The Failure Way

Months ago, during my time spent producing photography surrounding women empowerment, rights and social issues following the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, I received an unexpected opportunity. A previous classmate, friend and filmmaker, Olaf Blomerus of BLMRS Media Production Company, contacted me to share an upcoming film project he was preparing for. Along with fellow Canadian filmmaker Chris Dowsett, Olaf was planning to interview and film 6 people on the concept of Failure ~ The meaning of it, its impact, outcomes, and its differing shape for each of us as we pursue our individual paths.

He asked if I would participate as one of the 6 people featured in this video documentary series, and I did not hesitate for a moment. I agreed for his crew to come interview and film me upon my return from Nepal to British Columbia, Canada.

We filmed the project in May. Over the course of 3 days and multiple locations that held personal significance, such as my family cabin, my mother’s home and local park I grew up going for walks and feeding the ducks in, I found myself embracing the vulnerability of the experience. I opened up in front of the lens to share not only my passion for documentary photography, and the way in which I grew to embrace this profession and way of life that is truly my life’s calling, but also to share my experience with failure. Failure is something I know well. I’ve known it in many forms, in varying degrees from the kind that can be shrugged off, to the kind that is paralyzing. 

Over the past 7 years I have traveled from Canada to India, Kenya, Tanzania, Nepal, Sri Lanka and back in pursuit and creation as a photographer, a storyteller, a woman with a fierce inner calling that will continue to evolve and take further shape and clarity with each project I complete.  Amidst all of this, there has been failure. I have failed so big at times, in my own mind, that I have put down the camera and tucked away my passport for months, sometimes over a year at a time. 

Post earthquake displacement camps, Nepal 2015. Produced on assignment for Aura Freedom International. Image featured in 'The Failure Way'.

Truthfully, it was not so long ago that there were moments in Nepal and Sri Lanka that I laid awake in darkened rooms in the middle of the night, far from any familiar faces, the fear of failure consuming me. Thoughts of, “Am I really capable of this? Maybe I should just pack up and go home. I’m not cut out for it…What was I thinking?” I laid in cold sweats, feeling very much alone, my feelings intensified by environments full of language barriers, cultural differences and that which constantly challenged my perception of belonging.
These nights of course would inevitably end, and I would awake to emails and written feedback from others abroad and back in Canada ~ An outpouring of positivity, compliments, praise for my work, sincerities of “I wish I could do what you’re doing!” and those asking me for professional advice.

Portraiture series in post earthquake displacement camps, Nepal 2016. Image featured in 'The Failure Way'.

Experiences like this are surreal. I stare at the compliments on the computer screen and I smile to myself, at the irony that someone was seeing me as an inspiration and champion at the very moment I was lying doubtful and fearful in bed, even after almost a decade of doing this work. The perception from the outside, especially through the lens of social media, is that it can look very much like the person who is walking a path you admire is doing so in total confidence, in a state of constant and unwavering joy and fortitude. I know by now that this is not the case, and imagine even those I myself see as pillars of unwavering strength and success have moments where they too, are lying in bed, feeling alone and fearful of failure.

Post earthquake displacement camps, Nepal 2015. Produced on assignment for Aura Freedom International. Image featured in 'The Failure Way'.

I feel immensely grateful for this knowledge and perspective that has been gained only through my own experience. For ‘The Failure Way’, four hours of audio interview were cut down to ten minutes of final film. The cathartic and liberating nature of sharing the details of my own failures, my own fears, the many stops and starts, and stops and re-starts on the journey of my path as a documentary photographer did not all make it into the final cut. Those details, I know, will be shared more publicly in their own time. The final video is, as are all of the videos that have so far been released in the series, a thing of inspiration, power and beauty. The vision of Olaf and his crew leaves me in awe, and I am ever grateful to have been a part of such a creative collaboration.

Microfinance beneficiaries in Kibera slum, Kenya 2012. Produced for Institute of Development & Welfare Services. Image featured in 'The Failure Way'.

I’ve come to a point of accepting that what I deem as ‘failures’ will continue to come, but my ability and capacity to rise up and greet them as teachers have built over time. At the end of the day, the work I am doing is more than worth every second of doubt, fear and failure combined. I really am living what I know is my purpose ~ To be an advocate for others whose stories of physical, emotional, mental and economic challenges deserve to be heard and shared with the world as a call to awareness and most importantly, action. In the sharing of these stories, there lay lessons for each of us. 

