The Best Gallery Opening EVER

Best Gallery Opening EVER.

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:

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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? : )

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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:

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And again along the second floor – and throughout the baby room and also in another hallway:

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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.

25 responses to “The Best Gallery Opening EVER”

  1. Steve says:

    Wow – I don’t tire from viewing these images – the ones you so beautifully created for this gallery and the actual moments when you placed them on the walls. Priceless moments, all of them. Thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of this. Beautiful experience ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. WOW! Tamara and Steve, congratulations for the wonderful work you have been doing with Beautiful Together! I always get very emotional reading about your stories! Such a heartwarming experience this must have been! One can only imagine and hope to feel it someday as well! I am a great admirer of your job, Tamara, and also one of your many students worldwide through Creative Live! I am very glad to know that you not only are an amazing photographer and excellent teacher, but also a wonderful person! Wish you and your family all the best!

  3. Shellie says:

    Such a beautiful gallery and story! I love all your updates and wish I had the courage to do what you are doing. You are very inspiring ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Wow. So many things going through my mind. Through tears. I only know you through Facebook, but I have to gush here and say this: The planet won the lottery when you were born and grew up to be such an uplifting, giving person. You and Steve won the lottery again, obviously, when you met and married and began your amazing family. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a cohesive family/spousal unit. Seriously! Your kids, too, have won the lottery getting to have you two as parents. We really need to clone you guys or something. I’ve followed a lot of your posts on FB and I just have to say that you continually inspire. I don’t know how you manage to constantly smile and remain positive. Thank you for spreading light in a very (in my view) dark time for the humans and other animals, of course, on this crazy planet.

  5. This is so incredibly moving, Tamara. Thank you for sharing and for being an inspiration to fellow photographers and–more importantly–fellow human beings. I have been inspired by your work for several years now, but this project brings my admiration and respect for you to a new level. I would love to do something like this and will reach out to you for ideas/connections if/when I am ever able to make it happen.

  6. This is so incredibly precious. When you’re a high-end photographer and people pay you handsomely for your work, sometimes it’s hard to feel like you’re doing anything generous or meaningful. I have to remind myself that we earn our income so we can take the time to do these things for those who can’t pay for it, but for whom it has incredible value. Better than the biggest paycheck ANY day. Beautiful, beautiful Tamara. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Don Bromberg says:

    What a great story, and beautiful project. It is easily apparent that it was done not with just the utmost of professional expertise, but more importantly with a loving spirit. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

  8. You made a big difference in these kids life, congrats.

  9. Bronny Handfield says:

    We know these children & the Sisters of Kidane Mehret and your project has done them justice ! Clearly this is a creative and beautiful way to share the experience !
    Tim and Bronny Handfield

  10. Frank Pass says:

    What a beautiful job you did capturing the joy and dignity of those kids and their caretakers. I know from my own visits that the approval of Sister L is not easily earned but in this case it was well deserved.

  11. Barb Minot says:

    omg…i am balling…what a gift. You amaze me more and more all the time!

  12. monique troisi brosse says:

    Wow great job tamara! They all deserved it. Reading your article and seeing the photos brought back amazing memories of when i was doing missionary work at the kidane meheret four tears ago. Thumbs up all the way!!!

  13. Kymberlee says:

    Thank you very much for doing this, I cannot express enough in words what a gift this is to Kidane!!!! I have sent a message to you through your website and will go you look you up on facebook. Have a blessed weekend!!!


    beautiful .. beautiful .. beautiful ….. sister lutgarda and sister camilla they are both maltese nuns and they are SUPER ………….. GOD BLESS THEM

  15. Alexandra Beck says:

    Beautiful, amazing, wonderful!!! When where these pictures taken? Seems quite recently – Iยดve been working at Kidane in June, so I recognize most of the children…… Very, very, nice….. You did a good job!

  16. Ronald Micallef says:

    The purpose of artnis to capture the soul, the polemic, the pride and the pathos. This is great art. well done. Hope we can spread the word further in Malta.

  17. Mary McTigue says:

    Beautiful beautiful! Congratulations on your wonder Best Gallery Opening EVER! Wonderful smiles everywhere.

  18. Vanessa says:

    What beautiful work! I visited this orphanage just two months ago- these pictures will leave a lasting impact on the kids!!

  19. Rene Formsma says:

    I visited this orphanage in June. I walked down those steps as I was leaving. I was in tears and after a hug from a friend, I put on my smile and left a bit of my heart. I absolutely love what you’ve created for the wonderful children and their family of caregivers. Thank you for sharing your gift in such a child centered way.

  20. Jaclyn says:

    I work in Kechene, further down the crowded street that Kidame sits on. Every time I pass by I’ve wondered about the children that live behind it’s beautifully flowered walls surrounding the compound. As an adoptive mother of two Ethiopian born boys, I try to imagine what I’d see if I were ever to venture beyond Kidame’s gates. Your work is so meaningful for many different reasons, not just to the children who you showed love and kindness to, but also to those of us who have been called to empower Ethiopia. I can see the dreams beginning to form in the minds and hearts of the children you photographed. What a gift you’ve given to so many, myself included.

  21. Shitaye says:

    Thanks for doing this for those kids. MAY THE LORD OF ALL BLESS YOU!!!!!!!

  22. Diane Smith says:

    This is so wonderful. Our adopted kids came from Kidane Mehret. This is truly overdue! God Bless you.

  23. Maria says:

    Congratulations for this job!! I was doing a volunteer in Kidane Mehret for 2 months in April. I’m very happy to see the changes you have done with the bathrooms and the art gallery. They seem really happy and I’m pretty sure that they loved to be photographed.
    Thank you for sharing it and congratulations again!

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