THE BEGINNING OF FOLLOW YOUR ART
It was May of 2006 and I had just graduated from the undergraduate photography program at the San Francisco Art Institute in California when I decided I needed to travel a bit before figuring out what I wanted to do with THE REST OF MY LIFE (cue the "impending doom" music). I got connected through friends with a non-profit children's hospital in Siem Reap, Cambodia where I aptly traveled to and was quickly asked to act as an art therapist for the many children living at the facility. I didn't know what art therapy was or what an art therapist did, but I had an idea and that was all. I began by following the other art therapists' leads (both local women). I made origami with the children, painted ceiling tiles, played games, colored pictures, taught them (and their parents) to make various crafts, among other things. I was asked, early on, to sit at the bedside of a young man who had been at the hospital for months and had never spoken a word to anyone - not even the nursing/doctor staff. He was around five years old and had no family at the hospital with him. His name was Bun Chin. He was malnourished with progressive AIDS. I spent days upon days sitting at his bedside trying to engage him in any kind of activity, but he continued his previous behavior of simply lying in bed while rubbing his emaciated belly. After a few weeks of trying to work with Bun Chin every morning, I decided to rub his belly for him. It took me a while to feel comfortable enough to do so, and when I finally did, he welcomed the touch. For a while, that was the extent of our relationship. Then one day, it was as if a light bulb went off in my head (yes, it really took me that long to figure it out). I thought to myself, "Why don't I bring in my digital camera and see if Bun Chin responds to that?"
The next day, I brought my large Canon 5D into the hospital. I really hadn't tried to photograph in the hospital at that point because I was still learning the Khmer language and was trying to gauge correctly when I would no longer be a foreigner imposing, but instead, someone the families were acquainted with and could trust. Bun Chin was the one who made that decision for me. I sat at his bedside with this monster of a camera, pointed it towards myself (I didn't want to terrify him right away) and took a picture. I showed him the LED screen on the back of the camera with the recently taken photograph prominently displayed. He smiled. I had been working with Bun Chin for weeks and I had never seen him smile. I didn't even know he had teeth. He did. The rest of my time at the hospital was spent photographing with the children. Bun Chin ran around like a caffeinated school boy taking pictures with my big camera all day long and I bought about 20 disposable cameras for the other children to use from a small photo hut set up in the main city. It was nearing the end of my time in Cambodia when I instructed my very first photo-literacy project with the children. The project was called "A Day in My Life," and cameras were given to 10 children who were, at that time, living in the hospital. They had the cameras for 24 hours straight before I collected them and made prints to put on the hospital wall. One day after I displayed the prints for all the children and staff to see, Bill Clinton walked through the front doors of the hospital. Not only did he fund the "AIDS Outreach Program" at the hospital for the following ten years (which is what allowed Bun Chin to go home to his family and still receive care), but he also saw the photo project on the wall.
It meant a lot to me that he saw the project and gave me positive feedback on it. But more than that, the moment I saw that smile on Bun Chin's face when he saw the screen on the back of my digital camera, I felt something inside of me change. Finally, photography was no longer all about myself and my photography and what I was trying to say. It was something more...something so much more. It changed the course of my life forever. My time spent in Cambodia is how the Follow Your Art program began 6 years ago. Since that time, I have conducted photo-literacy projects with adults and adolescents dealing with addiction problems, elderly alzheimer's patients, elementary-aged students in an urban school in central Florida, and with children living in a hostel within their school in northern India. It was my experience in Northern India which prompted me to focus the visual art literacy work on children living in under-served communities around the world. Much of this work can be viewed at www.photo-literacy.com as well as many more personal experience stories.
CURRENT PROJECT - HAPPY HOME ORPHANAGE - POKHARA, NEPAL
Currently, the Follow Your Art program is seeking to raise awareness and funding for our next initiative at Happy Home Orphanage in Pokhara, Nepal. We are looking to raise $4,000 for equipment and various materials. We work without any kind of pay or compensation, so every bit helps us to help the children. Please donate what you can, if you can, and if you cannot, please help raise awareness about the program by sharing it with family and friends or on facebook, twitter, or any other social networking site. Thank you so much for taking the time to read about this program and this particular project at Happy Home Orphanage in Nepal.