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, and sound.
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 treated 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 parents.
“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.