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Today we have a guest post by Samantha Oulavong (founder of LOVE – Lens Of Vision & Expression) who shares some of her inspiring story of using photography to make difference in the lives of underprivileged children. While this post might not be one of our normal ‘how to’ tutorials I think it’s an amazing example of someone using the medium of photography to make the world a better place. Please check out Samanthas work and if you have the resources it’d be great to see DPS readers support as I know they accept donations to the cause.
Everyone who has ever been interested in photography might have seen or heard of the movie called, “Born Into Brothels” and how the photographer Zana Brinski transformed the lives of the children of Calcutta through the art of photography. That movie transformed my life. Humanitarian work has always been something that I was interested in. After hurricane Katrina tested the wills of Americans across the continent, I read about an art teacher that went to New Orleans from the east coast to do art with the children living in the stadium during her spring break. As an art teacher myself, I remembered thinking that I wish I could do something like that.
After receiving my master’s degree in art education, I started traveling to France to study painting and French. While waiting for my flight in Milan for my first trip to France, I met a director of a non- for- profit organization who works with children in Nicaragua. It was like a wish come true to have met her, so I told her we should keep in touch.
Two years later, I won a grant from Best Buy after explaining to them how I integrated technology in my art classroom. I got enough money to buy digital point and shoot cameras and necessary supplies to teach my middle school digital art students. “Born into Brothels” kept haunting me. After crying and sobbing with the children’s stories, I knew I had to do something. I remembered the lady I met in Milan a couple of years ago and emailed her, sharing with her that I would love to do a photography workshop with her children. After months of exchanging emails and planning, I was on my way to work with the children in Nicaragua. But before leaving to Nicaragua for the summer, I enrolled myself in an independent study course at a local community college to learn more about social documentary photography with an instructor I had from my first digital photography class.
I brought all eight digital point and shoot cameras with me for the eight children that I would be working with. The warmth and love that was shown to me by the Nicaraguan children was incredible. I had all female students and one male. I was worried about him because he was the only male student and thought perhaps he might not last through the rest of the workshop because of it. He surprised me by being the first student to meet me and I noticed how he absorbed everything I taught him like a sponge. I showed the children, “Women Photographers at National Geographic” a book that my professor gave me to study and to help the children make a connection to photography I shared with them some examples of other Nicaraguan social documentary photographers work as well.
The organization got some donated computers and laptops, so I was able to teach the children how to edit their photos using a very simple program call Picasa, downloaded from Google’s website. The look of surprise and joy from the children as they see their photos being transformed by adding a slight contrast was worthy of celebration. As we journeyed and celebrated their progress together within the six weeks, I can see how the workshop has slowly transformed them. I posted their work on flickr and shared with the children all the kind words of encouragement that everyone was leaving for them. They beamed with pride and giggled as we tell them what was being said about their work.
Through critiques and positive reinforcements, the children went from being passive listeners to active learners. They were eager to express their thoughts and ideas about their own work as well of each other’s. It was exciting to see them coming out of their shells and verbally expressing themselves in regards to the issues that surrounds them and the images that they have captured through their photography.
The only boy in the group shone like a star. At the end of the workshop, everyone was asked by the director to share with me what they have learned from the workshop. While everyone was mentally preparing what they wanted to say, I noticed that he had his head on the table. When it was finally his turn, he looked up and everyone saw the tears in his eyes. He shared with us how much photography taught him about the world and how it made him look at the world so differently. He went from wanting to be a policeman when he grows up to wanting to be a photographer!
I did some promotional work for the donors of the organization and started documenting the lives of the children as well as their community. By now everyone thought my work was brilliant. I could hardly believe it myself because I know it is not. When I came back to the U.S. and showed everyone my work through flickr, all of a sudden, I had so many people emailing me and asking me how they could help my work and the organization in Nicaragua.
Somewhere around this time I started thinking about non-for profit organizations and how they were run. I had a vision in mind in which I could work with other non- for- profit organizations who works with marginalized children. My job would not only be to work with the children that they work with, but to help the partnered organization earn funds and draw attention to their work as well by documenting the work that they do through my photography. That was how I came up with LOVE_Lens Of Vision & Expression, a non-for-profit organization that works with marginalized children by giving them a voice through the art of photography.
I continued to share with my flickr friends and contacts what my hopes and dreams were for my non- for- profit work and the overwhelming response I received was amazing. I went back to Nicaragua during my winter break to deliver the books that I have made of the children from my first workshop. I was also on a mission to meet with the director of ProNica to discuss a project I wanted to do with the children from La Chureca, Managua’s landfill. The director of ProNica loved the idea of having me work with the children so it was agreed that I would return to Nicaragua during my spring break.
When spring break finally arrived in April, I flew out to Nicaragua right away. I visited the landfill for the first time on my second day in Nicaragua. The sight I saw before my eyes made me sick and horrified at the conditions in which the children and the residents were living. They were living on rubbish and garbage. The odor and stench was awful. I saw a little girl wearing a ragged t-shirt with dirt and grime covering her face coming towards me to take me by the hand to show me her house. I wanted to cry when I saw her little sister who was even dirtier than her chewing on this grime covered plastic toy. I saw a couple of boys, who would be my students, swimming in the pond with garbage floating everywhere.
The week that I spent with my students from La Chureca convinced me that this is what I was meant to do all along. The pride and the confidence displayed by these children through my praises and critique of their work made my physical discomfort of being in the heat and stench of the landfill meaningless. I met so many wonderful children from the La Chureca. There was David, my reluctant student, who quit my workshop before it began and then there was Wilfredo, a glue sniffer. The connection that was made through the sharing of their photos and having the freedom express their thoughts and opinions all of a sudden made them feel significant and not just children from the dump, but young artist-photographers, creating art with a purpose.
