Giving Back While Travelling - Who are We Helping?

Well, I suppose it depends on your definition of 'helping'. That's how I'd answer that question. When my cousin, Laurie, and I started these photography (and now foodie) workshops, around the world, our mission statement said that our priority was to 'give back' to the communities we visit. In fact it's our value proposition. (To be perfectly honest, we never really had a mission statement or official value proposition - we're still working on it. Aren't we all?) For our workshops, we travel to some of the poorest countries in the world, and stay far off the beaten tourist paths. We stay in small villages, visiting barrios and slums to meet locals and eat local food.

But what makes it useful, is that when we visit, we help. We help in two ways. We contact an NGO or community organization, before we travel, through local friends, and ask if there is a basic need. We've raised money and brought school supplies for a H'mong school in remote Vietnam, a new herd of goats for a small village in Morocco, soap and rice for the exiled witches in Ghana. But in addition, we always offer a collaborative creative art workshops with the kids - street kids in Vietnam, students in West Africa, orphans in Sri Lanka and aboriginal children in the Amazon. We teach them about light, using sun paper, and they use our cameras to take portraits of whatever they want. We print them out, on the spot with an instant printer, and the resulting artwork always amazes. The kids love the diversion and opportunity to just play - almost as valuable as food and clothing. One of our travellers, David, came home and raised funds for a latrine in a remote school and he has also sponsored girls in Guatemala to go to school. Others have exhibited the photos from our trips as fundraisers for other projects in the community. 

But are we helping? Really helping? And who are we to think we can help? Or more importantly, who is helping who here? It is the never-ending debate in all International Development classrooms around the world. What is our role - as the 'haves' in relation to the 'have-nots?' What makes the 'haves' think that what they have is better than what the 'have-nots' may have. Are we the teachers or should we maybe consider being the students? (Watch this hysterical TED talk by Development guru Ernesto Sirolli for more on that). I don't pretend to know any of the answers. But I know what works for me and what makes me uncomfortable.   

Back in 2006, I was on a panel, at Hot Docs, with my film Cottonland . I think it was called the "Making films in the Margins of Society." The microphone was handed to the other filmmakers and they all told their stories of living on the streets with the homeless or hanging with the prisoners in jail. It came to me and all I could think was what a shitty name for a panel. And whose 'margins' are we talking about?  My 'margin' as a struggling visual artist, might be a tad different than the Wall Street investment banker's margin, or the rural farmer's margin or the Delhi street kid's margin.  Wouldn't there be more room on the page for telling the real stories if the margins were erased?

I've spent my career trying to  build bridges of understanding between cultures, races, ages, when we travel to do our workshops, we get to know the locals, ask them if we can help them achieve their goals, in some small way. But really...I believe that they are helping us to a much larger degree. If we let them.

We've learned to how to be a good sibling from kids in Benin, how to make a kick-ass fish curry from food that was grown and caught within 100 feet a Sri Lankan villager's home and how to listen to our inner stories from the Dream Readers in Ecuador. But more importantly, we are reminded of something that I discovered a long time ago...that living a full, mindful, life in harmony with this planet has absolutely nothing to do with technology, money or possessions. It has to do with redefining our definition of 'progress,' 'growth' and 'happiness.'

The biggest challenge is to remember it when we get home and allow space and time to change how we live our lives. 

....Nance Ackerman (Cousins Photography Instructor, documentary filmmaker and artivist)
For more information or if you'd like to help - go to our Giving Back Page


Authentic Experiences Start with You

When I teach international workshops, invariably my photography students ask me how it is that I feel so comfortable walking up and talking to perfect strangers - young, old, men, women - in any country, in any language. My answer? Authentic curiosity and a willingness to pitch in and help. I often tell a story of when my two kids were little (they are now both in their twenties and traveling the world) and I was in front of my old farmhouse in Nova Scotia's beautiful Annapolis Valley. Our house is on a very scenic road, with cyclists, motorbikes and tourists toodling along all through the summer. That day, I was gardening and my two beautiful blonde babes were sitting in my wheelbarrow playing. I don't remember, but if it was hot, it's highly likely they were buck (or is it, butt?) naked. A car pulled up, slowed down and an automatic window rolled down. I thought they were asking for directions. But instead, without a word, someone in the backseat stuck a very large lens out and tried to take photos of my children. I dropped my rake and headed straight for the car, yelling at them that if they were to try and photograph my kids, the least they could do is get out, introduce themselves and help me in the garden (insert a few choice expletives). 

Doing laundry with the Achuar, in Ecuador        photo by Kathryn Stieneker

Doing laundry with the Achuar, in Ecuador        photo by Kathryn Stieneker

Helping with the rice harvest in Sri Lanka          photo by Holly Brown

Helping with the rice harvest in Sri Lanka          photo by Holly Brown

So that's what I do when I travel. I find common ground (kids, single parenting, animals, gardening, farming, food, woodworking...anything that might interest them and truly interests me) and then I introduce myself. And the places we travel, folks tend to be busy, working...working hard. They are washing laundry in a lake in Guatemala or bathing their babies in a river in the Amazon or harvesting rice in Sri Lanka. I offer to help and have never been turned down yet. I pitch in - and I mean pitch in. Sometimes for hours. Not just a few token minutes. What's cool, is they seem to get a kick out of it. And I must admit, it feels good, after traveling, to tuck into some manual labour.  I spent one day in Guatemala doing laundry, with four women, for almost the entire day and the next day my back was in total spasm. I seriously don't know how they do it.

I am blessed to be able to travel like I do - meeting real people, getting to understand the local culture and avoiding tourist resorts. But what makes it real, respectful and memorable, is that I feel like I may have made their day a bit easier.  At the very least, I provided them with a bit of entertainment. 

If those tourists in the car in front of my house had done the same, my gardening might have been done more quickly and I would've invited them in for iced tea and possibly made new friends. 

....Nance Ackerman (Cousins Photography Instructor, documentary filmmaker and Mom)