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The other Kodak town

In Nepal, the business struggles but survives

On a dusty street in Nepal’s capital city, a tiny shop’s folding wooden doors beckon customers with Kodak’s signature yellow and red. Under a retro Kodak sign, the hand-painted doors advertise the shop’s services: A sampling includes photography services, video shooting, photocopying, and visa photos in just ten minutes. The overall aesthetic is more 1977 than 2017.

Tika Ram Rana’s shop is one of the few photo studios left in Nepal. Just like in the United States, photography has largely shifted to the realm of cellphones, and small photo studios are just barely hanging on. But the charming hand-painted signs that still advertise Kodak products in the country harken back to a time when the film rolls flowed freely and Steve McCurry traipsed across the country shooting Kodachrome.

Rana, sixty, ran away from a life of farming in eastern Nepal to the capital, Kathmandu, in 1972. He says photography was the first thing he found, and by 1975 he was a member of a group of royal photographers following the late King Birendra on visits around Nepal and abroad. The king was friendly but didn’t talk much, Rana says, a strategy he thinks the royal family employed to avoid spilling state secrets. When the king, along with nine other members of the royal family, was murdered in 2001 in an event that shook the nation, Rana mourned for three days and, along with many men from the country, shaved his head, a custom followed when one’s own father dies. 

By 1983, Rana took over the photo studio his friend had started in 1972. As with other photo studios in the city, much of Rana’s business came from family portraits. He would arrange Nepali families, dressed in their best clothes, in front of painted backdrops of idyllic village scenes. A camera was a luxury most Nepalis could not afford. 

Even today, just three quarters of Nepalis own mobile phones. Though Kathmandu is a lot richer, few people in rural areas own smart phones, but the numbers are creeping up. One reason is the money sent home from the millions of Nepalis who work abroad in mostly Gulf countries and Malaysia. The passport photos they need for visas make up much of Tika Ram Rana’s business now.

Naviya Kafle, twenty-three, dropped into the shop for photos for a visa to the States, where she recently finished college and is heading back for a job. She pulled aside the white curtain that makes the plain background for these standard photos to reveal the scene of village houses, hills, and flowers that Rana still keeps. “My parents have a portrait in front of one of these.”

After clicking the photo, Rana carefully edits Kafle’s face, removing shininess, stray hairs, and even her birthmarks. “Brother! I need my birthmarks,” she tells him in Nepali and laughs in frustration. Kafle later asks him for camera film, and Rana shakes his head no. “You don’t get that anymore,” Kafle says.

In the heydays, Rana’s shop also used to operate as a Kodak dealership, selling film and chemicals to shops in neighboring areas. Rana says he used film from across the globe: of course Kodak from the United States and Fuji from Japan, but also Indu from India, Agfa from Belgium, Polaroid from the Netherlands, and Ilford from England. Fuji and Kodak were the best for their natural colors, he remembers. The companies used to fight over who could paint the wooden doors to the shop: Kodak has won out for the last twenty years.

Nepal’s very first photo studio, Photo Concern, opened in 1960 and still sits on Kathmandu’s “New Road,” so named because it was totally rebuilt after a 1934 earthquake. Camera shops line the street, and a massive sign for the Photo Concern studio looms above. In 1980, the studio started the country’s first Kodak distributorship. Before that, the studio’s founder used to travel to Hong Kong to make prints, says current CEO Dinesh Raj Aryal. 

“Obviously, the price was a little bit more expensive than other films, but people used to take pride in that: ‘I’m using Kodak film, and I’m making the prints on Kodak paper,’” Aryal says. 

In 1999, Kodak even spent $6 million on a plant in Nepal, near the Indian border. The plan was to sell photo paper duty-free to India, but details of the treaty between the two countries got muddy, and the plant closed before a single pack of paper crossed the border. Even a visit by Bill Clinton couldn’t save it.

It wasn’t until around 2005 that Kodak products were widespread in the country, Aryal says, but, of course, by then film was on its way out.

If photo shops want to stay alive, Aryal says, they have to change with the times. Photo Concern has moved into large-format printing, photobooks, and printing on t-shirts and mugs. But the switch is too difficult for most small studio owners who are of an older generation, says thirty-nine-year-old photographer Kishor Kayastha. He says ninety percent of Kathmandu’s photo studios have closed down.

Kayastha’s grandfather was also a photographer, and he says his mother, Neel Kamal Kayastha, was Nepal’s first female commercial photographer, opening a photo studio in 1973. The studio focused on family portraits and passport photos, and Kayastha holds childhood memories of his mom mixing up Kodak chemicals.

After a massive earthquake hit Nepal in 2015, Kayastha’s family shop closed down. His mom had passed away earlier, and his dad couldn’t justify keeping the shop open. “We would get only two portraits in a day. It’s not even $10,” he explains.

For now, Tika Ram Rana keeps the yellow and red doors open by diversifying. The photo studio, which is in the space below his house, has divided its tiny space in two and added an Internet café. Rana also helps people print photos from their mobile phones, and the passport photo business stays steady. Rana performs the odd job, too, like when a man walked in asking for an email address to borrow to receive some important documents. 

Rana splits the duties of running the business now with his son and doesn’t know if the younger man will continue. But for a moment, standing in the studio, among the 1970s-style portraits, families in front of painted villages, and Kodak paraphernalia, the past still feels alive.  

Danielle Preiss is a writer sometimes living in Rochester and sometimes in Nepal. You can find her on Twitter @daniellepreiss.

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