Omar Havana

Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova

  Born in 1975 in Madrid, Spain, Omar Havana has been pursuing his dream of photography since the age of 23. In 2009 he committed to becoming a photojournalist. Since then he has traveled to over 60 countries and published extensively in international media. Covering stories in Spain, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Libya, Egypt, Nepal and Cambodia. Omar’s work has been published in National Geographic, Paris Match, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, The BBC, The Financial Times, ABC News Australia, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN and The Atlantic, amongst many others. A partial list of outlets that published his images from Nepal can be found at the end of this biography.

Omar has also collaborated with many international NGOs, including Handicap International, Amnesty International, Heifer International, Action Aid Greece, International Medical Corps, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, WaterAid Nepal and the International Federation for Human Rights, among others.


SB. What happened on April 25th, 2015 and where were you?

OH. On April 25th, I was sleeping at home as I was editing photos until late the night before. I lived on the sixth floor of a 12 story building and my wife shook me awake, shouting. The house was moving violently. When I tried to walk I fell on the floor. We sat on the floor for seconds, without knowing what happened until my wife realized what it was and shouted, “it is an earthquake.”

So we raced down the stairs, leaving my cameras and my phone. As the walls shook and buckled around us, neighbors joined us on the way down and out onto the street, where we realized the magnitude of the catastrophe. People were crying all around us. We realized we would want to call family. So, like a fool, I went up again to grab my phone, my cameras and some clothes, while the building was still shaking. I wasn’t thinking clearly at that time.


SB. In the chaos of the earthquake which instinct prevailed: to save your own life and those of your family members or to photograph?

OH. I immediately thought to save my wife and myself. I did not even think about photographing in the first few minutes while escaping the building but, as soon as I hit the streets, the first thing on my mind was my camera that I left upstairs in the shaking building. So I went back for it and my phone. During the days after the earthquake I took unnecessary risks again and again, as I entered damaged buildings to get a better angle, or climbed on debris that started to collapse around me. But during the first 30 minutes my only thought was my wife.

My wife was with me and we escaped together, so once I was sure she was safe and I had retrieved my phone, I called my relatives in Europe to tell them we were okay and then we immediately called our friends in the area to find that all were safe.

Our home was badly damaged. The building would be declared uninhabitable by the government. But on the first day I filed my photos from the house, while aftershocks were still hitting Kathmandu. The city was in chaos so we decided to go back to our house to see if the Internet was working, as my priority was to send photos of the disaster to my agency, Getty Images. Once again we were not thinking about the consequences and, once again, I feel now that it was foolish to put our lives in danger by returning to a badly damaged 12 story building to submit my photos. When we entered, we realized how badly our apartment was affected, all the walls were cracked,everything in the house was broken. Only a few bottles of whisky and wine survived, so we grabbed them and we went to sleep on the streets with our colleagues from the Associated Press (AP) and Reuters.
 
KATHMANDU, NEPAL - APRIL 25: Emergency rescue workers and bystanders find a survivor in the debris of Dharara tower after it collapsed on April 25, 2015 in Kathmandu, Nepal. Minutes after the earthquake hit Nepal, teams of volunteers and response units started working trying to find survivors covered under the debris of collapsed buildings in the historic area of Kathmandu. Photo by Omar Havana / Getty Images

SB. What happened in the next days? What did you witness?

OH. During the days immediately after the earthquake I was trying to be everywhere in the city, shooting as many photos I could: going to the hospitals, cremation sites, displacement camps, always with my colleagues from AP and Reuters but also with my wife, who was writing for the international media as well. For three days we slept on the streets, on the grounds of a school. Aftershocks were hitting Kathmandu every 30 minutes, some of them very strong. Food was scarce and communications were down but my mind was only on taking care of my wife and she was doing the same with me and on working as many hours as we could.

Three days after the earthquake, the international media arrived in Nepal and I decided to get out of Kathmandu. Many areas of the city became a circus, where many “colleagues” were doing whatever to get onto front pages, though the majority of them were sharing the pain of the Nepali people. The stories that I discovered during those days really touched me.

