By: Christine Hogg
Photographer Laura Crowell recently returned from Bolivia, where she had the opportunity to photograph and document the stories of the children of Ninos con Valor. Founded in 2005 by U.S. missionary Endel Liias and Bolivian psychologist Jacqueline Alvarez, Ninos con Valor strives to bring hope, healing and a sense of value to Bolivian children in need. It is an organization committed to rescue, remove and respond to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of Bolivian children with traumatic pasts, empowering them to reach their maximum potential and to pass on the values and experiences acquired to other children in high-risk situations.
Photographers Without Borders journalist Christine Hogg spoke with Laura Crowell about her experiences in the field and the outcome of this trip.
Christine Hogg: Describe your working environment with Ninos con Valor. Where did you visit? What was the atmosphere like?
Laura Crowell: Working with NCV was such an interesting experience and brought me to so many places around Cochabamba. The majority of my time was spent at either Corazón del Pastor—the girls' home—or Pedacito de Cielo—the boys' home. Both homes are bright and colourful and operate like a really big family. Everyone eats their meals together, takes turns doing chores, homework, playing, and taking care of one another. The staff and volunteers come and go throughout the day to help take care of the kids and help with homework and activities. I got to visit a few of the schools the children attend, as well as some of their extra curricular activities like ballet and taekwondo classes. I also visited the transitional apartment they set up for the girls who reach the age of 18 while under their care so they have somewhere to go and still be supported once they have to leave the home. They also support a small family in a rural home, which I visited one morning as well. The atmosphere, no matter where I went, was always warm and inviting.
CH: What was your most memorable experience?
LC: This entire trip was such an incredibly memorable experience for me. From travelling half way around the world by myself, to seeing mountains for the first time, to living with a wonderful family that didn't speak the same language but made me feel so at home (...) It was all unforgettable. I think the one moment that really stood out for me though was the day we were at the park taking the sponsorship photos of the children. One of the boys had gotten in to trouble back at the house before they left, so he was very upset and not at all interested in getting his photo taken. We tried once, and he just wasn't going to cooperate, so we moved on and captured everyone else's before trying again. He still wasn't cooperating when we brought him back, and I wasn't sure what I could do being that I couldn't communicate to him in his language. On a whim I pointed to the left side of my face and asked if he could do a half smile, and he did. So I pointed to the right side of my face and asked if he could half smile on that side, and he did. Then I pointed to both sides of my face and asked if he could put them together, and I actually got a real smile out of him. I guess it was a bit of a personal victory, being able to communicate with an upset child who couldn't understand my words, but it felt great to be able to reach him.
CH: As a photographer, what story were you trying to tell? How did you succeed?
LC: I wasn't sure what to expect, in general, about what it would be like when I got there. I had been briefed about the sorts of circumstances that the children may have faced prior to coming to NCV and that some of the kids would have behavioural issues, so I was worried that my limited experience with children coupled with the language barrier would make it really difficult for me to document them. However, I was very pleasantly surprised how they immediately welcomed me into their lives, as if I had always been there. Both the girls' and boys' homes are bustling with activity when the kids are home from school, so it made my job very easy. I just followed them around through their day to day activities and captured what I could. I knew that some of the children, especially the girls, had faced some truly horrible things in their lives, but these homes are full of love and light and laughter, which is what really stood out to me. I felt it was a very positive atmosphere, so I wanted that to be reflected in the photos.
CH: Did you face any ethical challenges in the field?
LC: The biggest challenge of this project was definitely how to document and tell the story of these children without compromising their identities, as it is against Bolivian law to publish photographs that they could be identifiable in. While I still documented moments as they unfolded, I had to be mindful of finding ways of doing so while respecting and maintaining their anonymity.
CH: How did you protect the anonymity of these children, yet still tell their stories through images?
LC: Fortunately for me, life in these homes moves very quickly, so while the children were very interested in me and my camera, I think the language barrier helped in a way that they would get bored if I didn't understand what they were asking and they would go do something else. So while I got a lot of requests from them to take photos of them making silly faces, they would also run off to the next activity fairly soon after, making it easy for me to walk around and witness everything as it was happening and document from more of a background perspective.
CH: What did you learn while working for Ninos Con Valor?
LC: I think the biggest take away for me had to do with the language barrier. While it was difficult not being able to communicate as effortlessly as one is used to when everyone speaks the same language as you, I was amazed at how it was still possible to successfully navigate through the day without a translator. If you stop and truly pay attention to someone, you can tell what they're trying to say to you without needing words. It made small talk quite difficult, of course, but being able to find understanding without the use of common words was a really interesting experience.
CH: What were you doing on the average day?
LC: The children go to school in the morning, so there wasn't a lot for me to document while they were away, but as I was fortunate enough to be staying with the executive director of the organization; I got to follow her around most days from meetings to errands, so I got to see and experience a fair bit of Cochabamba just from that. I usually spent the afternoon with the children at either the girls' or the boys' home, or by following them to an afternoon activity like piano, ballet or Taekwondo. I usually spent the evenings with my host family, but occasionally I would try to capture what the children's nighttime routines were like. Every day was different.
CH: Did you accomplish your goal as a photographer on this trip? What were your original goals, and did they change?
LC: I went in to this trip with a fairly open mind. I wasn't sure what sort of story I would be telling, and I didn't want to create any biases in my mind before getting there that would affect how I documented things. I just wanted to show up, be a witness, and capture life as I saw it rather than look for specific opportunities. I saw and learned so much while I was there, so everyday was a new adventure to follow along on with my camera in tow. On a more practical side, I was just hoping to get everything I needed in focus and that none of my data would corrupt. I feel very fortunate to have made it there and back again in one piece without losing anything.