on travel, photography, and giving kids a shot at life


When I was a kid growing up in Trinidad, it was really important to my dad that we travel as often as possible.  In his mind, I think, travel was an integral part of education (also very highly valued by my father -- because his family was relatively poor, he saw education as imperative to living an easier life, scholarshipping his way to a PhD in petroleum engineering).  Our house was always filled with encyclopedias and travel books and National Geographics, and we'd pore over the stories and photographs; however, these things, he felt, gave us only an intellectual and academic understanding of the world at large.  He wanted my sister and I to have a visceral understanding.  

And so, every year, once a year, a-traveling we would go.  Often the trips would be merely to a neighbouring town or island, but sometimes, he took us to more far-flung places -- cities in the United States, or Canada, or even Europe.  And of course, by being in these places, it was easier for us to imagine what our lives might be like if we lived there:  what it might be like to pull seines from the ocean to catch our seafood dinner.  Or walk through the streets of Paris with a baguette under our arm for the evening meal.  Or even commute on a ferry across a northwestern strait every day to work.

I quickly learned travel breeds empathy.  And it does it in a way that, try as I might, is difficult to convey through photography.

Since my childhood, I've developed my own passion for travel, and of course, photography.  And to this day, while I do love travel for the adventure of it all, I love it for the experience of being a part of life that I might not otherwise ever know; furthermore, I love travel for the opportunity it affords me to practice expressing those experiences and my related feelings about them through my photos.   But while I am passionate about this practice, whenever I travel, I re-discover that I still have a long way to go.

Take, for example, the photograph at the top of this post.  I took this when I traveled with the ONE Campaign to Kenya, back in 2011.  We were in Kisumu, a town which is ground zero for a lot of the world's worst communicable diseases, especially HIV/AIDS.  The woman on the right, Grace, is a home healthcare worker, and she travels from home to home, testing families for HIV.  If any parents test positive, Grace immediately tests their children, so that the family knows the status of the kids in the home.  I think that you can tell from the photo above that we were in a small home, about 10' by 10', divided in half by the patterned curtain in the background, separating the sleeping area from the living room area.  You can probably see that the only light source was from the doorway to my left, and you might even be able to tell that Grace has a kind, sensitive, yet matter-of-fact way of going about her job.

What the photo, unfortunately, can't convey (and video wouldn't really be able to do it justice either) are the sounds of the wind blowing through the small corn patch outside, and the smells of the country air.  I wish, by looking at the photo, you could hear the mother (shown in the background, holding her daughter, above), murmuring softly in Swahili, telling her kids what I imagined were words like "Be brave.  It will be over in a second," just as I tell my own daughter when she's about to be vaccinated.  I wish you could feel the tension as we waited for Grace to mix the chemicals and add it to the drops of blood she'd taken from the kids, and the anticipation as we watched the strips of paper she'd dipped in the mixture on the makeshift lab she had on the table in front of her.

I wish you could feel how my heart sank as two stripes gradually appeared on each paper,  and I wish you could hear the sniffles of my travel companion and friend, Amy, who began quietly crying next to me when she realized that the stripes indicated that both children were HIV positive.

Travel breeds empathy.

But travel also breeds hope: I wish, by looking at the photo that you could feel the sense of promise that quickly began to flood the room, as Grace told the family that all was not lost, that there were medicines available for the kids to grow up and lead good, productive lives; the happy realization that now that the family knew their status, they could do something about it.  I wish you could feel the sense of determination that grew, as the mom listened intently to why childhood vaccinations were now paramount, vaccinations for things as simple as pneumonia and diarrhea, because since her children's immunity is compromised (it is "acquired immune deficiency syndrome," after all), it is imperative that she prevent opportunistic diseases from taking hold of her kids.  And I wish you could feel the relief Amy and I felt in learning that thanks to organizations like the UN Foundation, the CDC and USAID, these kids would have access to these medicines and vaccinations, despite their impoverished state.

And I really wish that you could feel the gratitude that Amy and I felt toward this family, because by sharing their stories, they were now our stories.  And despite trite little phrases like "it takes a village" and "we are the world," we now felt connected to this family and these issues in a way that we never would have, had we not climbed aboard a plane and flew from our homes to the other side of the planet.

So while my photographs might not convey everything that I feel while I'm taking the shot, I'll continue to try to take photographs that tell stories, and share them with you here on Chookooloonks, in the hope of making them your stories as well.  But since I'll never fully succeed, I'll also implore you to travel as much as you can as well, even if it's just to the next town over, to experience your own stories.

Because like my dad, I think that a visceral understanding of the world's beautiful Different is the key to changing it for the better.

SongFly by Kenyan group Just A Band

The impact of vaccines on the lives of children around the world is incredible. If you'd like to help, please be sure to "like" Shot@Life on Facebook, or follow their Twitter page, so that you can learn more.  And if you're in the United States, you can help sustain the impact of vaccines by sending an email to your member of congress:  ask the members of the 113th Congress to make sure that global health and vaccines are a priority, by filling out this simple form (when you add your address and zip code, it sends it to the proper representatives). Take action and make an impact!

This story is part of Shot@Life’s ’28 Days of Impact’ Campaign, as a follow-up to Blogust to raise awareness for global vaccines.   The work being done by Shot@Life and their partners helps give children around the world a shot at a healthy life.  Each day in February, you can read another impactful story on global childhood vaccines -- so tomorrow, please don’t miss Gina Carroll's post.

To learn more, please visit www.shotatlife.org/impact