As I move forward on the path of this work, I will continue to repeat as a mantra the words that Olaf so appropriately chose to end my episode of ‘The Failure Way’ with. I hear my own words as a reminder and encouragement from past to present self.

Do not be afraid of this’.

Portraiture series in post earthquake displacement camps, Nepal 2016. Image featured in 'The Failure Way'.

{'The Failure Way' full video link: https://vimeo.com/174624609 }

Pheri Bhetaula, Nepal

It’s been two weeks. Two weeks since I boarded the plane to leave Kathmandu, the place I have called home for the better part of the past seven months.

It’s been surreal to think about how exactly to honour such a transcendent experience. I’ve stayed off of social media for the most part since coming back to Canada, intending to post some kind of farewell, something to mark this passage, but everything I’ve attempted to post feels so…small.

Any singular photo or words have felt tiny and incapable of representing what it has felt like to go from the palpable experience of sitting on the hardened earth within the fabric walls of tents in Dhading’s displacement camps in the heat, listening to the stories from the mouths of women who have lost homes in the earthquake, lost family members, have faced challenges and uncertainties of where the next meal will come from, which roof will be over their heads in the coming weeks, months, years. Holding babies at their breasts, sharing singular spaces with four, five, six others who sleep in a huddle beneath shared blankets.

I have gone from bearing witness to this, to awakening under a down comforter upon a memory foam mattress, pushing the button on a Keurig espresso machine that heats the perfect brew for me and digitally displays, ‘Good morning!’ as I stand in a kitchen double the size of the camp tents ~ granite counter tops and warm electric lighting on dimmer switches.

To accept that all of this exists in the same world, and in fact can be experienced back to back for those of us born into privilege, leaves me in a state of disbelief, wonder and passionate curiosity over how to better affect global change in the most effective way.

New intentions and plans are brewing, and while I can’t wait to share more of this moving forward, the first step here & now, is to try and find the words to express my gratitude for the insights, opinions, knowledge, experiences and connections that the past 7 months have gifted me. And so, a few words of tribute, and a fraction of what I carry with me as I’ve left you, dear Nepal…

A moment of silence in the forest. Dhakshinkali, Nepal. (Photo Credit: M. Almozan)

~ The spark of excitement I feel when I flip a switch and the room lights up. Adjusting to the electricity being turned off for 10-12 hours a day was a humbling experience. The joy I grew to feel in Kathmandu upon the kitchen lights actually working when it was time for me to cook dinner is something I will not forget.

~ Being in Nepal during the fuel crisis, when India closed the border to much needed supplies coming into the country, was surreal. Witnessing endless kilometres of lineups of cars, buses, motorbikes waiting days – DAYS – to reach the fuel pump and purchase a few overpriced liters. Let’s all take a moment to revel in the gift of our gas stations being accessible and having the fuel we need at our dispersal. (I hope to remind myself of this the next time I feel the urge to complain about the ‘lineup’ of three cars ahead at the pump)

~ The way I felt when the earth moved beneath me for the first time. It was the smallest tremor, insignificant in comparison to what others in the country had experienced in the April 2015 earthquake…and it still shook me to the core. To question, even for a moment, the security of my foundation, is a feeling I won’t soon forget. A reminder of the fragility and treasure of this human experience.

~ Witnessing cremation on the banks of the water flowing through Pashupatinath temple. I had so many questions about the life this person had lived as the wafts of smoke swirling up from the covered body engulfed me. Things felt calm, peaceful. A mark of transition, rather than an end.

~ The hike to Tallojhyangli village, to visit a school that had been destroyed in the earthquake and was being rebuilt through the efforts of friends I met my first weeks in Nepal. This 8 hour journey on foot, climbing roads and hills that would be impossible for any vehicle to navigate, took absolutely everything out of me. I felt physically incapable of taking another step by the end of the day, and in complete awe of every man, woman and child who walk those same paths daily merely to get to the market or school. I bow down to them, and “too far to walk” is a phrase that now has a whole new reference point for me.

~ Love. Nepal led me to meet one of the most beautiful, adventurous and unconditionally kind men I have had the honor of being with. He became a partner and a champion for all the work I did, and helped to lift me up when I felt defeated and was questioning my ability to move forward. Were it not for his support, I may not have stayed as long as I did. I am so grateful.