I was just thinking to get as close as possible to the people. In this situation photography is secondary. Nepal was my home, a country that I loved and I felt part of. My duty was to be close to the people and not to invade them with my camera: to always respect them. I felt disgusted by what I saw from many colleagues: not respecting the pain of the families and injured people in hospitals or cremation sites. For moments I felt like I wanted to stop being a journalist but realized that there were many other colleagues that are an inspiration, especially the local journalists and photographers who, despite their pain, kept fighting to tell the world what happened in their country. They did the best work of all of us. Photography is not just the image but also the life behind the picture and the stories of the Nepali photographers are by far the most inspiring thing that I have seen as a photographer.


SB. Did the unstable political situation in Nepal affected the recovery?

OH. Yes, definitely. For days the government did not react. Nepal has only one international airport, Kathmandu, and it was overwhelmed. Planes could not land with any reliability. Relief efforts were slowed. It’ still having an effect. No alternatives were developed. The passivity of the Nepali government is a fact.

But Nepal is a country where it’s the Nepali people who take the lead always and, during the earthquake, Nepal became a united family, doctors clearing debris, students helping in hospitals, everybody digging in piles of debris with plates from their homes or whatever they could find to dig with. The response of the Nepali people was the most beautiful thing that I have seen in my life. The beauty of Nepal is not their mountains but their people, an amazing people.

As a foreigner, I am not the person to speak about politics in some else's country ( We have enough awful politicians in Spain to go to other countries to give lessons in “democracy and justice”). It will have to be the Nepali people who speak about their politicians. I won’t go into details, but only say that the country is still waiting to see a penny of the more than four billion dollars pledge by the international community for reconstruction. Actions should speak louder than words but among politicians in Nepal, there are many words but few actions.
 
BHAKTAPUR, NEPAL - April 29: Residents salvage a wardrobe through the roof of their home on April 29, 2015 in Bhaktapur, Nepal. Photo by Omar Havana / Getty Images
SB. How was Endurance born?

OH. Endurance was born little by little, without realizing it. The first nights aftershocks hit the country every 20 minutes. Finally, we had 45 minutes of peace, so we went to sleep on the street. I was hugging my cameras and, when I felt someone touching me, I thought they wanted to steal my cameras. Instead, I looked up to find a woman putting a blanket over me. She said, ”we need to take care of you. You are telling the world what is happening to us.” The women had lost everything but still she was taking care of me. I felt incredible.

The days passed and everywhere I saw incredible scenes of struggle to recover and what surprised me most was people were always smiling. I was inspired by it. I was surprised. I was starting to feel frustration as the attention of the media turned from Nepal to other stories. I felt I needed to do something, so I kept documenting the earthquake for months, only the earthquake and people working to recover and rebuild. I did not do anything else in Nepal. “Endurance” was born while I was trying to understand what was behind the strength of the Nepali people, behind their smiles, behinds their spirit.

SB. Do you have a story or person that still stands in memories from that time?

OH. I have many. I have thousands. Every person that I met is a story to tell. I would be unfair to pick one only from a million stories. But I would love to give credit to all the Nepali photographers, who have done an incredible job, better than mine, better than any other photographer that have been with in Nepal since April 25th.

“Endurance” would be not possible without them and I would love to credit three people here, Navesh Chitrakar, Niri Shrestha and Prasiit Sthapit. “Endurance” is only possible because them. I think all the stories I heard and all the moments that I shared with Nepali people could be summed up with a sentence from an incredible boy that I found in a local hospital, 18 year-old Ramesh Karki, who recounted, “For 12 hours I was under the debris of the guesthouse where I worked. Twelve hours surrounded by 37 friends and colleagues after the guest-house collapsed on us, all were dead except me. I though I will die also. At the moment that members of the Nepali army rescued me, I knew I had lost both of my legs, but I also knew a new life started that day”.

SB. Has this event changed your life in a way?

OH. The earthquake changed a lot of things on me, but I will say that it has been Nepal that changed me, not from the day of the earthquake but since my arrival in October 2014. The beauty of the people of Nepal, their hospitality, everything changed me little by little. I don’t know how to explain this change but, since that day, I wake up everyday searching for the way to become a better person, seeing more and more every day the beauty of the people in this world, being humble, caring more about others, being closer than ever to my family.
As a photographer, Nepal has taught me many lessons, but the most important one is that Nepal has reminded me why I am a photographer, who I am and what I love about photography. For years I have been thinking about money and front pages but this is not who I am. I want to tell stories, be close to people and discover stories that inspire us. Now is time for me to walk that path again. One that that I forgot for years. I just can say thanks to Nepal for everything that it taught me.
 
