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The Glue Gangs of Kathmandu

Armed with a camera, photojournalist Frankie Nazardo set out to Nepal to capture snapshots of the teenage lives in their squalor

Dazed Digital talked to photojournalist Frankie Nazardo about his controversial portraits of glue sniffing teenage gangs in Kathmandu.

Dazed Digital: What an insane project – how did you get involved in actually going out to Nepal and shooting these gangs?
Frankie Nazardo: My initial plan was to go there and explore their lives, basically live on the sidewalks with them and get the 360º experience, living with them and feel the condition, and write about it, as well as taking pictures. But as soon as I got there, I had this contact with a guy called Doc, who’s been helping a lot of children, and he told me that it wasn’t really a good idea, because Kathmandu can be very dodgy at night – they don’t have electricity basically, they have it for eight hours a day, so at night it’s completely dark as well. I didn’t consider this but when you’re working with children, a big issue is paedophilia, so it’s not very good to live with them and sleep in the same place they do, even if it’s on the streets, so I basically just hung out with them during the day and part of the night, but went to a hostel.

DD: Some readers will think ‘Why is this foreigner taking pictures of these kids doing glue?' Are you worried about people saying that you're exploiting them?
Frankie Nazardo: Yeah, I thought that to a certain extent, I thought I could go there and help, as well as take pictures. I see what you’re saying. I dunno, it’s definitely a selfish project, but I was interested in taking pictures and understanding why they ended up in this situation. The whole idea in the beginning was to have an exhibition and raise awareness on the issue, as well as give the money from the exhibition to an NGO that’s trying to get them out of the city and to help them. Kathmandu is a bit of a crazy city where it’s really easy to do drugs, and get money, and live in the street, because it’s easy to get money from tourists, but what this guy Doc Landinlon is trying to do is bring the kids outside Kathmandu, to the country side. He’s just built a school for them.

DD: What was the main reason for why these kids are resorting to this?
Frankie Nazardo: Every kid has a different story. Basically there were some didn’t have any parents – they were orphans. Some had, I dunno, their mother had died and their father was an alcoholic, or their brother used to beat them up a lot, or they didn’t have any money. I knew the leader’s mother told him that he had to get a job, to bring money home, and he just rather do glue and stay in the streets. And then of course if you live in the streets, you want to be in a gang, because then you have protection. I think one of the things I tried to express with my pictures was that yeah, they might not have parents, or family comfort, or any kind of affection from outwards, but at the same time, the dynamics of the group are very interesting – they really like care for each other, they share everything, and sometimes they stab each other, or they fight, but at the same time they had a good group, the dynamics of the relationship are – I dunno – it’s like a family in a way.

DD: Did you actually feel scared hanging around them?
Frankie Nazardo: Yeah – I don’t think for my own life – but yeah. Definitely at night they were completely fucked and they could get very aggressive and violent – like a couple of times I could really see they wanted to fight for no reason.

DD: Fight you?
Frankie Nazardo: Yeah, but I had a good relationship with them, but especially at night when they were completely fucked they could get very aggressive because they wanted a biscuit, and I wasn’t going to give them money for the biscuit, and they could just flip, and try to attack me, but then they were also sorry in a way. I think in a way, they were happy somebody was hanging out with them, and I dunno, playing football and stuff.

DD: Do you think they actually care about dying or have they lost all hope?
Frankie Nazardo: They are teenagers, and they don’t think about the future. I’m sure that consciously they are aware that they don’t really have a future or that they’re gonna end up in jail, but at the same time they are still teenagers, so they think they’re gonna be young forever maybe. They are a successful gang in Kathmandu, they are also probably one of the most powerful. They have the best turf, in the touristy area, and no other gangs are allowed by them in the touristy area, so they have the monopoly on begging on tourists basically.

DD: So why do they do glue?
Frankie Nazardo: Glue is very cheap – I think a stick of glue was 70¢, and those gangs could get fucked for half a day. So like, well I don’t know about the prices of heroin or coke in Nepal, but I’m sure that they are more expensive than that.

DD: Did they actually describe to you what it feels like to be under the influence of glue, and what they get out of it?
Frankie Nazardo: Yeah, basically when it’s winter, you don’t feel cold, you don’t feel hunger, and you feel like tipsy, and I don’t know, you have a funny feeling basically, and the more you do it, the more intense the feeling gets. At night it was quite scary to see their faces – they were very different from what they looked like during the day. /