Currently showing at the Stone Bell House in Prague’s historic old town square, is a collection of photographs on loan from their place of permanent display – a small village nestled in the Nepalese mountains and named Manang. The exhibition in Prague this month acts as a two part documentary of this village which is also the subject of the photographs. Zdenek Thoma’s photographs of an undeveloped Nepalese mountain settlement from 1979 are displayed alongside those captured by his son, thirty years later. The latter images depict a town with a flourishing tourist trade which is now a popular stopping-off point for backpackers. When Zdenek Thoma’s son arrived in Manang in 2008 he sought out the subjects of his father’s pictures and re-photographed them, creating (and presenting them with) a material record of their personal history. The juxtaposition documents the changes which Manang has undergone over the course of the last thirty years both socially and economically, and personally.
The exhibition is interesting for it acts not only in this way as a comparative documentary of past and present Manang, but as a participatory project that includes the subjects of the work in the dissemination (and in the case of the latter project, the creation) of the work. Michal Thoma requires the collaboration of the inhabitants of Manang in order to identify the subjects of his father’s photographs and re-shoot them. Written notes and marks now cover the photographs brought back to Manang by Michal Thoma – these are the literal traces of remembered names and memories, etched onto the images as the locals pieced together who the subjects of the images were, and where they could be located. Many people from Zdenek’s photographs had moved away from Manang and so in order to be re-photographed they literally had to retrace their steps, and make their way back to Manang. The photographs therefore, particularly those currently on display in Prague, are perhaps merely a record of the artwork (if it even should be categorised thus). At most, they are the physical trace of lived experience.The real core of this project, can be identified as the participatory acts of the inhabitants of Manang who engage and relive the past thirty years – yet importantly, the photographs act as both the starting point and the product of these reflections.
That after thirty years, the task of identifying the subjects required the help of the entire town, that people had already moved away, also reminds us how easily people can be forgotten by history, and speaks of the futility of the photograph as a record without the input of local knowledge and personal experience – without traces or fragments of memory. This project is interesting on two levels. On the one hand, as a unique project which means something to the local inhabitants of Manang, and also more generally as an exhibition which widens our understanding of the documentary tradition in photography, its possibilities and limitations. Yet there is also a third dimension to the project, in that it speaks more widely of the role of the camera in exploration and discovery in the modern world. Essentially theories regarding the role of photography within documentary traditions are literally enacted through these two series of photographs, and their display alongside one another.
In 1979 Zdenek Thoma photographed scenes that were unknown to his audience. He acted as the eyes through which Manang was discovered by the west. His son, by returning to Manang and documenting how it has changed potentially makes an interesting point, that the undisturbed, undiscovered Manang which his father’s photographs have represented to audiences in various exhibitions in Eastern Europe since the 1980s, no longer exists; in its place is a lively tourist industry. The juxtaposition of two generation’s photography of Manang highlights the irony of documentary truth – that through displaying photographs of a different culture or experience, others may be induced to discover it for themselves, and as a result, that subject which was so appealing to the photographer presumably for its difference, is changed and normalised, potentially by the very existence and display of the images. The documentary image, the ‘photographic truth’, prompts change in its subject for it makes the unknown known. Because the photograph outlives the scene it depicts, this can mislead. The current situation of the subject could vary vastly to how they are depicted in the image which apparently captures a scene from their daily experiences. Zdenek Thoma for instance photographs a vast plain on which local children play games, yet in 1979 Michal Thoma’s image depicts the same place, articulating how a multi-story complex for housing tourists now stands on this site. Displaying these two projects alongside one another, reminds us of this fact – that the documentary photograph is not always to be trusted, that image and experience are not always reconcilable.
Zdenek Thoma’s photographs further demonstrate this point of how the infrequent, rare or changeable can become the iconic representation of a person, place, or moment in time. He visited Manang during what is described as the “rare occasion” of the religious Baden festival. Consequently many of his images depict the celebrations of the event. The rest of his images depict the everyday experiences of life in Manang, and the inclusion of images of a ‘rare’ religious event could be very misleading to the audience. Michal Thoma notes in his series of photographs, next to those of the Baden celebrations in 1979 that the festival no longer occurs in Manang. Therefore the latter project often explains the current reality of this town which, if only encountered through the original photographs, would be in many ways misrepresented. In this way the display of both series of photographs can be seen to make a wider point about photography as a means of documenting and exploring foreign countries, unknown customs and people, rectifying (but only for a very brief moment in the present before these too lose their accuracy) some of the outdated representations of what is now a very different town to that which exists in Zdenek Thoma’s original photographs.
It can be seen that it is through this critique of the medium, that these photographs can be understood as art within a postmodernist framework and conception of the term. However, perhaps more interesting are the ways in which this work pioneers the possibilities of photography out with the confines of the art world. Not only are documentary outlets explored, but those of memory and remembrance as well. When seeking the subject of a particular portrait, and finding out that the man in question had died since being photographed in 1979, Michal Thoma instead photographed a relative of his, stating in a caption that although he had died a long time ago, the memory of him, prompted by the photograph his new subject holds in her lap, still brings tears to her eyes. The personal recording of family members and the ability of the photograph to materialise their memory and preserve some element of their existence is as important to this project, if not more important than, the artistic theories surrounding the documentary tradition in photography and its translation into the gallery environment.
This exhibition takes the gallery-goer beyond the traditional outlines for the display and verification of art. The documentary use of photography can be identified as the starting point for a greater consideration of the possibilities of art. The work can be re-identified not as a material product, but as a participatory act which reunites its subjects, and crucially, involves them both in the process and in the display. At the same time, the possibilities of the photographic medium are equally considered and explored beyond the confines of artistic meaning. The dual display of both father and son’s photography marks a transition not only of the subject, but of the medium itself and its possibilities within artistic discourse (and beyond).
 not that this is to be undermined or overlooked as an object of little importance – quite to the contrary, this is an essential element of the photograph which cannot be replicated by any other medium so poignantly
Images courtesy of Michal Thoma