6sqft’s ongoing series The Urban Lens invites photographers to share work exploring a theme or a place within New York City. In this installment, Leandro Viana presents his ‘Sherpas’ project, a series centered on the Sherpa community of Elmhurst, Queens. Are you a photographer who’d like to see your work featured on The Urban Lens? Get in touch with us at [email protected].
Queens is the second-most populous borough in New York City with well over two million inhabitants. Queens is also New York City’s most diverse borough, boasting a population that is nearly 50 percent foreign-born with individuals hailing from over 100 different countries. In all, there are around 500 different languages spoken, some of which can be traced back to the most remote corners of the world. And within this cornucopia of culture are the Sherpa people.
While the word Sherpa for many will recall scenes of mountaineers scaling the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, in recent years, more and more Sherpas have planted their flags in the much more level neighborhood of Elmhurst, Queens. Indeed, today there are nearly 3,000 Sherpas living in New York City, making for the largest population outside of South Asia. Ahead, Brooklyn photographer Leandro Viana shares his series documenting this unique group in their new land, spotlighting their efforts to preserve their language, religion, culture, and arts so far from home.
Where did the idea for this series come from?
Since I moved to New York I’ve been documenting communities of immigrants in the city, mostly Latin Americans and Asians. How these communities keep their culture alive in a different environment is one of the questions of my work. I was always interested in Buddhism and when I discovered this Sherpa temple [The United Sherpa Association] in Queens, I decided to start a project about this culture. It’s been a great way to learn more about something I knew very little about.
What has the interaction been like between you and your subjects? Are they happy to have their photos taken?
First of all, I’m careful to maintain respect for the people and the culture I’m photographing. Although they live in NYC, these people have different backgrounds and showing my respect along with my interest in their culture, makes both sides comfortable in sharing their experiences. I think there is always a pleasure and a pride in showing your culture to someone, and this is what I feel when I photograph them.
Can you explain some of the rituals or celebrations that you’ve photographed?
The rituals are basically prayers. I’ve been documenting the Sherpa community in NYC which is basically a Buddhist community. The religion is also a good way to keep the community united. These religious centers, in this case, a former Catholic church transformed into a Buddhist temple, is a meeting point for almost all the Sherpas in NYC and the cities around.
I’ve twice had the opportunity to photograph the Buddha Jayanti, which is the time when they celebrate Buddha’s birthday. After a prayer ceremony at the Sherpa temple, there was a Peace Parade around Jackson Heights–Elmhurst, where the temple is located. People from different communities actively participated in the parade and the formal celebration program.
The Losar is also another celebration I’ve documented. It means New Year in Tibetan and is celebrated by Nepalese, Tibetan and Bhutanese people.
What are some of the most interesting things you’ve learned photographing the Sherpa community?
I’ve always been interested in Asian culture and Buddhism, especially after a trip I took to India and Nepal I did a couple of years before moving to the USA. I think this is one of the reasons I approached the Sherpas here. It is incredible that there is such a specific ethnic group of one of the most beautiful regions of the planet living in New York. Kindness and respect are two attributes that I really appreciate from this community.
All images courtesy of the photographer, © Leandro Viana
- The Urban Lens: Will Ellis explores the relics and ruins of Staten Island’s remote edges
- The Urban Lens: Chaz Langley captures the people and places that make Chinatown tick
- More from 6sqft’s Urban Lens photo series
Tags : leandro viana
Neighborhoods : jackson heights-elmhurst