Canadian Geographic Photo Club - Interview with Nayan Sthankiya

Interview with Nayan Sthankiya


When Saskatoon native Nayan Sthankiya set out on assignment to photograph the South Saskatchewan River, he was surprised to find a growing desert near its waters. In fact, the arid land of the Great Sand Hills reminded him of his visits to northern India, and during his shoot he thought of parallels in the lives of Saskatchewan's farmers and those living a world away. Sthankiya's far-flung travels have taken him to North Korea and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian and National Geographic Korea.

Nayan Sthankiya

Sthankiya says his proudest moment was receiving a commendation from the Korean Medical Association for covering the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. It was recognition that what I'm doing as a photojournalist is making a difference, he says.

To see more photos from Sthankiya's shoot on the South Saskatchewan River, go to Canadian Geographic or visit his website.

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Q Being from Saskatoon, did you know much about the South Saskatchewan River before your shoot?

AGrowing up I lived only a few blocks away from the river. That's one thing that most people in Saskatoon have in common. I used to go fishing on the river pretty much every weekend, and in college I spent two years on it as a fishing guide.

Q Have you noticed any changes in the river over the years?

AWater quality seems to be a big concern. It's been degrading over the years. When I came back to Saskatchewan after living in Asia for 10 years the difference was noticeable. There are a lot pesticides and chemicals that go into the water from the city and from farms. My mom has chemical sensitivities, so I'm especially aware of it.

QThere's been a lot of flooding and crop damage on the river this year. Did you see evidence of it during your shoot?

A This year has been quite bad. The magazine wanted shots of parched land, but they were almost impossible to get since it's been so wet.

So I went to the Great Sand Hills in southwestern Saskatchewan, which I wasn't aware of before. It's something like 1,900 square miles of desert, which is fairly close to the river and moving closer every year. Having spent a long time in northern India near Rajasthan's desert, it was amazing to find that kind of landscape here in Saskatchewan.

QIn April, you travelled to India, a place you visit regularly. Do you notice any similarities between farming conditions there and in Saskatchewan?

A Drought is obviously a very big issue in India as well. But I did a story for the Times of London six months back talking about an issue that parallels problems in Saskatchewan, and that's that seeds are being copyrighted by Dow and Monsanto and big agro companies. It's a huge problem in India since farmers can't afford to buy new seed and are now told that they can't save it since it's copyrighted.

Farmers here in Saskatchewan have been dealing with similar things. Seeds from copyrighted crops will float into their field, contaminating it, and then they have legal problems because of something that happens naturally. It's a story that doesn't get told enough. And until something catastrophic happens, there won't be any changes.

QYou have some shots of sugar cane farmers in India setting their fields ablaze after the harvest. Are any farming practices similar in India and Saskatchewan?

AThe photographs look quite dramatic, but that's how they put nutrients back into the soil. It's something farmers do here in Saskatchewan too. You don't see it on a huge scale, but you can see some farmers burning down the stubble in the fall. In India it's also a quick way for them to deal with the waste from the harvest, rather than bundling it up and disposing of it some other way.

QHave you noticed a changing climate during your travels throughout the world?

AIt's more insidious and not always obvious. The last time I was in India, the heat was quite something. It was hotter than usual. I was in Delhi and it's usually hot, but it was crazy hot!

Air conditioners were going 24/7 and there isn't enough power to deal with it, so there are brownouts and blackouts on a regular basis.

Even here in Saskatchewan the winter was different. Usually the winters are pretty brutal, but they seem to be coming later and are not be as cold as they once were.

QDid you notice anything similar when you travelled to North Korea?

AWe were taken to a model farm there, but the droughts they'd experienced before I was there had subsided and the weather seemed normal.

Q Not many journalists are allowed in to North Korea. How did you make there?

A I had been based in South Korea for five years when the opportunity came up. Journalists were actually being invited to the country at the time. There was this organization called the Korean Friendship Association organizing a tour that was going from one end of the country to the other by bus. It was orchestrated, but you can't orchestrate everything.

I had spent time in China documenting North Korean refugees who had travelled out of the country on the Underground Railroad. What I wanted was to get a different perspective on North Korea by simply shooting what I saw there. There's a difference between the government and the people who live there, and it's usually the people who take the brunt of what's dished out to the country.

Q What was the cultural climate like?

A I speak passable Korean and the few people I was able to talk to when my minders weren't around said they were unhappy with leader Kim Jong-il and that they much preferred his father Kim Il-sung, because of what he did during and after the Korean War. After the war, North Korea was much more prosperous than the south, but then it all fell apart.

Some people asked about my time in South Korea. I told them about all the places I had been and they were surprised that I could travel without passes or permits.

Q What struck you most about your time there?

A The language is the same, but the contrast between the capital cities Seoul and Pyongyang, is stark. It's like going from Las Vegas to small-town Canada. The infrastructure is completely different, as are the architecture and the way the people carry themselves.

In South Korea, it's all designer handbags and designer clothes and cellphones. In North Korea, people dress very plainly and walk or cycle wherever they need to go. You can see massive six-lane highways with a single car driving on them.

Q Does being of East Asian descent allow you to get better photographs in a place like North Korea and other parts of Asia?

A Definitely. In parts of North Korea, Pakistan is looked on quite highly. From their perspective, I'm Pakistani. That certainly opened up a lot of doors for me.

This is one thing that I'm a little annoyed about in Canada, especially when it comes to journalism. There isn't much ethnic diversity among reporters.

The news covers stories that deal with Muslim or Hindu issues and these groups don't come across as being fully represented. The reports would be different if there was an insider there. But a lot of editors who I've talked to say there aren't any qualified people of colour.

Working in Asia, it would have been much more difficult to get some of those shots if I was Caucasian. To me it makes sense to have more ethnic diversity, because in the end you'll get a better story and attract new readers.



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