“And the award goes to…” the announcer read out from the podium, “…Kiran Shrestha!”
There was a considered pause. “I don’t know what to say,” Shrestha finally spoke. “Perhaps there is nothing to say,” added Shrestha, “the award says it all.” Shrestha, a technician who repairs cameras, was so overwhelmed that he had become speechless. The audience, perhaps understanding what his silence expressed, finally clapped and cheered.
Shrestha’s craftsmanship in the field of Nepali photography was deemed so valuable that Photo Kathmandu, the annual international photo exhibition held in Patan, decided to present their ‘Award of Excellence’ to him along with senior photographer Shreedhar Lal Manadhar this year. And Manandhar, along with last year’s awardee Mani Lama, are among the dozens of photographers who swear by the skills of Kiran Shrestha if anything goes wrong with their cameras.
Kiran Shrestha is surrounded by cameras of all shapes and sizes. From little point and shoot cameras to huge SLRs, to plastic boxes full of camera parts (think motherboards, lenses) neatly stacked in rows around him, Shrestha spends most of his time in his tiny workshop near Amrit Science Campus in Thamel.
Shrestha arrives at his workshop at 8am in the morning, or 7 or 6 if he feels like it, and stays there until late in the evening. He repairs an average of two cameras a day, and can match all the cameras around him to their owners, even those that have been abandoned at his shop for years because they were outdated.
But even though Shrestha is so engrossed in cameras these days, his entry into their world was an accident.
“Do you know the gucha sodas they sell in front of Ranjana galli?” he reminisces. “I know how to make those sodas. When my father was running that business, I used to take those sodas on a cart and sell them for 6 paisa each.”
Stories of his enterprising father are aplenty, as Shrestha goes on to say that his family hopped into restaurant business next, and then on to a biscuit and cakes factory, with him learning different skills along the way. In between, his father dabbled in cycle-repairing business. By the age of 12, Shrestha had already learnt to use mechanical tools.
Kiran Shrestha is surrounded by cameras of all shapes and sizes. From little point and shoot cameras to huge SLRs, to plastic boxes full of camera parts neatly stacked in rows around him, Shrestha spends most of his time in his tiny workshop near Amrit Science Campus in Thamel. Photos (above): Kabin Adhikari/OnlineKhabar; (opener): Chemi Dorje.
After all those adventures, Shrestha was running an electronics repair workshop with his father when someone asked him to repair a camera. “That guy had tried to repair it unsuccessfully a few times. So I thought, why not try something I have never done before? My first attempt was successful, so I decided to continue in this field,” Shrestha remembers that fateful moment.
After that, Shrestha gradually started solely focusing on cameras. “Back then I was a jack of all trades and master of none,” he says. “But with a single object of focus, I can become a master (so I thought)!”
Indeed, Shrestha’s mastery of this field is legendary. Photographers like Shreedhar Lal Manandhar, who uses a rare camera with large-format film, swear by his skills.
“There is no one who can even handle those cameras,” says Shrestha. “The film itself is as big as a notebook, and it must be made manually with chemicals available in the market.” Along with the vintage cameras, Shrestha is known to repair modern, avant-garde models as well, charging anything from Rs. 500 to 32,000 depending on the work he puts into it.
Once, he remembers, someone sent him, from abroad, a foot-long camera with a broken lens, and he had no idea what the broken part even looked like originally. “I just designed a part on my own,” he says. “And later, when I saw a new camera of the same model, I realised I had made an exact copy of the original!”
To make (and break) parts that he needs, Shrestha uses several tools. There are some those are easily available like screwdrivers and glue (“It’s a must!” he says). Then there are the more sophisticated ones like soldering irons and wires.
“You may need new tools and instruments every day, you never knew existed,” he says. “New models come out so often, and if you don’t adapt yourself to changing times, you will be left behind.”
It is this attitude of leaning that has let Shrestha transition easily from the age of film cameras to digital cameras. “Only the mode of storage is different after all,” he says “the basic principles of the camera are the same.”
For someone who knows so much about camera and photography, Shrestha does not take very many photos. “I take just the occasional one at parties or picnics,” he says. And yet, he believes that repairing cameras is not just about the mechanics, but also about the art of photography. He reads the monthly magazine Better Photography to learn more about his trade.
“It has information about different models of cameras and how to handle them,” he says. “It has really helped me, over the years, in my work.”
Despite Shrestha’s theoretical grounding in cameras, a lot of his work is still intuitive.
“Sometimes, you just ‘know’,” he says when asked how he manages to keep track of all the tiny parts that make up a camera. “If the screw is small and the hole is large, naturally it’s not going to fit! A lot of it is common sense, trial and error!”
This trial and error still continues for Shrestha even after more than two decades of focusing only on cameras. “I am still learning,” he says.
With that, there seems little hope that the next generation of photographers will find someone who is as dedicated as Shrestha to the craft because not many would want to be at the trial and error phase two decades into their profession.
And Shrestha does not help when he says that it is a very difficult craft indeed. “I cannot lecture anyone about this,” he says “I can demonstrate to them but then they will need to practice. They cannot buy the equipment to practice on, it will be too expensive. And I cannot give them the cameras that customers have trusted me with! So it is very difficult for anyone to learn this trade and even more difficult to master it.”
As the tireless learner tells camera enthusiasts that there is no book that will teach you to do all that he does, he goes off into a reverie where he reminisces again about his father’s inventing ideas. And it is easy to pinpoint the source of his creativity.
Photo: Kabin Adhikari/OnlineKhabar
“My father was not educated, and yet he made a machine to make hollow bricks,” says Shrestha. “Back in the days when there were no lighters to light cigarettes, he made pincers through which you could pass current to coals, which you could then use to light your cigarette.” Shrestha laughs as he remembers one unsuspecting person getting an electric shock when they tried to hold the burning coal. Shrestha himself does not invent, but his devoted customers believe he too is an inventor.
“A person who invents a Canon camera understands only Canon, and a Nikon inventor only understands Nikon. But Shrestha understands, diagnoses and repairs all these different brands with his creative instincts, that is equal to any invention,” says one.
As Shrestha’s eyesight diminishes and memory fades, he has just one wish: To write a book about his experiences, right from the guccha soda days to his winning the award at Photo Kathmandu this year. Hopefully, when he writes it, a new generation of camera enthusiasts can learn his craft. Until then, the cameras of Kathmandu are safe in the hands of a soft-spoken 62 year old, who wants nothing but to immerse himself in his tiny workshop winning his client’s trust, one by one.