Manuel Uebler: Dignity and Sincerity at The Elderly’s Home in Nepal

The true nature of Manuel Uebler’s evolving quest, both as a photographer and a human being, is a story told best by viewing his timeless images of residents of an old-people’s home, Sadhus, street kids and useful objects with a human connection. In our first interview with Manuel we shared how he came to be such a remarkably insightful and heartfelt artist and photojournalist through his personal narrative. Today we dive deeper into his series The Elderly’s Home in Nepal where Manuel communicates dignity and sincerity, despite all hardships, and the acceptance and humility that give each individual the strength to cope with life and all its ups and downs.

Q: Do you believe that your basic mission is photojournalistic—that is to document existing conditions without comment, or is this book an implicit or explicit call for social change?

A: The living conditions at the elderly’s home may seem to be bad, but the people there use all the possibilities they have to improve their situation. This fills the place with a positive aura. With my work I would like to deal with situations in life that are essentially of a positive nature. Situations that give us hope, please and inspire us; situations that can help the viewer himself evolve a bit further. This optimistic approach is the root of my photographical curiousness. It is not my aim to accuse and to judge. The various cultures in our world, religions, philosophies are far too complex for me to assess. It is my belief that grievances that are caused deliberately must be condemned. Violence and sufferings brought upon others must be publicly denounced and photography can be used as a tool. But these are not the topics that I personally feel “at home” with.

Q: Your stark close-up image of a funeral pyre with dark flying birds in the sky on the right suggests the ascendance of the spirit in death, but it also has a matter-of-fact quality of something that happens every day. What are your feelings about this picture and what do you think it conveys to the viewer?

A: All too often death is tabooed in our society. Our media creates in us an everlasting desire for youth, strength and intellectualism  The dead are no longer laid out in our homes for us to bid farewell. We have no contact to our deceased. Then, all of the sudden, we are confronted with this manifested death lying on a funeral pyre. The bodily fluids are boiling and it stinks of burned flesh. This photograph shakes us to our very foundations.
For centuries humans have been burnt in ghats every day. Pashupathinath is a holy place – everyone who can afford to, wishes to be burnt here in order to give his soul a good start into the next life. When a body is cremated, the finitude of human life becomes very clear. The flames consume the mortal remains and the wads of smoke seem to be carrying the soul towards heaven.

Q: Your classic portrait of a wrinkled, partially toothless old woman looking directly at the camera and smiling seems to say that true happiness is not always contingent on one’s material circumstances, yet it has a tinge of sadness as well. Do you agree that both these aspects are present and how did you come to shoot this picture?

A: The pure age, honest and unvarnished, was what appealed to me in this motif. It is the devotion and appreciation we receive that makes us humans happy, the togetherness. Most people nowadays try to somehow compensate for missing affections and emotional care by constantly consuming things. The only possession the old people in the elderly’s home have is their time – which they give to each other readily. This makes them happy and also makes up for many deprivations. When our old people here talk about the “bad times”, the difficult years after the war, very often their eyes get a certain glow. In spite of, or maybe just because of the fact that the necessities of life were missing, they retell stories of social cohesion, friendship and solidarity in a form that they never experienced again afterwards.

The sadness in this picture doesn’t come from the old woman; it comes from the viewer himself. The old face, wrinkly and without teeth, almost reminding us of an infant’s features, provokes images of our own mortality in our minds. In our communities we no longer see old people without teeth, except the few that have slipped through the loops of our society’s welfare net.

Q: There is an almost horrific feeling evoked by your image of two old women in bed, wrapped in a disarray of blankets and with a chaotic group of mementos affixed to the wall behind them. It is reminiscent of some Warsaw Ghetto pictures and seems very dark. Why did you take this shot, and what do your think it says about life in the Elderly’s Home?

A: This photograph shows an old married couple that has spent the last years in this chamber inside the temple complex. The wife at her husband’s feet is haggard and exhausted, nearing death. I think photography has the ability to dismiss the finitude of reality to some extent. Viewers are reminded of things way past, of their deceased. A photograph may even give them an idea of ancestors that they were never able to meet. In a way, this old married couple will never be forgotten through this picture. As long as this photograph exists, the viewers will ponder over these two old people and these thoughts will keep them present even after their deaths.

Dealing with death seems quite appalling to us; at the elderly’s home however, it is dealt with in a very humane way. How far may life-prolonging measures go? Is it humane to torment old people with stomach tubes and delay their natural death that way? Or is it actually our duty to do everything in our power to prolong life, at any cost? These ethnical questions don’t come up at the elderly’s home. There death stays the way it is – pitiless and honest.

Q: The image an old woman kneeling over a large box or trunk is certainly enigmatic. What’s going on here, and what does it represent in terms of your documentation?

A: In Nepal, traditionally the old are cared for and looked after by their own children. There are small farms in the country that live self-sufficiently. But lack of work and the desire for a better livelihood draws the young people into the cities.  There, they are bound to their new jobs and commitments and no longer have time to take care of their parents. Often the only possibility left is to place the elderly in a home. The photograph shows a new entrant. The old woman is admitted by her daughters and daughters-in-law. She brought everything she owns in the small tin case. They are just going through her keepsakes that she has come to love over the years; sorting them out and throwing them away. The only things left are clothes and useful utensils, such as plates and the like. To me, this photograph has become a symbol for the victims of capitalism. The living conditions may have improved, but very sadly at the expenses of humanity!

Q: What has been the reaction to the publication of your book on the Elderly’s Home by the photographic art community, and has the government seen it as a wake-up call to improve conditions there?

A: Unfortunately I haven’t found a publisher for the book so far.

Q: Do you plan on documenting other discrete communities in a similar manner going forward, or doing a follow-up on the Elderly’s Home a few years hence?

A: Long-term documentaries are very exciting, but our world is so huge and multifaceted, the topics and people so diversified. I’ve got many new ideas that I would like to realize. I am drawn to new faces, stories, smells, new impressions. With new topics I can feel a tingling in my fingers, the excitement, the longing for the unknown. I am looking forward to new photos and can barely wait to get started!

Thank you for your time, Manuel!

-Leica Internet Team

For more information, visit Manuel’s website.