Shortly after quitting the workshop, David came around the second day and asked if he could join us. I gave him another chance even though I did not have any more cameras for him to use. I did not approach him this time he approached me, so it was obvious that he wanted to learn so I gave him another chance. We were both glad that he came back because his photography is just amazing. He worked hard to get his images and even though I could barely understood what he wanted to say, he lets me know in his own way that he respected and appreciated me by tapping me on my shoulder if he was leaving to go help his parents in the landfill or sometimes just to say hi as he was walking by.
Out of all the children that I have worked with in the group, I believed Wilfredo had the hardest life. When I first saw him from the corner of my eyes, I knew he was different. Even though I had no more cameras to give, I asked him if he would be interested in learning to tell stories with photographs. I have been warned by the director ProNica that the children who are sniffing glue are not very reliable and that I will take chances if I were to give them anything of value. I thought to myself that it is just a $5.00 disposable camera, something that I can easily replace if it was lost or stolen, but the opportunity that I am giving him is priceless by comparison. I was glad that I took the chance because the images that Wilfredo captured were as raw as they come. Due to the hardship of his life, his images have more maturity to them compared to the other students’ photography.
I left there feeling good about my work and overwhelmed by the task before me. I did not know what to do with the children’s work besides creating an album for them through iPhoto and contacting galleries in United States to display their work. A few days later, I got an email from a gallery owner in Nicaragua who had been following my blog since I started this photography workshop with the first group of children. He told me he would like to display the students’ work at the cultural center in Granada, Nicaragua, to help LOVE raise funds to help these children.
Everything worked out and we were able to have our first exhibition of the children’s work displayed at the Associones de Promotores de la Cultura, in Granada. The most surprising response was from one of my students, Flora. The look of shock on her face as she witnessed her own photographs being displayed and all the guests coming in to see her work and her friends, I saw overwhelmed her. She hid herself from the crowd in the corner and when I finally approached her I asked her what her thoughts were and all I got from her were tears streaming down her face. I asked one of the younger college girls to translate for me so that I could understand why she was crying, but we did not get anything out of her. Yet to see the way they smiled and glowed with pride as reporters approached them and asking them questions about their work, made me felt like I had accomplished something special.
A week after the exhibition, I flew out to Cambodia to work with another grass root non- for- profit organization that works with children whose lives were affected by AIDS/HIV virus. Just like Nicaragua, I did not know what to expect, but I got my Lonely Planet guidebook for Southeast Asia with me and that was all I thought I needed. What did not know was how it will forever affect me and my future plans. My workshop with the children from the Boeung Kak Lake slum and the intimate conversations I had with them at their homes and families brought me closer to their plight and their stories. These children are either from single-family homes because their father passed away from AIDS or they are living with both HIV positive parents.
Kosal, one of my students is 17 years old and had to drop out of school a the 7th grade because he lost his father to AIDS and had to work as a parking attendant to support his mother and grandmother. He is unbelievably talented. After I showed them Sebastiao Salgado, Henri Cartier Bresson, and a Cambodian native, Dith Pran’s work, he was trying as hard as he could to capture what they have captured, trying to tell stories with his photography through careful observations of his environment.
It is heartbreaking to see that such a talent existed, but would have gone unnoticed if Kosal were never given the opportunity. Through the help of a flickr contact, who contacted John Vink of Magnum photo, Kosal was able to attend a photography workshop for photojournalists at the National AIDS Conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia this September. It is moments like this that makes me proud to do the work that I do. It is about giving these children opportunities, and their sharing of their work and stories with the rest of the world so that they can inspire those who have seen their images to take actions.
Just like in Nicaragua, I networked as best as I could while I was in Cambodia. Through my networking, I was able to pick up some freelance jobs for a big non- for- profit organization in Cambodia. I told the organization that I will not charge them for my service, but in the end they paid me anyway and sponsored my first solo exhibition in Phnom Penh.
The photography exhibition was a surprise. I was searching for a place to do an exhibition of my Cambodian students work for the next year and the curator told me that if I have work available, they have the gallery space would be open in about a week for two weeks. I just could not pass up the opportunity to spread words about my non-for-profit work in Cambodia, so with haste and much luck, I was able to put the show together.
I got press coverage from Voice of America Cambodia, a radio talk show and the following day, the reporter interviewed my Cambodian students about LOVE and how it affected them. The program officer of the organization I worked with was there with the children during the phone interview and he said, out of all them, Kosal had the most to share about how photography changed his life. He like my other Nicaraguan student went from wanting to be a car mechanic to wanting to be a photographer when he grows up.
I am making plans to return to work with my Cambodian students and reach out to more underserved populations in Southeast Asia for the coming summer. But before I do that, I am planning what projects I am going to be doing with the HIV positive orphans at an orphanage in Haiti for my two weeks winter break in December, 2008. Unlike all the other non-for-profit organizations that I have worked with, this one will touch me in a different way. Instead of spending just a few hours of my day with the children, I will be living with these children in the orphanage.
I am not sure how to fund all of this, but I have been blessed with so many flickr contacts who have been giving generously to my cause. I started raising money to help Indradevi Association, the non-for-profit organization that I worked with and their drive to support the children’s education. So far we have made close to $800.00 already. I am starting my own photography business to pay for my expenses and who knows where that will go. As a teacher, I am getting my students, their parents and the rest of my school involved in reaching out to children from other parts of the world through fundraising events.
I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with so many young people and to be able to influence their lives through photography. All I ever wanted was to teach, travel, photograph and influence lives as I travel, and I feel like my dream is becoming more and more of a reality than ever. I still have yet to master the art of photography, but as I teach my students, I am learning and growing with them.
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