Last week I wrote about my concept for a portrait photography gallery for the Kidane Mehret orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. And I spent two full weeks photographing the approximately 65 children who live in this orphanage with the intention of creating this gallery, feeling a strong desire to create it for a few reasons.
First, one of the things I noticed from my experience photographing children in orphanages is that although they may know to look at the back of a camera or at a mobile phone to see their photo, it’s quite rare that they ever see a printed photograph of themselves. And nearly never a larger portrait piece. I do that in my studio work every day.
I know the impact of giving that – and I wanted them to experience it. I also know that although the job of an orphanage is to care for their children, many of these institutions tend to be, in general, rather austere, clinical, almost hospital-like environments. I looked up these stairwells and along these tiled walls, and I could see this gallery, these photographs I had yet to shoot, gracing the walls and truly warming them up, making the whole environment feel less like an institution and more like a home.
Lastly, like I’d mentioned in my last post, I wanted these children to look up at this gallery and not just see their beautiful faces but also better see the connection that they all have to each other there. Although I wish each of these children could be joined with a family and live in their family home, statistically that is not their future.
Most will spend their childhood in this orphanage. So I wish for them to see that although they may not have a traditional family, they still have “their people”. To see that they are talented and smart and crazy beautiful and care much and are cared for AND ARE WORTH SO MUCH VALUE. And I wanted them to see that on the walls of the orphanage they live in each and every day. We are either in process or have finished other renovation projects for this orphanage through our non-profit Beautiful Together – like renovating the bathrooms and safeguarding the orphanage, but this would be a bit of a different project. Not as directly critical for their health and physical safety but arguably just as critical – if not more important – since it touches on their sense of self-worth and their need for community and family. For belonging. I photographed these children over the course of two weeks while spending days tracking down a printing solution. I would have loved to have used my awesome print lab, Nations Photo Lab but, alas, they have not opened an Ethiopia branch yet and getting tons of prints like these through customs in time was simply impossible. I finally found a shop that had an in-house printing option, though, and the test prints looked good.
The next task was to create these sturdy, moveable-if-necessary, protected pieces. This particular gallery would have to withstand lots of children’s fingerprints, water spills, or worse. The pieces also couldn’t be too heavy, lest they accidentally fall on an unsupervised toddler – but they also couldn’t bend over time. They also needed a strong adhesive, since many of the pieces would be secured to tile. Lots to consider.
The solution ended up being a print secured to a custom double-mounting, about a 1/2-inch thick, which would assure that the print wouldn’t warp over time, with a very strong adhesive applied to the back of the mounting. In addition, a matte-laminate, waterproof protectant seal was placed over each enlarged print. A lot to bring together for that many pieces, and a rather unusual request, but it worked! All photographs were shot with the exact same gear kit: my Nikon D810, my 24-70 2.8, and all kinds of handy reflective objects (think white sheets, metal bounce, etc.) We started out with these bare walls, and I pulled my first piece out to show a rather giddy subject her portrait:
And then I just started hanging the pieces. My wonderful husband, Steve, not only helped immensely but also took nearly all of these photographs. (I should note that he now considers himself a premiere gallery show photographer.)
Each time I pulled out a new piece, the children would shriek the name of whoever was in the print and they would cheer and laugh and race out to get the person if they were not there. And then they did it again. And again. And this went on for hours, since it took quite a while to hang every piece and make sure they were spaced apart just right. But, man, talk about the real-time response making all the work so worth it.
I loved the unbelievable joy and glee each child experienced seeing his or her own portrait for the first time. There was so much pride and sweetness in the way they all complimented each other and even laughed with and clapped and hugged each other – honestly, BEST GALLERY OPENING EVER.
I had started out hanging these pieces just with a child or two around me, but the audience grew with each piece I presented to hang along the walls until I was absolutely surrounded – and it stayed that way for the rest of the “Gallery Opening”. I don’t think these stairs have ever been so packed before, for so long in a row. I loved it.
THIS was a very touching experience. This boy has incredibly impaired sight. He gets around on his own throughout the orphanage without a cane or any aid, but when I was photographing all the kids, he kept wanting to look at the back of the camera. I’d show him, and he would hold the LCD right up to his glasses and slowly move it around, still right up to his glasses, to see every inch of the 3 inch screen, in an effort to see the entire image.
He loved the photo-taking process. I finally had to make a deal with him that I’d let him shoot for a while if I could skip showing every single photo of every child every single time. (Luckily, he accepted the deal.) So to show him his photograph (and he looks awesome in it), for him to be able to see all these photographs, so readily and with so much more ease? Honestly, it brought tears to my eyes. It was one of the best surprises of the gallery show, his vivid experience of it.
This woman, below, is the Sister who runs the place and has been there, caring for these children, for over 59 years. She knows how to get things done and is rather no-nonsense when it comes to most things.Throughout all the conversations and negotiations we had with various crew members (a lot, waaaay more than I expected) while working on our Beautiful Together projects, she would look around the room of mostly Ethiopians and say “Careful. I know everything that goes on here. And, never forget, I’ve been in this country longer than any of you.” And she was right. She was the one who gave me the go-ahead to create this gallery. She knew about it but hadn’t really known what to expect. So her heartfelt approval of the pieces, her genuinely surprised smile at the photographs and at the overall gallery, just the warmth of her compliments, was definitely some kind of top prize for me. (Can you tell I went to Catholic school? : )
When all was said and done, we hung all these pieces – shot throughout the course of these two weeks, along with several that had been shot last year when we’d visited – in four different places throughout the orphanage. In the entranceway and along the first set of stairs:
And again along the second floor – and throughout the baby room and also in another hallway:
All in all, this was an extraordinarily meaningful experience, and one I would honestly wish on any artist. I love that even though we had to return home, this still stays with all of them, as this gallery is a testament to their worth and beauty and connection to each other. I greatly look forward to adding on to it every time we go back.