~ The displacement camps. What can I even say about my time in these camps that will translate anything comparable to being there? My heart’s capacity has grown immeasurably in the presence of those who I saw living in tents, their homes destroyed and, without government assistance to rebuild these homes, futures uncertain. The resilience and strength that I felt coming from these people is unlike anything I’ve experienced. The ability of the human spirit to move forward in the face of apparent insurmountable obstacles astounds and inspires me.

I will never forget the new mother I met, sitting upon the earth under the flaps of her tent, black smoke from the fire swirling within the small space as she cradled her 3 week old baby. I sensed a vacancy in her eyes and tried to imagine what it might be like to have birthed a new baby and no other option but to bring it ‘home’ to a tent in the dirt. In that moment, I felt an unshakable certainty and fire within me to use my life and my work to help her and other women in her position.

Because I refuse to live in a world where I have been given the beautiful, priceless gift of privilege and empowerment simply by being born in Canada, and to not use that gift to lift others up. We are one. We are one. We are one. My new mantra.

Dhanyabad, Nepal. Pheri Bhetaula. xo

UNICEF Nepal / Child Development Society

In January, Finnish journalist Elisa Ramaila and I collaborated to produce a number of articles focusing upon social and economic challenges relating to the aftermath of the April 2015 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal.  With roughly 2.8 million people displaced and 500,000 homes destroyed, the need for assistance from the local and international community has been vast throughout the past year.

UNICEF Nepal is one of the many organizations that stepped forward to assist those who were affected by the 2015 earthquake through multiple initiatives. Elisa and I had the opportunity to interview and photograph some select families that benefited from the assistance of UNICEF Nepal through Child Development Society, one of their partners.

Lakshmi's family is one of the beneficiaries of Child Development Society's assistance in the form of educational sponsorship. She has been caring for her two nephews since the family lost their house in the earthquake. After the home was destroyed, they lived temporarily in an outdoor tent until it washed away in flooding. The family has since managed to move into a single room brick home, where they are staying near the school that the boys are attending.

Amidst the loss and challenges of the past year, the resilience and bond between these brothers and Lakshmi was evident in their closeness and the boys' smiles throughout mine and Elisa's time with them.

For more information on UNICEF Nepal and their partners, see http://www.unicef.org.np/

To Help Another ~ (Part II)

{This is a continuation from Part I. For story & photos from the initial post, please click here}

I don’t often ask for help. To ask for assistance from others, I typically need to feel convinced that there is no other option. This is not something I’m proud of, as I know with absolute certainty that there is power in community, value in support ~ We can always have a bigger impact on the world through collaboration and helping one another than trying to do it all alone.

But to receive help and support, we need to first ask for it.

Anjika (5), Anu (21) & their mother Phoolmaya.

In September 2015, Anu had been brave enough to ask me, and now I was in turn asking others. After I hit the ‘send’ button on my email to a small number of family and friends, I sat back in my chair, hoping to garner $300 CDN that would keep Anu’s family from being evicted onto the street and allow a month’s time for Anu to find a job to support her family going forward. I sat there picturing them amidst an empty kitchen and eviction on the horizon.

Phoolmaya & Anita (14)

Anita 

Brother Anil (20) watches a tv set given to him by a friend as Anjika plays nearby.

It was less than ten minutes before I began to receive responses through my inbox.

As messages of support and assistance flooded my screen, I was literally moved to tears. There seemed to be nothing in that moment to do but weep in gratitude for such beautiful responses coming forth so immediately. Within the next 24 hours, I would have an account for Anu’s family that held over $1,500 CDN given by 16 dear individuals ~ five times what I had asked for.

To put this into perspective, $1,500 CDN is roughly 105,000 Nepalese rupees. Monthly rent for Anu’s family is 4,000 NPR. I now had in my hands over 2 YEARS of rent for the family. However, with an initial goal of keeping them off the street, I now began to focus upon how this money could best be used for sustainable impact and long-term change for the members of Anu’s family. I wanted more than to keep them off of the street. I wanted to see them thrive.

From the work & research I have done with others in a variety of countries, and through learning from and observing the programs of many non-profit organizations, what I know for sure is this ~ Band-aid solutions of throwing money at a problem or situation does not create lasting change. Absolutely, money is necessary, as it especially was in this case, for immediate relief. But long term and sustainable change comes from something greater ~ From empowerment, belief, education.

