The Georgia Straight
Arts - March 17, 2005
Photos Connect Kids World
by Guy Babineau
Guy Baineau is a journalist, story consultant for
TV and published author. His fiction and articles have appeared in The
Georgia Straight, The Globe and Mail, Descant, The Canadian Forum, AZURE:
Design, Architecture + Art, Xtra, on CBC Radio, and elsewhere. He is currently
living in Vancouver, B.C.
Alan Slickpoo III is one busy fellow. In
his home in Idaho, he has been learning the traditional Native American
dances of his Nez Perce forebears. Not bad for someone who’s only
18 months old. Not to be outdone, over in southern Ethiopia, Rufo—age
seven and a heartbreaker-to-be if ever there was one—makes a fetching
fashion statement by piecing together her own frock from colourful scraps
of cloth, accessorized with indigenous jewellery. Meanwhile, out on the
Mongolian taiga, three-year-old Bat Dalai is learning how to ride reindeer
so that next year, at the ripe old age of four, he’ll be able to
help his family herd them for milking.
Alan, Rufo, and Bat are just three of the subjects in Bridges to Understanding,
a powerful exhibit of limited-edition photographic prints of children
from Ethiopia, Kenya, Peru, Indonesia, Tibet, Mongolia, America, and India
by Seattle-based Phil Borges. They’re on display at the Diane Farris
Gallery until next Saturday (March 26). Bridges to Understanding is also
the name of a project and Web site that Borges runs to teach photography
and computer skills to teenagers around the world so that they can share
their stories with each other on-line using text, digital photographs,
The images in the new exhibit represent a natural progression for Borges,
whose considerable portfolio includes three books of collected photos:
The Gift; Enduring Spirit, with an introduction by novelist
and short-story writer Isabel Allende; and Tibetan Portrait: The Power
of Compassion, produced in collaboration with the Dalai Lama. The
first thing that strikes you about these captivating silver-gelatin prints
is how succinctly Borges has portrayed the individual personality, cultural
identity, and, most importantly, the dignity of each subject, with a visual
impact that packs a wallop on several levels: emotional, political, and
aesthetic. All of the subjects dominate the photographs, selectively tinted
to create a sense of prominence against backgrounds that instantly sum
up a sense of time, place, and culture.
Children are the world’s most oppressed group of people. They are
variously treat ed as property, indentured labourers, prostitutes, and
marketing commodities, and in super- rich Canada and America, our attitude
toward them is summed up by the fact that one in five live in poverty.
But the young people in Borges’s photographs aren’t victims.
No heart-tugging sweatshop photos here. These are seemingly kids in control,
and they have something to say.
That, in a nutshell, is the basis for the Bridges to Understanding project.
Nonprofit and operated by volunteers, Bridges to Understanding sends “mentors”
to American urban centres and indigenous communities around the world.
They help students learn photography and create stories using images,
which they can then exchange digitally with new friends around the globe.
“We teach workshops, but in the process
we all learn together,” says Borges by phone from his home on Mercer
Island. In less than 24 hours he’ll be leaving for a month-long
visit to Afghanistan and Bangladesh to continue his work. “We’re
updating our site and beta-testing it. Things are pretty busy.”
The project is gaining momentum. So far, kids from a number of U.S. communities
are participating, including a Navajo reservation and an Inuit village
in Alaska, along with students in Peru, Kenya, Nepal, and India. On the
Web site, the apprentice photographers post slide shows with audio commentary
about their cultures and daily lives, along with photo galleries and personal
bios. Forums allow kids half a world away to "chat".
The best way to describe the information on this site is revelatory. Take
Tsering, for example, a 16-year-old who lives in the Dharamsala Tibetan
Children’s Village in northern India. He speaks three languages—Hindi,
English, and Tibetan—loves Indian food, is a Buddhist, and his “most
important possession” is the Dalai Lama.
“What is the meaning of the Dalai Lama?” 15-year-old Halima
in Kenya wants to know. She speaks four languages: English, Kiswahili,
Arabic, and Giriama. (Most of these relatively poor kids from developing
countries speak a minimum of two languages, while the majority of their
American counterparts speak only one.) Halima’s favourite food is
chapati, she’s a Muslim, and her most important possession is her
“What’s Kenya like?” asks 12-year-old Ingrid, who lives
in the San Juan Islands. She’s a Christian, and her most important
possessions are her animals.
From shopping in Katmandu, to a day in the life of the Tibetan Children’s
Village, to ice fishing in Alaska, to coral mining in Kenya, a plump gallery
section of digital documentaries is rich with storytelling that adults
as well as kids can learn from.
Borges admits that his volunteer-based organization is going through growing
pains and needs sponsors and more mentors. Swing by the gallery for a
look at his seductive photographs and you may find yourself signing up.
Georgia Straight, 2005
Lucie Awards, 2003
OC Metro, 2003
New Horizons for Learning,
The South Asian, 2001
National Post, 2000
Common Ground, 2000
The Telegraph, London,
About Phil Borges
Alan Slickpoo III, age 18 months, Lewiston,
Idaho (Nez Perce, Yakima)
age 7, Yabelo, Ethiopia
Dalai age 3, Tsaatan Camp, Mongolia