Photographing poor regions, keeping their dignity in frame

For Dog Meets World, photographing children becomes an 'entree to interaction.'

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    Carolyn Lane’s program has allowed schoolchildren in Haiti to enjoy their own digital portraits, many for the first time.
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    School children in Costa Rica enjoy their own digital portraits, many for the first time.
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On a mission trip to Haiti in 2007, lifelong shutterbug Carolyn Lane eagerly snapped photographs of children crowded outside a ramshackle schoolhouse near Port-au-Prince.

She took these pictures for the same reason she always has: to capture moments in time that she could cherish for a lifetime.

But as she reviewed her pictures in the camera's display, Ms. Lane noticed something different about these particular images. The children in them wore strikingly formal expressions, strangely solemn faces for students who had been behaving just like regular rabble-rousing grade-schoolers only a few unrecorded moments before. Soon Lane learned why.

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"I had a moment where somebody said to me, 'Carolyn, they've never had their pictures taken; they've never had a photograph," she says. "And I was like, 'How did this never occur to me before?' I was a little embarrassed."

Lane learned from her companion that children, when photographed for the first time, often instinctively strike formal poses. Her travels after the Haiti trip only confirmed this phenomenon, she says.

In the schoolhouse that day, Lane was touched by the delight and awe the young Haitians exhibited as they saw their pixilated portraits on her camera screen. Seeing their smiles and curiosity, she longed to give each child their own personal photograph right then and there.

That simple thought led Lane to found Dog Meets World, a nonprofit dedicated to supplying children in developing countries with personal portraits, often the first of their lives.

The project uses "Foto," a stuffed dog inspired by Lane's own pet, to break the ice between photographer and subject, tease out smiles, and brand the project.

"I think photography is a powerful connector," she says. "Our image says a lot about who we are and [that] we exist.… To have somebody give [a child] a photograph and to have someone foreign give it to them, I think that's a pretty powerful affirmation."

Since she started the organization in 2008, more than 120 members have participated in the project, traveling to 32 developing countries and providing locals with about 5,000 photos to date. Lane posts many of these images on DogMeetsWorld.org, the group's website.

Participating in Dog Meets World demands little financially, Lane says. Along with a digital camera, "Phodographers" need only purchase a copy of the mascot, "Foto," for $30 and get their hands on a portable printer.

Dog Meets World's tipsheet recommends two printers in particular, the Canon SELPHY CP770 and SELPHY CP780. Both are available for less than $100. The printers use rechargeable batteries and blank photo paper sold in packages of a few dozen. A February Dog Meets World blog post hails the debuts of perhaps the most convenient printers for the project yet: the pocket-sized Dell Wasabi and Polaroid POGO, which weigh only half a pound each and print photos in about a minute.

An entree into Guatemalans' lives

As some of the first "phodographers" in the project, the Hughes family traveled to villages along Lake Atitlan in southern Guatemala to visit indigenous Mayans.

The three Hughes daughters manned the equipment – snapping shots, operating the printer, and distributing photos with a kind of dedication beyond their years, says their mother, Patti Hughes. She and her family were amazed by the appreciation that came from their simple gift.

"Our favorite part was watching the child get their picture and then they'd just go off a little bit and just stare at it," she says. "A lot of them had never seen [one] before. You could tell how much they cherished it."

Hughes says the activity also gave her children an intimate look into the daily lives of Guatemalans.

"We were able to get so close to these people and this different way of life that it made them [her children] not be so materialistic and helped them understand how people can be happy and have everything they ever need with so little," she says. "I guess if we were just walking by we wouldn't have gotten that."

That last point gets at the crux of Dog Meets World's ingenuity, supporters say. The process of taking and giving photographs forces visitors to engage the people peering back through the lens. It's "an entree to interaction," says Lane.

Georgetown University sociology professor Sarah Stiles, who recently taught a class on the ethical dilemmas of photography and fundraising by nonprofit groups, explains that too often, images for charities become "poverty porn." These pathos-infused images prompt donations but also occupy an ethical gray area, Ms. Stiles says. "The dilemma here is you may get the money, but on the other hand, you're socializing people to think that those folks in need … can't help themselves," she says.

Drawn by the same morbid fascination that glues one's gaze to images of poor children and forlorn-looking mothers featured on so many nonprofit pamphlets, tourists often follow suit in their own photos, she says.

Preserve dignity of subjects

Dog Meets World wants to change this, Stiles says. The project guidelines insist that members only take photos in a neutral setting, ensuring that a subject's dignity is preserved.

Lane recently moved to Washington in an effort to publicize and expand her project. She is hopeful, she says, that the "photo diplomacy" movement will continue to gain momentum and travelers far and wide will recognize it as "the new ubiquitous tool of traveling in the world of need."

She is the organization's only full-time employee. But she recently brought on a number of unpaid interns. In the last year, she's had about 20 volunteers help with administrative and promotional work.

So far, funding has mostly come in the form of grass-roots donations, including the $30 fee for Foto stuffed animals. (But Lane cannot afford to pay herself a salary yet.) She says her main goal now is spreading the word, winning grants, and securing corporate and private partnerships.

Lane has drawn in participants through word of mouth, social media (such as a 600-member Dog Meets World Facebook club), her website, and by connecting with travel and nonprofit bloggers.

During a semester abroad at South Africa's Stellenbosch University, Samantha Coffin, a senior at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., made regular trips as a "phodographer" into underprivileged towns near the school. She says the excursions felt immediately rewarding and endeared her to the locals.

"When I started [working with Dog Meets World], I met a lot of South African people who invited me into their home, who taught me about their culture," she says. "Where some tourists might feel a little worried or out of place, I was taken in and invited to the bars or to dinner again, and I met so many more people that way."

Ms. Coffin says the photographs that she distributed acted as an icebreaker, easing her into the people's daily lives and chiseling away at South African stereotypes about white outsiders. In the end, she marvels at how something so small allowed for friendships that she had originally not thought possible.

"Imagine your life without ever seeing a photograph of yourself," Coffin says, describing a setting in which outsiders are often looked upon with distrust. "[Imagine] being 15 and watching a complete stranger … hand you something and [not] ask for anything in return."

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