Education.

As I looked to Anu’s mother, Phoolmaya, who is illiterate and has a past filled with stories of hardship and limitations, I envisioned brighter futures for Anu and her siblings. Phoolmaya voiced wishes to me for her children to walk a road full of more opportunities and education than her own youth had yielded. Over our many conversations about the future, I confirmed the decision to take the extra money raised and use it to sponsor young Anjika’s education.

Phoolmaya

Phoolmaya & Anjika

The following week, Phoolmaya registered Anjika into a Montessori based school nearby that she had previously wished Anjika to attend, but did not have tuition money for.  In addition to purchasing school clothes, books and supplies, there was enough money from my family & friends’ donations to fund Anjika’s tuition for a full two years. I have since made multiple visits to the school, met Anjika’s teachers and principal, and am thrilled to see her thriving so far, in both Nepali and English studies. She is a bright light, full of joy and eager to learn. 

Anjika (5)

Besides the sponsorship for Anjika’s education, my focus remained on assisting Anu in finding a job so that she could support her family in their living expenses moving forward. Through asking my local friends for suggestions, and a winding road of discussions with Anu about her future, I became further aware of the realities of economic opportunity for women in Nepal. While I saw examples of educated women around me working in established careers, I also took note of the vast number of women selling fruits, vegetables & handicrafts on the street, doing manual labor, working tirelessly in the fields, as housekeepers, or not working outside of the home.

I attended an interview with Anu for a business initiative in the textile industry. Part way through the interview, I learned that by taking this job, Anu would be put through 3 months of local training, and upon completion would be put on a plane to Jordan to work 6 days a week sewing in a clothing factory for a total monthly salary of 20,000 NPR ($280 CDN). As we left the interview, I asked Anu how she felt about this. My heart deflated seeing her try to convince herself and me that this could somehow be an exciting adventure. Sure, she didn’t want to move to Jordan to be inside of a factory day in and out, she expressed, but she questioned what, if any, other options she had. Her demeanor revealed that she felt resigned. I later learned that there are over 2 million Nepalese citizens currently abroad as migrant workers in countries such as Jordan, Qatar, India and Malaysia, in an attempt to support their local families through manual labor, trades and domestic work. 

The prospect of Anu moving to work long hours in a factory for less than $12 CDN a day left me feeling incredibly disheartened and I did not sleep well for days. And then, just as I started to come to terms with the fact that this may actually be the best option available to her, an unexpected opportunity suddenly presented itself. A dear friend of mine whom I had previously told about Anu’s family, referenced Anu for a full time position working for a high profile employer. In Egypt.

The position was as a domestic worker, cooking, cleaning and assisting with events, and for double the salary that Anu had been offered for the factory job. She would be working with a team of other women, have holiday time and shorter hours. In comparison, this seemed like a golden opportunity. The following weeks became a whirlwind, as I would attend an interview with Anu, travel with her outside of Kathmandu to get a passport and her documents in order, go luggage shopping and get everything in order for her move.

The night before Anu was to leave, I went to her family’s home for dinner. We ate rice, dhal and chicken seated in a circle on the beds of the room. Anjika proudly showed off her new school clothes and some of her recent schoolwork. We played music, laughed, talked about how surreal it was that a mere few months ago, we didn’t even know one another.

Now, here we were. 

Anu in her family's home, the last night of our time together prior to her departure for Egypt.

Phoolmaya cooks a dinner for us over a portable propane element.

Anu and Anita help Anjika with her schoolwork.

Anu's family spend the evening together in their home, prior to her departure for Egypt.

Together on her last night before leaving the country and embarking on a new chapter. A new chapter, Anu expressed emotionally, that would not have happened were it not for me, or the people in my life who so graciously stepped forward to help.

As I left the family’s home, I hugged Anu and cried. I cried, overwhelmed by the thought of how quickly she had come into my life and now how quickly she was now leaving. The thought of not knowing when we’ll see each other in person again, and the realization that I have grown to care for her as family.

Then I thought of her words. Her expressed certainty that were it not for my help, or the help of those who I in turn asked, her family would have quite possibly been on the street as I type this. Anjika would not be in the school she is in. Anu would not be in Egypt, making enough money to create a future full of more possibility and stability than she has had before.

