An ambitious program encourages children from around the world to share their cultural heritage with one another.
The work of photographer Phil Borges is instantly recognizable: selectively toned, medium-format portraits of people in indigenous and tribal cultures set against sweeping black-and-white landscapes. These photographs are remarkable because they clearly are collaborative works; his subjects engage the viewer with gazes so direct that the images appear to be authored just as much by them as by the photographer.
It is little surprise, then, to learn that Borges' work these days focuses on putting cameras in the hands of indigenous people themselves, as well as advocating for their cultures through his own highly acclaimed photographs. For the past three years, Borges has dedicated his energy to Bridges to Understanding, a project that supports a new generation of photographers: middle school students in indigenous communities, many of whom have never touched a camera before.
"The Bridges program was born out of the way I work," explains Borges from his home office and studio on Mercer Island, Wash. "Whenever I enter a new place, the first people I meet and get to know are the kids. They become my army of assistants, carrying my equipment, holding Polaroids and setting up lighting. The kids are always the most open, and their openness brings me into their communities."
For more than 17 years, Borges has been traveling in and working with indigenous communities, producing a rich body of work that includes three books: "Tibetan Portrait," "The Gift" and "Enduring Spirit."
"In all my travels," Borges says, "I kept hearing about things that needed to be reported on: counterproductive food programs in Africa, oil spills going on in the Amazon. These were things I, myself, knew nothing about, and I had been traveling in these countries for years. I thought, if kids were telling one another about what was going on in their communities, then their parents, their countries, would know a lot more about what's going on globally."
To spark this cross-cultural dialogue, Borges began organizing a small group of volunteers to teach digital photography to youth on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, and linked these students with their counterparts in a Seattle school. From that first pairing in 2001, the Bridges organization has grown into a 12-site, international network of students, with more locations in the works.
To give, not to get
Borges' model for the Bridges program is simple: find and train volunteers in digital storytelling and technology, send them to share their skills at sites around the world, and link their students up with one another on the Internet. On the Bridges web site (bridgesweb.org), for example, the experiences of a Quechua child in Peru are posted alongside those of a student in Los Angeles. Students learn from one another by asking questions and sharing their own stories. Mentors guide the students as they explore themes of culture, family and environment, using donated Canon A40 digital cameras.
"Our volunteer mentors are absolutely critical to the program. They are our cornerstone," says Borges. While working on a book for Interplast, a nonprofit organization that provides free reconstructive surgery for children with congenital birth defects or severe burns, Borges witnessed what volunteering can do, both for the communities that receive services and for the volunteers themselves. Borges recalls the experience of seeing doctors with six-figure incomes rediscover a joy in their practices that had been missing for years. Why not apply this model to photographers and educators?
"There's something about volunteering," says Borges, "something about being able to say to yourself, ‘I'm here to give, not to get.' This is what I want to give to Bridges mentors: to allow them to have a vehicle to connect with people in the cultures they visit, and to make a real impact, instead of just passing through a place with their cameras, clicking away."
In March 2004, Borges started holding Bridges workshops that trained mentors to teach prospective students in Seattle. Since then, the workshops have expanded to sites around the globe. The first India workshop was held in May, and more are scheduled to take place in Peru this July, Kenya in October and the San Juan Islands of Washington state in November. Participants are able to learn techniques from Borges and apply their new skills as they share their expertise with the students at the Bridges sites.
Part of the community
In training his small army of volunteers, Borges has given the increasingly ubiquitous photography workshop model a new purpose. Amanda Koster, a professional photographer based in Seattle, recently returned from a nine-week stint as a Bridges mentor in Takaungu, Kenya. "It was tough to leave," she says of her experience in Africa. "I went and made a relationship with the people there, and it felt like my experience just got bigger and bigger every day, even though I didn't leave this tiny village."
Koster's experience as a Bridges mentor is typical of most mentors' stories. Professional and amateur photographers, alike, have become part of the communities they work in through the Bridges program, and they leave the experience with a new appreciation of their own work. "I don't know of a better way to travel," Koster says. "I feel more dedicated to the kind of work I really want to be doing. Working with these kids made me reevaluate my own photography."
Although Koster had a background in teaching photography, she was impressed by the enthusiasm and fearlessness of her students. "Kids have no concept of ‘I can't.' You give them the most advanced technology and they'll just try it," she says. "I just stood back and let them pursue whatever they wanted, and the stories they chose to tell were just amazing: AIDS, child labor, their experience in madrassa (Muslim schools). If you give these kids even a small opportunity, they will soar."
"The response to the Bridges program is overwhelming," says Borges. "We've got kids in Peru that for the first time in their lives are traveling the Inca trail to tell the story of their culture. We've got kids at the Tibetan Children's Village in Dharamsala, India, who've seen countless other people tell the Tibetan story. They want to tell it themselves. Just getting this project going, just seeing it work on a day-to-day basis — that's been our success."
Running the Bridges program is not without its challenges. Coordinating students and teachers across time and language barriers is sometimes difficult. The organization of the program has been a process of trial and error, as Borges and his staff continue to try out new software, computers and teaching methods to find out what will be easiest and best for their students.
"On top of all of the logistics," says Borges, "it is extremely hard to raise money for an idea, no matter how great the idea is. Bridges is something that has never been done before, and it's a challenge to get the attention of people who could make a big difference by supporting the project."
The challenges, though, don't seem to deter Borges from looking forward to the future of Bridges. "I think it could be a mini-Peace Corps, with all kinds of people teaching technology and storytelling to these communities. We're presenting the kids' work to the United Nations Open Forum on Indigenous Peoples. We've opened a show at the Bowers Museum in California, with more to come. Bridges has all the elements; it's cross-cultural, it relies on the voices of students, and it brings all kinds of people to the table to keep the program going.
"And the work these kids are doing — it's astounding," Borges adds. "It is absolutely critical, especially in the current political climate of mistrust and misunderstanding, that we listen to what they have to say and that we, as photographers, support them in the telling of their stories."