Gina Orlando found her calling in Cambodia. From Santa Cruz, California, and passionate about photography, she jumped at the opportunity to a part of a Photographers Without Borders School workshop, which would take place in the kingdom of Cambodia. "Once I saw the workshop I knew I had to go," Gina explained.
On the last day of the trip, Gina and her workshop colleagues decided to explore the city of Sihanoukville. On their way to a temple, it started to rain so hard that the roads flooded and the tuk tuk transporting them could not move. "We stopped and were surrounded by children (...) On my side was a half-clothed, trembling girl", Gina said. "When I got home and looked at my pictures I was so taken by her expression. She looked so tired and fragile. It haunted me. It was a joyful time but it saddened me to know how little they had."
Once back in California, Gina decided to contact the tour guide to learn more about the children. He put her in contact with Sok Mong, a young man that founded The Sihanoukville Family English School in 2013, where he teaches English and provides food to the children for the rainy season. "The more I learned about these kids the more I wanted them to have a chance or even the choice to just be a kid," Orlando said.
According to Gina, the village is isolated, what makes travelling for schooling difficult. "It's outside of town and without a car or a scooter, and many are stuck there," Orlando said. "With the school in the village, they can walk over. The kids that don't attend any kind of schooling at all have no understanding of things like basic hygiene (brushing their teeth or washing their hands). This is a good opportunity for them to learn more than just English. It might be the only opportunity for them to learn anything."
Last February Gina returned to Cambodia and spent a week with Mong and the children, founding an activity called "Kids with Cameras." The project is run by Gloria Upchurch, who also attended the PWB School Cambodia workshop. "She had mentioned her program and when I decided to go back she offered me some of her cameras to take with me. The idea behind the program is to give the kids a new skill and a tangible item (photos) to print and sell to raise money," Orlando explained.
"It was so great. I didn't really know what to expect but I showed up and all these kids are holding a welcome sign and I just wanted to cry," Orlando said. She states that the experience demonstrated the solidarity that exists amongst the children, acting as a prudent team-building exercise. "We would have a basic lesson of how to use the camera, go out for a couple of hours, then have a review of all the work on my laptop. It was fun to see how much their work changed over a couple of days from blurry selfies to thought out, composed images. We gave lots of compliments and everyone would clap."
Gina is organizing an exhibit on July 7th in her hometown featuring the work that she produced with the children in Cambodia. She also launched a website where people can donate money to help the community with immediate needs and to contribute to long-term goals. Gina will do as much as she can as long as they want her help. "For now, I would love to raise enough to have two functioning classrooms with computers and a bathroom. I want Mong and any other teachers that come on board to get some pay for their hard work. I want to find solutions for the trash and water pollution problems."
According to Gina, the workshop in Cambodia helped her to make the final decision to open up a photography business in 2017. "It's a good feeling to finally have that confidence in my work and I got a lot of it from that trip," Orlando said. "The experience was definitely eye opening. I had never heard the term 'responsible tourism' before and traveling and supporting NGO's, giving back to those who need it the most, is definitely the way I will try to travel from now on. I will also try and be an advocate for this. About the workshop itself, I felt like I was such an amateur when I got there but I left feeling like a photographer."
To know more about Gina's work and support the children, please click here.
To sign up for a PWB School workshop this fall, please click here.