment. I began asking myself questions. Am I creating aesthetically pleasing photographs because it’s popular, and it’s what the audience will find ‘cool'? The answers made me realise that I found my work meaningless and empty. I had to go back to where I started – creating documentary-style photography with a focus on exploring identity and what really mattered to me, which was representing my community. Exploring the subjects I had photographed, I didn’t see myself or my community within the art and fashion industry reflected. Over time, I have started to have fun with my work, becoming more earnest and playful.

After graduating, I had the freedom to set my own briefs, build my own projects, pick my subjects, and choose the work that I feel more attached to. The pandemic really helped me stop and think about who I was and plan on becoming a photographer. 

This project is huge in terms of images, people, and places you seem to have shot. Tell us more about the process of shooting it, and its creative direction? 

Tirtha Lawati: I started this project in 2019 for my FMP during my final year of university. I visited Nepal with my family for two weeks. I would go out to document the everyday life of people or plan something with my family members and their friends.

During lockdown, I was with my family in Rugby (England) looking after my nieces with my sister, and that was when I had time to plan and construct my photographs, to confront my conception of home. This started as a playful portrait session during breaks between home-schooling lessons, and soon developed into a studied depiction of domestic life based on my own compositions.

When lockdown ended, I planned a shoot with a group of friends, mutual friends and people I cast on Instagram. I photographed them in the studio and outdoors in their own clothes that represented them and their style. Through this, I was able to capture Nepali diaspora youth in Britain.

Can you give some insight into your conversations with the people in the images? 

Tirtha Lawati: When I was in Nepal they were really interested in my camera as it stood out, so I was explaining what it was, the functionality, and how it looked through the lens. They are fascinated (of life) outside of Nepal and we had conversations about what the culture and the landscape in Britain is like.

In contrast to the British-Nepali youth, their conversations tied back to the nostalgic memories they had as a kid in Nepal, discussing their favourite music and artists they listened to in Nepal, where they were born and the transition period of migrating from Nepal to Britain. Also how they adapted to the culture and what they identify themselves as.

What was something that you learned or that surprised you while doing this project? 

Tirtha Lawati: I learned the concept of home and identity, and the tentative experience of first-generation British-Nepali youth in the UK. A generational divide suspended between the worldview of their parents and the accommodation of British values. I learned that after they moved out of the army camps, people found life more difficult to adjust as they sensed the loss of touch with their traditions and questioned their sense of belonging. I was really happy and inspired to interact with so many cool British-Nepali individuals and talented creatives who are doing their own thing. 

Lastly, what does it mean, to you, to be British-Nepali today? 

Tirtha Lawati: Accommodating British and Nepali values, as well as embracing both sides of the culture.