The child who taught me what it means to hope

Not many photos have changed my life, but there is one that changed me as a person, hopefully for the better.

April 25, 2015 is a day that I will never forget. It was the day I lived through my first earthquake in my then home in Kathmandu, Nepal. I was sleeping on what should have been a lazy Saturday, when my wife woke me up. The house was moving.

When it started to shake even harder, we decided to run. We lived on the sixth floor of a 12-storey building. We ran downstairs wearing only our pyjamas. On our way down, the walls in the stairwell chipped off, and from the windows, we could see huge waves pour out of the swimming pool.

I ran without being sure of what had happened, but when I reached the street and saw the fear on people’s faces, I realised it had been a huge earthquake. From that moment, the earthquake in Nepal became for me not just an event to photograph, but the story of a country I love.

For the first few days, we slept on the streets of Kathmandu along with the many who had lost their houses or were afraid of returning home as dozens of aftershocks continued to rock the country. Two Nepali colleagues, Niri Shrestha and Navesh Chitrakar, became family during those days. We walked together for hours through the damaged zones. The smell of death came from the debris. Every street that we passed was a scene of horror as neighbours and police dug through the rubble looking for life, working against the clock.

From the second day, I focused on Bhaktapur, a city just outside Kathmandu, where just a couple of weeks earlier I had photographed Bisket Jatra, a festival of joy. Its beauty was captivating. In the days after the earthquake, however, Bhaktapur resembled a war zone. The streets were covered in debris. Processions of bodies were taken to the hospitals to be identified by family members. Then the bodies were brought to the cremation site for families to pay their last tributes to their loved ones.

Sadness and frustration occupied my thoughts. I had to leave as my wedding was taking place in France on May 22 and there was no way I could delay it. From thousands of kilometres away in France, I could not stop following the news, speaking to my friends in Nepal. The international media started to forget about Nepal.

A month later, when I returned to Kathmandu, it was as if the earthquake had just struck. But something was changing. There was hope again, life was returning to normal and a message started to be heard around the country: “We will rise again.”

I felt that the people of Nepal were giving the world a lesson about life, but that no one was listening. I wanted to tell this story. Little by little, this became a project – and a personal journey – which I called Endurance.

I photographed Endurance for a total of seven months, although the project lasted four years. I have thousands of photographs, but there is one that makes my heart beat even today – it is of a young boy walking to school the day it reopened.

To go to school, this child had to cross a square in Bhaktapur where 27 people had died in buildings that fell in the earthquake. For me, this picture represents the strength of the Nepalese people, walking through the rubble of a disaster towards a future full of hope. And it captures what a father in that square once told me about his child’s role in rebuilding Nepal.

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