For those who don’t follow me on facebook, I am about three-and-a-half months into my Indo/South East Asia trip. After about two months in India and one month in Thailand, I now find myself in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).
About two months ago I went to the cinema in Mumbai, India one night and saw the Hollywood movie, ‘Machine gun Preacher’. For those who haven’t seen it (I highly recommend you do), it’s based on a true story about a man who spent most of his life making all the wrong choices (crime, violence, etc). There was a turn of events that caused him to turn his life around and long story short, he ends up going to Africa to help protect and care for war orphans.
The movie was excellent to say the least and left a real impression on me. After leaving the theater I got pretty down on myself about my current trip. I was thinking that my trip was entirely selfish and I began to feel guilty. I even started to get down on myself about photography, questioning if the act of photography was selfish and what value it really brought to my life and those around me. The extreme poverty one witnesses on a daily basis in India magnified all this.
However, instead of continuing on a downward mental spiral, I began to think about ways in which I might be able to give back while traveling (as I wasn’t about to pick up an AK-47 and head into Africa like Gerard Butler). I thought about it quite a bit, for quite a while but didn’t really come up with anything that really made me say, “yes, that’s exactly what I want to do to try and make a difference”.
As time went on and I did little things here and there, like spare change for strangers or buying homeless people meals now and then. But it wasn’t until last week that I really figured out how I could use my set of skills to do something different that could make a difference for some of the people I encountered while traveling.
Two weeks ago, my friend Taryn (who I had met in India and decided to meet up with to travel Myanmar together) and I, were exploring a rural fishing village about 45-minutes outside of Ngapali, Myanmar. We got to one area in the village where a bunch of children ran over to us. They saw our cameras and asked us to take their photos. They had a blast posing for the camera and almost held us hostage because they didn’t want us to stop.
Eventually we were invited in by one of the families for Tea. They didn’t speak very much English. Just enough for introductions basically but it was a great experience nonetheless. Before leaving they invited us to return for dinner the next day, to which we accepted.
On our way back to Ngapali I suggested to Taryn that we should try to find a place to have the photos printed and bring them back for some of the kids. The fishing village seemed fairly impoverished and the majority of the people there, most likely had never had photo prints of themselves let alone photos taken.
The next morning we found a place with the help of our hotel concierge, in the next town over that made photo prints. We made a handful of copies and then headed back to the small fishing village.
When we arrived they were extremely happy and excited to see us. We went back to the family who had invited us for dinner. After sitting down we pulled out the photos. The surprise, excitement, joy and appreciation on their faces was indescribable.
They went through the pictures and the daughter of the family that had invited us in, helped distribute the photos to the different children and their families in the village. What really warmed my heart was a few minutes later, a boy came running into the families hut that we were in, out of breath and panting. I had taken a solo-portrait shot of him the day prior, as he seemed really keen on getting one. He had come running to the families’ house to thank us profusely.
This was the point when I realized this is what I want to do on my travels to give back. It’s easy for us to take something as simple as a photo or portrait for granted because growing up we had yearly class photos in school and almost everyone I know had access to a camera, money and a place to get photos developed. Not to mention, in this day and age in the western world, just about everyone has a camera-phone or camera and a Facebook account with enough photos of themselves to fill an autobiographical pictorial.
I think we also take it for granted that a photo is a real keepsake that we can look back on for years. I’m not sure if I could put my finger on what exactly it is, but there is something great about being able to look back at photos of your self, family and friends from the past. Maybe it brings back memories or helps to strengthen your own memories, or simply is a record of your physical growth, which is a beautiful thing. But whatever it is, I think most people would agree, it’s nice to have at least a couple photos of yourself from your past.
So my plan is to purchase a compact photo printer the next opportunity I get (probably in Bangkok as I don’t think I will find one in Myanmar). And travel with the printer. When visiting other rural or impoverished villages I hope to do similar shoots for those who want it (as I do realize not all cultures, societies and people want their photos taken). This also addresses a personal issue I have with photography where I sometimes feel like it objectifies people. I feel this project makes the process of photographing people more of a symbiotic event rather then something solely for one persons gain.