And so, what I feel most is thankful. Thankful that Anu sought me out, to ask me for help. Thankful that I acted, that I turned to my close friends and family to ask for their support. Thankful that they responded, and did so in such a generous way that it not only kept a roof over the heads of one family, but also changed the course of education for a young girl whose future is wide open.

This is the power of asking; The power of helping another.

Myself, Anu, Anjika & Anita.

Attending one of Anjika's school events.

A visit to Anjika's new school.

An afternoon together in Kathmandu.

{ Personal note: As written above, thank you to my family members & friends who came forward to assist this family when I asked. I love you. What a difference we can make together. xo }

 

To Bear Witness

An estimated 2.8 million people were displaced following the 7.8 magnitude April 2015 earthquake in Nepal. With over 500,000 homes destroyed, affected families have been living in displacement camps ever since. The winter season & current fuel crisis in Nepal has added to the challenges of every internal refugee here.

I photographed this woman in Alchi Danda camp in the Dhading district 2 months ago. 
Her energy seemed unwavering, her strength felt like that of a fortress. She drew me in.

As I post this, I wonder how she is. I wonder if she is still there; If her tarp which serves as home has kept out the cold at night.

Sometimes it feels as though the work I do, photographing & sharing stories with intentions for spreading awareness & affecting positive change, getting involved in organizations doing influential work, being present & loving for those in crisis...all of it sometimes feels like nothing when I look into these eyes and wonder if the cold in the camp got to be too much; If the wondering where her 'home' would be next became too overwhelming.

As the questions linger, so does a growing knowledge that the intent, form & purpose of my work is evolving. Even amidst sometimes feeling that my contributions may not be enough, I am eternally grateful to bear witness to all I have seen.

Even to sit in the presence of this fortress of a woman was a gift.

To Help Another ~ (Part I)

I met Anu back in late September. I hadn’t been in Kathmandu for long when I received an unexpected message from her one morning via facebook. 

We did not know one another. She had found me through a mutual acquaintance online, had taken note of the local work I was doing as a photographer to empower girls and women, and she reached out.

Her message was one of desperation. She told me her family of five had lost their village home which was completely destroyed in April's 7.8 magnitude earthquake. They were currently living together in a single room apartment in Kathmandu, and were on the verge of being evicted onto the street for lack of rent payments. Could I do anything to help?, she pleaded over multiple messages.

I did not respond right away. My head and my heart wavered between a place of trust, of wanting to help, and a place of fear ~ fear that she was feeding me untruths, that I would be taken advantage of, that this could be comparable to the type of scam you receive over anonymous junk mail, along the lines of ‘please send money’, with no further context or proof. Additionally, the staggering statistics of how many people lost their homes and lives in Nepal's earthquake weighed on me. Having worked and photographed within multiple displacement camps throughout the valley, I knew how many people were in similar (and much worse) situations to Anu's. 

As it always does in the end, my heart won out and I agreed to meet Anu at a local restaurant, along with a Nepalese friend of mine, Raj, who offered to translate and also come along for additional input and perspective.

And so, Anu and I met in person for the first time.

Anu, (21).

She was timid and tiny framed. 21 years old. She brought along her 14 year old sister Anita, even smaller, more frail looking. We sat together and talked as both girls picked lightly at the plates in front of them, shifting from one side to the other, stealing glances at each other as I tried to gather more information about their circumstance. 

They explained that their mother, Phoolmaya, had injured her leg when a piece of their house came crashing down upon it during the earthquake, leaving her unable to continue on with her job as a laborer, breaking stones for concrete. Their father, whom Anu said had exhausted what little resources their family had on alcohol and other vices, had not been seen since the earthquake.

At this point they did not know whether he was even alive.

They had a 20 year old brother who was making some money through ironwork, and a 5 year old sister, Anjika. Rent for the room they were staying in had not been paid since May, and if they did not come up with the money in the coming week, their landlord would evict them onto the street.

Even through all of Anu and Anita’s words, I had my doubts. While it seemed obvious that both girls were malnourished and underweight, they were dressed somewhat nicely (Later on I would note that they wore the same clothes almost every time we met), and I questioned things like Anu’s consistent use of social media through a cell phone amidst her insisting that their family had no money for food in the house.

As we left the restaurant, we made our way to their home. This, I reasoned, would be the best way to really assess what their level of need was ~ To see with my own eyes the conditions they were living in.

