The son of a Belgian diplomat, Tomas van Houtryve spent much of his childhood in California. Initially a student in philosophy, he discovered his passion lay in photography while enrolled in an overseas study program in Nepal. After graduation, he started his photographic career in Latin America. He returned to Nepal in 2004 to document the growing Maoist rebellion.
Van Houtryve has photographed conflict and human rights issues in some of the most inaccessible places on earth, from North Korea to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He has received numerous international awards for his coverage of global contemporary issues including the Visa pour l’Image City of Perpignan Young Reporter Award, Second Place Pictures of the Year International Magazine Photographer of the Year, and most recently, an Alicia Patterson Fellowship.
Solo exhibitions of his work have been shown in France and Italy, and his pictures appear regularly in leading international publications, including Newsweek, the New York Times Magazine, TIME, GEO, Stern, Le Figaro Magazine, Le Monde, and National Geographic.
Tomas van Houtryve
A desire for equality, freedom, and dignity surfaces in all societies. This is especially true in Nepal, where poverty is deeply entrenched, and where until recently the political system resembled the reigns of medieval Europe. For more than 50 years, various attempts at democratic and socialist reforms in Nepal ended in disappointment. Then in 1996, a band of rebels inspired by the teachings of Mao Tse-tung declared the beginning of the “People’s War.” Villagers, who had lived for generations under a feudal caste system controlled by kings considered the reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, were now rounded up and marched to propaganda programs to learn Marxist-style equality.
When I first visited Nepal as a student in 1997, I was captivated by the Himalayan panoramas and Eastern spirituality. But I quickly saw the darker side of this society, in which women and “untouchables” were denied education, political rights, and social status. By the time I returned to Nepal in 2004, the Maoist guerrilla movement had spread across the country and unnerved the ruling elite. Their camps were hidden in the rural hinterlands. They usually attacked at night, capturing police outposts with swarms of peasant soldiers brandishing ancient rifles. My curiosity about the rebels was driven by empathy for their proclaimed desire to uplift the subjugated masses, and tempered by trepidation and skepticism of their communist tactics.
Initially, I set out into the rebel-controlled territory on my own. With knowledge I had gained as a student, I eventually penetrated the underground movement. Up through 2008 I dedicated most of my energy to documenting the conflict in Nepal.
In 2006, the revolution switched from guerrilla warfare in rural areas to violent street protests in the cities. Mainstream democratic political parties, which the king targeted in his crackdown on dissent, ultimately formed a tenuous alliance with the Maoists. Their strategy was to dislodge the monarchy through mass street protests. The joint movement worked, and in 2008 the country finally held democratic elections. The results ended over two centuries of autocratic rule by abolishing the monarchy, and dissolved the communist insurgency that had killed more than 12,000 people.
—Tomas van Houtryve, September 2009