(Photo courtesy of Emily Polar)
Carnegie Mellon University

Sketching Nepal Through Her Lens: Emily Polar

As the morning sun peeked out over the horizon, the Buddhist monks in the monasteries of Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu, were already chanting traditional mantras in their deep, solemn voices. These morning voices were reflections of the deeply ingrained role Buddhism plays in modern-day Nepal.

Next to one of these monasteries lives American photographer Emily Polar. Blonde and blue-eyed and never without a camera, she stands out among the darker complexions of Nepal’s general populace. A choice 16 years ago between going to culinary school and learning professional photography launched Polar’s journey that has taken her to all corners of the globe and landed her in Kathmandu, where she has been residing for two years. On her own Instagram and National Geographic’s official Instagram accounts, she sketches the scenery and culture of Nepal through her lens, pointing it at everything from the magnificent to the mundane.

Before her current stint in Nepal, Polar was at first a food photographer for about five years, after which she worked on adventure photography, spending three years building up a portfolio. She obtained some prominent clients for her photos — some of her alpine photography was used by Patagonia, and National Geographic Travel enlisted her to work on two photo projects in California — an experience among the majestic redwood forests and a road trip through the northern part of the state. She even starred in a Nature Valley granola bar commercial, playing the role of a nature photographer.

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Polar did two projects in California for National Geographic Travel. (Photo courtesy of Emily Polar)

Around 2015, she decided to take a break from photography to find a fresh perspective in her newer works. The work she had been doing was of the “outdoor[sy], sporty” style, as she described it, but she found that there are “aspects of photography that [she] love[s] that don’t translate as well” in a more commercial, client-oriented setting. Instead, she wanted to work on projects that wove in a narrative, rather than projects that were simply focused on the resulting product.  

She thus decided to change course completely by going to Nepal to study Tibetan Buddhism. “Over the past year, [she has] been slowly getting back to projects… more in line with what [she is] passionate about,” such as street photography, rather than only doing projects that she would stand to benefit financially from.

Polar hasn’t given up on the “outdoorsy” style of photography she did before her stint in the Nepal, either — many of her photos showcase the jagged, snow-capped tops of the Nepal Himalayas, and their interactions with the light and mist that frequently congregated. And unsurprisingly for someone who moved to Nepal to study Buddhism, she is also working on photography projects documenting Buddhist culture — she is taking photos for a book on the topic of Buddhist pilgrimages in Nepal, India, Bhutan, and Tibet in a few years.

Even after staying in Nepal for two years, she is still in awe of the diligence and strength of the Nepali people. Many of them lead very simple lives without many of the conveniences that most of us living in Western societies take for granted. “I don’t know how a lot of Nepalis do it, because things aren’t that cheap here… but they only make [an average of] $100 a month,” she reflected.  

Despite the widespread poverty in the country, Polar says that they are a heartwarming people. When people visit, the hosts or hostesses are always effusive in offering water, tea, or snacks. As a shining example of this culture of hospitality, Polar cites what she once saw at a Buddhist pilgrimage site that she was photographing, which is located at a cave that requires walking down a 15 minute-long flight of stairs to access. There was a man who was in charge of looking after the cave. “When I was there, he was really sweet and gave me some candles to light,” she recounted. But what really stuck with her about that day wasn’t how he treated her personally — it was seeing the man running down the stairs with water in a two-liter Mountain Dew bottle because he wanted to offer it to some Tibetan women visiting the site. It’s an epitome of how stereotypes never paint the whole picture: there are indeed aspects of Nepal which we all know from stereotypes, but without seeing the country up close, some of the loveliest parts of the picture remain hidden from view.

As Buddhism is the dominant religion in Nepal and as someone who travelled there to study the religion, for Polar, living there means not just immersing oneself in Buddhist culture, but also weaving in its teachings into one’s daily life. Many of the teachings deeply resonate with her. Through Buddhist practice, she aims to “train her mind [and] heart and transform perception.” Buddhist techniques are “skillful method[s] of practice to lessen ego-clinging and selfishness,” she reflects. “If we’re wishing for other people’s well-being, it’s a much more… liberating feeling,” in contrast to the “tighter” feeling in the mind when one wants something from others. As Buddhism teaches that “we are always the recipient of our emotions and our thoughts”, it helps keep an open mind and let go of grudges against other people. To her, Buddhism’s appeal lies in that it is, as she puts it, a “good guidebook to life.”

Polar’s move to Nepal transported her to a country that couldn’t have been a starker contrast to her childhood home — a stereotypically Midwestern-flat part of Wisconsin. Nestled comfortably in the Himalayas, Nepal is, as Polar describes, a place of extremes. With the highest mountains and the lowest valleys, with mossy rhododendron forests that vibrate with the energy of life and neat terraced fields on the steepest slopes, with roads snaking even to places you didn’t even think was humanly possible to build a road through, Nepal’s landscape varies by location as widely as day and night.

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Polar considers these trees some of her favorites in Nepal. (Photo courtesy of Emily Polar)

Much like the goat herd in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, in Nepal, domesticated sheep and even yaks are common in the countryside. “These two didn’t know how to get past [her] as [she] was sitting in their way. They eventually figured it out [after she pretended to not notice them],” Polar wrote of a pair of sheep walking into the foggy distance on Instagram. A more intimidating experience is meeting a yak, which is a huge animal but perhaps somewhat surprisingly, is also scared of humans.

Her love and compassion for Nepal and for the Earth flows freely throughout the interview, and the environmental issue she is particularly passionate about — waste management — stems from a desire to preserve Earth’s natural beauty and health. She is active in local recycling organizations and an organization called Clean Up Nepal, which runs education programs on best waste management practices. “People still throw trash bags in open spaces and burn it,” she pointed out. “I feel more responsibility needs to arise from the government side to help promote and support [its] management and recycling.”

Her photographs on Instagram caught my eye for their dreamy, surreal, painting-like qualities. Indeed, more than anything, she is an artist — an artist who uses her lens to show the beauty and hopeful sides in our world; an artist who exudes compassion to the people and land around her and weaves it into her work.

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More than anything, Emily Polar is an artist who weaves compassion into her work. (Photo courtesy of Emily Polar)

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