This is a guest post by Jen May Pastores, a lifestyle photographer and portrait photographer based in Los Angeles, California.
There’s a window by my desk and outside are two elementary boys peeking in with their smiles eagerly anticipating my returning glance. “Teacher! Study? 4?” is the question I heard everyday from them. “Chaa, chaa,” I reply with a nodding yes. The boys run over to their friends practicing headstands on the side of the center’s building and bring them over to my window. “Can I study, too?” asks a new student. “I’d love that,” I say to him. I check my watch to see I have only a few minutes to prepare the cameras for the next class, so I quickly download the rest of the memory cards to my laptop and head upstairs to the classroom.
This was my typical afternoon at the Tiny Toones center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Three times a day 15-20 students met me in a classroom to learn and practice photography with each class split among age groups from as young as 10 to 24-years-old. The majority of the youth barely knew English, so the center hired a local translator to communicate for me. Imagine trying to explain f-stops and shutter speed to a translator who was new at photography, then having her explain it to the class! It was a month-long experience with lots of picture drawing on the chalkboard and grand gestures, but it led to creating images and capturing stories that no language barriers could trap.
One of my students once asked me, “Do you take pictures and get money for it?” My class knew I was a photographer in Los Angeles, but they were curious as to why I was there teaching them for free. “Yes, people do pay me to take their pictures. Why do you think they’ll want do that?” I asked. “Because they want to remember something important or special. They want you to tell their story,” answered a student. “So why are you here?” they asked. “Because no one wanted me to tell their story this summer. And, I love teaching others that photography is more than making money. It’s about showing who we are and what we care about.”
Last summer, I ran into my first season where I had no weddings or sessions booked. I decided to look at it as a season of opportunity instead of as a failure. I had never considered visiting Cambodia before, but–as timing can work out perfectly–I was invited by Tiny Toones to offer a photography program at their center. The only thing asked was that I needed to provide everything, including cameras and my airfare, and do it all voluntarily. I looked into who the organization was and discovered that Tiny Toones uses the elements of Hip-Hop like break dancing and djing as creative tools to empower the youth, especially so they could live healthy lives apart from drugs and violence. I then realized that photography could be a complimentary, creative class to educate the youth.
My decision to go happened only a couple months before my program start date. A season with a seemingly bleak outlook turned into one of the busiest, but fulfilling season I’ve lived out so far. My main obstacle was raising funds to buy classroom supplies like digital cameras, memory cards, rechargeable batteries, and chargers for the batteries. This led me to announce my first workshop held in L.A. (which so happens to be the same place where the L.A. Smug group meets every month) where all proceeds went directly to my endeavor. I also reached out to industry professionals requesting donations and out of this Shootsac, Dane Sanders, and local camera stores and photo labs gave items for my workshop and program in Cambodia. In less than a month I was able to raise enough money to purchase 10 cameras, my airfare, and other necessities to main the program for a month.
After the completion of my program at Tiny Toones a gallery in Phnom Penh invited to exhibit the student’s work where 100% of proceeds from sold prints were donated to the center. This began the international tour of what is now known as, “The World Through Our Eyes.” Since last year, the exhibit traveled to Philadelphia, is currently in California, and has plans to continue in Hawaii this fall. None of this would have happened if I didn’t take advantage of an opportunity to give back, especially during a time when I could have easily given up.
The program covered the basics of photography such as composition, lighting and finding good backgrounds for portraits. More importantly, the workshop encouraged students to exercise their voice in telling their story and how they see the world around them. A series of photographs taken during that workshop, “The World Through Our Eyes” is a vibrant statement by youth countering stereotypes of artistic, emotional and urban desolation in the developing world.
To further read up on this cause and how you can help please visit http://cambodia.jenmayphotography.com. You can also watch a documentary on the site that interviews students who participated in the photography classes and find out about upcoming exhibits to see the photos in person.