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Photographing poor regions, keeping their dignity in frame

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

By Teke Wiggin/ Contributor / October 27, 2010

Carolyn Lane’s program has allowed schoolchildren in Haiti to enjoy their own digital portraits, many for the first time.

Brittany Lane/Dog Meets World

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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.

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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.

"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.

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