The steps inside of the building were difficult to navigate in the dark, and as I held tight to the railing for guidance, the deafening sound of dogs barking through the iron bars behind an alternate set of steps to another floor echoed and bounced through the sparse concrete stairway.

Anu led us to the doorway of their family’s room, directly across the hall from the dogs behind the iron bars, barking and howling loudly against the steps ~ How does anyone in the family sleep? I wondered.

We entered. My eyes took a few moments to adjust to the thick darkness in the room around me. No electricity.

A small flashlight clicked on, and I raised my hands in a greeting of ‘Namaste’ to the person behind the beam of light. Anu’s mother, Phoolmaya, seated in a corner of the room.

I looked around.

Two single beds facing each other against opposite walls of the room. Two single beds for a family of five.

A wardrobe in one corner. A beat up loveseat. Some shelves. A thin fabric mat covered the concrete floor. In the other corner of the room, the kitchen, consisting of a few barren shelves housing a few empty dishes.
More than what was there, my eyes searched for what wasn’t ~ what was missing. A bathroom. A fridge. A sink. Food.

Anu's family within their single room home. Left to right: Anu (21), Phoolmaya (40s), Anjika (5), Anita (14). (not pictured: brother Anil (20).

Another silhouette from one of the beds came to life as 5 year old Anjika shuffled onto the floor by her mother’s feet, smiling and eyes brightening for visitors.

Responding to the lack of food in the room, Raj asked Anu’s mother Phoolmaya what they had been eating recently, to which she responded that their diets for the past few days had consisted mostly of dry noodles.

I took a slow breath, processing, and my eyes moved from the barren kitchen shelves to Anjika’s bright eyes as Raj offered Phoolmaya 1,000 Nepalese rupees ($14 Canadian) to purchase some immediate grocery items.

We left.

Anu and her mother, Phoolmaya.

Phoolmaya spends much of her time inside of the family's room. Her level of activity is limited, as her knee, which she did not receive medical treatment for, continues to heal after being crushed in the earthquake. 

Phoolmaya.

I returned to the house I was currently staying in, opened my laptop in the moonlight streaming through the window. Without a second thought, my fingers moved feverishly, my feelings spilled forth and a message on the keypad to a small number of my closest friends and family members took shape.

My intention was to gather $300 CDN, enough to pay the rent that was owed to Anu’s landlord to keep them from being evicted that week, with enough left over to buy a month’s worth of groceries for the family. In this time, I reasoned to myself, Raj and myself could attempt to assist Anu in finding a job to garner stability and support for her family going forward.

Left to right: Anu (21), Anjika (5), Anita (14), Phoolmaya (40s).

The chain of events to unfold next and throughout the following months would not only be unexpected, but an example of the power we all possess to impact one another’s lives. 

To be catalysts for change and ambassadors of love.

I hit the ‘send’ button.

 

* Further detail on Phoolmaya's full story can currently be seen as published on 'She Is the Story', an initiative of Voices of Women Media *

Thali Displacement Camp ~ Aura Freedom (Part II)

~ Note: This post is the continuation of a previous post following my experience with Aura Freedom International in a post-earthquake camp in Thali, Kathmandu, Nepal. Please see here for the first part of the series.

Upon stepping back out into the sun from the inside of the temporary housing of the camp, I made my way along the short path towards the FFS (Female Friendly Space) for the workshop and empowerment session Marissa was leading for the children and youth.

The theme ~ Dreams.

The energy of this space felt a world away from the inside of the camp’s temporary housing I had been in only moments before. Stepping into the FFS tent, I was surrounded with smiles, laughter and an air of lightheartedness. 

The children engaged as Marissa led them through animated conversation about dreams, the ability to reach for them even through the most challenging of circumstance, and the importance of following them relentlessly. To attend school. To move forward. To hold onto hope for a bright future amidst the losses they have experienced. 

I watched as children began to share their dreams aloud ~ Dreams of being a teacher. A dancer. Dreams of having an abundance of food to eat.

The joy within the tent became palpable as the children received gifts of notebooks, pencils and immersed themselves in a state of togetherness and joy in the present moment.

I thought to myself ~ These women and children have lost their homes. Some have undoubtedly lost members of family and friends.

These children are living in a displacement camp. These children are, in this moment, smiling, energetic, hopeful. 