BHAKTAPUR, NEPAL - APRIL 26: A Buddha statue is surrounded by debris from a collapsed temple in the UNESCO world heritage site of Bhaktapur on April 26, 2015 in Bhaktapur, Nepal. Historic sites in Nepal have been heavily affected, and, according to UNESCO, it is estimated that it could take up to ten years to rebuild most of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Nepal. Photo by Omar Havana / Getty Images
SB. Italian film director Bernardo Bertoluci will write the foreword for “Endurance.” How do you know him? What is the story?

OH. First I would like to say it is an honor to have Bernardo Bertolucci in the book. I have admired him for years. The story is curious. A week after the earthquake, I left Nepal for my wedding in France. After the wedding, I spent a few days in Paris with my wife. One day, I received an email that I did not believe and, minutes after, someone called me. It was Nathalie, Bertolucci’s assistant. She passed the phone to Mr. Bertolucci and we had a beautiful conversation about Nepal and about one of my photos, where a smiling Buddha statue stands among piles of debris. For Bertolucci the image of the smiling Buddha defined Nepal and he wanted to use that photo for a fundraising event in Rome to help Nepal. He had made the film “Little Buddha” in Bhaktapur and Nepal is very special for him. I felt extremely honored and happy to hear what he thought about that photo. It was a beautiful moment form. His humility and attitude are an inspiration for me.

SB. Most of your journalistic work from the earthquake in Nepal was in color but your book is entirely black & white. Why did you make this decision?

OH. First of all, I consider myself a black and white photographer. Nepal is colorful and, to tell the story of Nepal, color must be present. The saturated and vivid colors contribute much o the story of this beautiful country. To shoot in black and white has been a difficult decision after my work has been exhibited around the world in color. But “Endurance” is about feelings, about spirituality, about strength and resilience. I don’t think it needs color to express those subjects. Colors can distract you from seeing the smile on a face. Many people had told me I am crazy to do this, but it is a decision that I thought about for many months and I don regret it at all.

Photography is to risk and I am risking but at the same time I feel proud to do it. I am very happy about the result that I feel could not be achieved in color. Nepal has brought me back to the moment that I started photography and this is who I am as a photographer. This is what I love. This is what I feel. This is how I see and look at things. It’s one things is to cover the news, which of course must be in color, but “Endurance” is not news. It’s about the people. It has been shot with my heart and my heart sees feeling in black and white not in color.
 
BHAKTAPUR, NEPAL - JULY 20: A young boy crosses a square where all the houses collapsed or were destroyed by the earthquake that hit the country on his way to his school in Bhaktapur, Nepal on July 20, 2015. Months after the earthquake, rebuilding is still far from starting. Bhaktapur is one of the historic cities situated in the Kathmandu Valley. The city was heavily affected by the earthquake and hundreds of families lost everything, but life is returning to normality. According to UNICEF, more than 25,000 classrooms in more than 8,000 schools were damaged or destroyed during the earthquake, and thousands of children are still attending schools in temporary learning centres. Photo by Omar Havana

SB. What do you want to accomplish with the publication of Endurance?

OH. I don’t want to accomplish anything personal. In the book it will say “by Omar Havana” but it should say, “Endurance by the Nepali people.” This project was done by them and the credit must go to them. I am just a photographer that likes to tell stories but, without them, which stories could I tell? “Endurance” is a humble way to give back everything than Nepal has given me. “Endurance” is a collection of photographs born from the frustration of seeing the world forgetting about Nepal. “Endurance” is a tribute to what I saw, to the fight of a country rising again. “Endurance” is an attempt to get their stories heard.

I would be happy one day if the Nepali people feel that this book tells the story of the country during and after the earthquake. “Endurance” is book about the lesson of life that the people of Nepal has given after being hit by one of the worst natural disasters recorded and the worst to hit Nepal since 1934. I intend to donate books to schools, libraries and community groups in Nepal, as this book belongs to Nepali people.