I didn’t always want to be a photographer. I didn’t always daydream about traveling to distant lands. In fact, I never really gave traveling any thought until my late 20s. I don’t know why my brain didn’t have the wanderlust switch turned to the “On” position back then, but I was perfectly content with my tech job and the experiences I was living in my Bay Area bubble. That all changed when, on a whim, I booked a ticket to the Central American paradise of Costa Rica. I didn’t know it at the time, but that choice would alter the course of my life.
Armed with a 6-megapixel point and shoot Canon SD600, I headed to Costa Rica, frightened, excited, and above all, curious. What was it like? Was it full of scary people who wanted to prey on me? Would anyone speak English and be open to an American on their turf? Once I hopped on my first converted American school bus, all of those fears subsided. The Costa Rican man next to me on the bus turned and said “Your first time?”
Wait, is he speaking English?!? Confused and excited, I began a meaningful conversation with him where I learned he was a born and raised Costa Rican, working in the tech industry in San Jose, the capital. I was shocked. I was seemingly on the other side of the world, and yet, this young man was just like me. It was then and there, at the tender young age of 27, I realized that there was a whole world out there, waiting to be explored. An entire world outside of the Bay Area bubble I grew up in.
My love for photography was born on that trip. Today, looking back at my horrible images, I am surprised I didn’t toss my camera into the vibrant blue ocean that stretched for miles in front of Shake Joe’s Beach Shack and drown my self-pity in another Pina Colada. But I was having fun. I didn’t think about whether someone would buy a print or whether a tourism board would ever pay me to document their country. All I knew is that the euphoric feelings that would wash over me when I created a photograph were addicting.
After a couple of years honing my craft (aka, taking thousands of more horrible images), I decided to travel to Peru with a company called The Giving Lens. As a small team of six, our mission was to introduce and teach photography to the children of Picaflor House. We learned that teaching these children how to express themselves through art could have a direct impact on the course that their lives were headed, just like that moment I cautiously walked onto that bus in Costa Rica. Growing up with very little money or materialistic goods in the village of Oropesa, these children are vulnerable to many dangers. As a means of escape from their struggles, crime, alcoholism, or even drugs could be in their future. Even seemingly innocent appearing escape routes can have disastrous consequences. Begging for money and selling trinkets instead of going to school can set a child up for a lifetime of poverty, which most likely would be passed down for generations to come.
As we would learn, planting that small seed of creativity at a young age can set the child in a positive direction. In the short term, learning photography with their peers in after-school programs such as Picaflor House keeps children off the streets, away from the pressures of doing anything to contribute to their family’s finances. Since the photography lessons are a reward for the student’s completed school work and consistent attendance, in the long term, instilling a love of art and education at a young age can lead these children to a future where they attend college and obtain quality jobs. While not every student is a success story, next week I return to work with Empowerment International in Granada, Nicaragua, where two of our photography students are now enrolled in the local university full time. Instead of teaching these two young adults photography, this year, they will be assisting me as a new team from The Giving Lens instills inspiration into the minds of our young international photography students.
Before my work with The Giving Lens, I didn’t know what true inspiration looked like. I always thought I was “inspired”, but I discovered what my inspiration was the moment I saw my work have a positive effect on a child who is growing up without any of the same comforts that I was born with. Never did I dream that sharing my passion of photography could have life changing effects, not only for the students that I work with but also for me.
Most of us don’t know it, but our skills as photographers and filmmakers can be put to use to help empower a person or a community in need, whether it is halfway around the world, or in our own backyard. Even if it isn’t teaching photography, many struggling NGOs simply need visual stories to use to help generate awareness for their cause. I wrote more about how you can contribute your skills to help an organization and community in need on my blog.
We all have had experiences when photography changed our lives. For some, it’s as simple as finding a weekend hobby while, for other’s, it altered the course of our lives.
I don’t know where I would be today if I had never picked up a camera. I had decent jobs, I worked hard, and I earned a paycheck. But I wasn’t complete. I didn’t feel that I had a purpose in life. Traveling and photography opened my eyes to the world. I have seen some of the greatest wonders of the world, like Petra in Jordan and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but the memories of the people that I met along the way are the ones that are always at the forefront of my mind. The people, the families in need, the communities forgotten, they hold the stories that I am inspired to tell. The stories that without me, others would never give a second thought too. I just hope someone is listening.