The women ~ mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters ~ surrounded the FFS and looked on. I observed them in awe.

Upon leaving the camp later on alongside Aura Freedom and Apeiron, I was approached by a woman, placing her hand on my arm and urging me to photograph her.

She looked directly into my eyes not as someone who had lost her home, not as someone staying in a displacement camp or as a victim, but as a pillar of strength.

I saw in her eyes someone defined not by tragedy or circumstance, but by the unwavering will to forge ahead. A testament to the fortitude not only of this woman, but in my mind, to all women. We held each other's gaze for what felt like a long time. I put my hand to my heart, thanking her for the photograph, and made my way slowly out of the camp that she has likely called home for the past five months.

To learn more about Aura Freedom International, their programs and Female Friendly Space initiative, you may visit www.aurafreedom.org.

 

Thali Displacement Camp ~ Aura Freedom (Part I)

Prior to coming to Nepal, I had the opportunity to connect with Marissa Kokkoros, founder of Aura Freedom International. My desire to contribute to and collaborate with Aura Freedom was strong from the moment I became aware of the organization. Their mission is to empower, support and educate women and girls worldwide through grassroots programs and sustainable projects with like-minded organizations. Since the April 25th earthquake in Nepal, their efforts have gone into implementing a roving Female Friendly Space (FFS) that travels to various displacement camps where women can go to report incidents of violence, seek services, be referred to medical or trauma counseling, attend awareness workshops and experience empowerment and safety.

On September 17th, I traveled with a small team from Aura Freedom and one of their partners, Apeiron, to photograph the FFS in one of the displacement camps in Thali, Kathmandu. 

Stepping out of the sun into the stone building in which several tarps and tenting were set up as temporary housing within the camp, my eyes took a few moments to adjust to the darkness within. As I tread forward on the dirt floor, my body was engulfed in a stagnant heat far beyond that of the sun outside. Within minutes I was soaked through from the humidity within the stone walls. The heaviness of the air almost unbearable, I wondered how those in the camp were able to sleep through the night in such conditions. 

As I was granted time to wander within the maze of tarps, clothes hanging on the ropes lining the corridors and doorways to semi private rooms with families’ belongings piled in heaps and disarray among every corner, my heart grew heavy. As children peered at me around corners of the tarps, smiling at me, curious and vulnerable before my camera lens, my heart grew heavier still.

It didn't feel quite real to be an observer in such a place, to be someone passing through ~ I felt a palpable awareness that I may never understand or relate to what the people under this roof were going through. 

Suddenly, a boy of two or three years old wandered to me as I crouched with my camera in contemplation. His small hands went to my knees as he crouched close towards my lap, and there we sat and stared into one another's eyes, time standing still as I poured sweat, smiling at him as though trying to convince him and myself that this was all ok. Breathing slow, my camera went down.

He reached over and held my hand ~ held it and did not let go.

My heart swelled, my eyes filled, overwhelmed with love for this boy as I held his hand tightly, smiling and staring into his gaze, unwavering, and wanting to take him into my arms and give him everything. A home, a way out of the camp, a secure place to sleep with his family’s belongings not piled up in the corner of a room that felt more like an oven than anything else. 

I wonder what his understanding is of this place, or if he will remember it down the road. I wonder where he will end up, or how long the camp resources will last. I wonder how long he will be here within these walls. I wonder if he will be 'ok' ~ whatever this means.

These are the questions I continue to ask myself tonight as I hit publish on this post.

Late Night Perspective

My arrival into Kathmandu was a whirlwind of long flights and layovers, followed by a late night pickup by the sister of a friend of mine at Tribhuvan airport. After a bit of expected chaos over multiple phone calls with the language barriers between us (I do not speak Nepali and her English is limited), and upon being whisked with she and her husband into a taxi, I was guided to what would be my first home in the city, with a friend’s other sister, Bulu, and her family. I had never met Bulu in person prior to arriving at her doorstep near midnight, and the warmth of spirit and friendship in which I was greeted cannot be overstated.

While the next 24-36 hours of my time within the family home was spent adjusting to a new time zone, humidity and feelings of uncertainty and anticipation that I’m sure any foreigner has upon being in a new country, I found myself also experiencing for the first time staying within a family unit in which little English was spoken, presenting me with the opportunity to connect less through words and more through expression, gesture, energy and feeling. Rather than filling space with conversation, I spent the initial one to two days of my journey sitting in a space of listening (though I of course could not understand what was being said around the dinner table), and of quiet observation. It was in this space that the following experience unfolded before me.

