April 15 2016

Staying focused: How an SOS family helped inspire a Nepalese photojournalist

Amul Thapa, 27, grew up at the SOS Children’s Village Kavre. A photojournalist for the Naya Patrika daily and previously Kathmandu Today, his photo of a baby boy rescued from a collapsed home was re-published by news organisations around the world following the 25 April 2015 Nepal earthquake.

Amul is a Hilton Prize Coalition fellow and in March was recognised by the Nepalese government for his work in documenting the earthquake and recovery. He talks about growing up in an SOS family and his career as a photographer.

Tell us about your experience growing up at the SOS Children’s Village Kavre.

I felt that I had a rebirth, after the great tragedy of losing my mother at age nine. I remember the love and care of my SOS mother [Basanti Rana, who died when Amul was 19] and nine siblings. My SOS mother always stood next to me, encouraged me to correct any wrongdoing, and motivated me. She was the person behind my success. I still remember her words: “Whatever you do, give 100 percent. Believe in yourself.”
My SOS father, uncles and aunts were all supportive. All the people were caring and loving. Everyone is emotionally attached with one another, and everyone is ready to support everyone else selflessly. SOS Kavre was heaven on Earth. My success today is because of SOS. To this day, I feel fortunate to have grown up at SOS Kavre.

What made you interested in photojournalism?

From my childhood I was interested in playing sports and while participating, I happened to meet journalists who were covering the games. I just enjoyed talking to them [and] I found their job interesting, so I decided at grade nine to go into the news media as a career. After the final high school exam, SOS Children’s Villages organised a career counselling class that paved the way for me to go into journalism. I completed my bachelor in journalism and I am studying for a master’s degree.
Along with my studies, I work as a photojournalist for the Naya Patrika daily. I love hearing people’s stories and sharing stories about them. I find photography the best way of sharing these stories.

Where were you a year ago when the earthquake struck?

I was in my office at Kathmandu Today editing photographs for a news story. I, along with my colleagues, were on the third floor of the seven-storey building. Suddenly there was a tremor. I went under the computer table as we were taught in school. After few seconds it stopped. I ran downstairs and everyone outside was looking at us in surprise. They couldn’t believe we were alive because our office complex was shaking.
I then ran to the Dharahara tower [a historic landmark]. I could see the dust all around me, people crying everywhere. There were dead bodies all around. The tower was in ruins. I tried to take a few pictures. In this way, I was going my job. But being human, I along with other photojournalists put down our cameras and volunteered to help people.

Your photograph of a rescued child, covered in dust but safe, was published around the world. Tell us how you captured that moment.

Amul Thapa's photograph of a baby boy rescued from a collapsed home was re-published by news organisations around the world following the 25 April 2015 Nepal earthquake. Photo by Amul Thapa

On the morning after the earthquake, I went to the site of a collapsed home where Nepali soldiers were trying to save a trapped boy named Sonish Awal. They could hear the child but not find him. I asked if I could help … and I directed traffic and asked people not to make noise so that the soldiers could hear the baby crying to make it easier to find him.
It was amazing that Sonish was rescued. It was 10 a.m. and I had been there five hours. I was able to capture some beautiful photographs of Sonish when a soldier held him up in the sky. Everyone was clapping. That very moment, I turned to the boy’s family - his mother was with crying and I captured that on my camera. That brought my story to life. I was able to tell the whole story of the child and the family to the entire world through my photographs.
When Sonish was handed over to his mother, it was totally emotional. I decided not to follow them because I felt that they really needed some time to spend with each other, and I was not going to interfere for my own profit.

Do you have a favourite photo?

I have taken many photographs during four years in photojournalism. When I have to choose a favourite, it was the one of Sonish.
Another is a photo I took of an old couple who were forced to walk a long distance during a political protest because cars weren’t allowed. They were 80-years-old and walked nine or ten kilometres, holding each other’s hands. I followed them whole the way … telling them about myself so that it made them more comfortable to share their own stories. I was able to create a nice old-age love story for the paper. It was very touching.