Upon nightfall, the outdoor veranda was filled with the smell of spices, dhal and rice simmering upon the propane stove, and two new family guests had come to stay from the village of Tanahau ~ Bulu’s mother in law accompanied by a dear friend. Both women had come from their village outside of Kathmandu valley to visit, and as neither spoke English, our interactions were of courteous gesture, bowing ‘namaste’ to one another and my smiling and nodding between them as I attempted to integrate myself into Nepali conversations.

Late into the evening, not quite ready for sleep, I decided to open my journal ~ a beautiful welcome gift from Bulu’s family upon my arrival, and pulled a chair onto the veranda to write. As I put my pen to paper in the dim light provided through the kitchen window, I heard the immediate sound of additional chairs being dragged across the stone surface of the veranda as both women immediately dropped their conversation to huddle around me. To watch me write.

I felt taken aback as they leaned over the pages of my journal, intently watching the curves of my pen leaving ink on the paper as I began to record the events of the day. Their hands on one another’s arms, pointing to the words and the pen in my hand, speaking quickly and gesturing in such animation that it took a moment for me to consider and then realize ~ neither of these women can read or write.

It’s so incredibly easy to take for granted the gift of something like education ~ The gift of being a woman who grew up in Canada attending school, learning to read and write from an early age. Literacy statistics for women over the age of 15 in Nepal were at a mere 48% in 2010, with a projection of 55% for 2015. (Statistics pulled from UNESCO Institute for Statistics) While there are numerous global initiatives and organizations working to ensure the education of children in countries such as Nepal (some of these organizations will be profiled on this blog going forward), there are a staggering number of those being denied the world of opportunities that literacy and education opens the door to.

 

And so, as I sat writing some initial thoughts for this post within the pages of my journal as two women unable to read those pages sat and watched me pen every word with unwavering attention and interest, I was left with a renewed awareness of my own good fortune to have been given the gift of education, and of gratitude to put this gift to use towards the advocacy and championing for others to receive the same.

As I lifted my pen from the paper, both women continued to whisper hurriedly to one another while pointing to me, then my journal. I closed the book, smiled and nodded, acting as though I knew what they were saying. They burst into laughter, playfully placing hands on my shoulder and arms of my chair, and we shared in a joke I may never know the meaning of.

Kelowna to Kathmandu

Combining love of photography with love for humanity.

My past experience as a travel and documentary photographer has been a merging of the things that are of the utmost value to me ~ people, connection, education, unity, love. From India in 2009 to Africa in 2012, my time abroad has taken me through physical, mental, emotional and spiritual growth beyond expectation. Joy to sorrow, anger to awe, optimism to realism, resistance to acceptance.

Kacchi Basti Schoolhouse / Sikar, Rajasthan

Kacchi Basti Schoolhouse / Sikar, Rajasthan

Though I felt within my bones years before I stepped onto a plane that my calling was to be a global storyteller, the evolution of stepping fully towards such a calling has not been without its challenges. While this topic alone warrants its own (or several) future blog posts, for now it feels enough to acknowledge that from here now, I can recognize every step forward and step back over the past several years as necessary and beneficial. 

Twaayf Orphanage / Mombasa, Kenya

Twaayf Orphanage / Mombasa, Kenya

On September 7th, I will take the next step towards the continued evolution of this calling, in the form of boarding a plane to Kathmandu, Nepal. Camera in hand and heart open, a focus of my upcoming work will be upon girl and women empowerment and education, both through partnership with a number of grassroots organizations and the execution of personal projects.

Ewaso Ngiro / Mau Narok, Kenya

Ewaso Ngiro / Mau Narok, Kenya

My intention ~ To be present in fostering connection with others, bringing forth love amidst awareness and acknowledgment of cultural, economical and gender based challenges. To bring these elements together into the photographic frame, to share with the intention of continued awareness and action towards the elimination of harmful global practices. To shine a spotlight on those dedicated to uplift and empower girls and women worldwide.

Over coming months, this space will be utilized as a platform to highlight projects I'm documenting for grassroots organizations, to share the individual stories, challenges and triumphs of those along the way, and to hold space for my personal perceptions and experience as it unfolds.