Asia-Pacific, Headlines

ASIA: Tsunami Children Click Their Way to Healing

Lynette Lee Corporal

BANGKOK, Dec 20 2006 (IPS) - Painful reminders and sources of healing – this is the paradox that characterises the photographs that 144 young tsunami survivors took during their two-year journey toward healing.

It has been two years since the deadly tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004 swept through many parts of Asia and killed more than 200,000 people.

It has been 22 months since youngsters from the worst-hit Banda Aceh in Indonesia first began clicking on cameras to record what was left of their lives after the tragedy. And it has been 10 months since children from Phang Nga in southern Thailand followed suit.

These children are now well on their way to healing.

The 106 photographs, which were displayed at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, tell a thousand and one stories, each of them unique, every one of them special.

“We got it all wrong. It wasn’t really about the tsunami. It was a window in which these kids showed us what they wanted to say about themselves, their families, their dreams,” said journalist Jeanne Hallacy during the opening of the photo exhibit.

Hallacy, with AsiaWorks Television, is the project director of the InSIGHT Out! Creative Workshop and Exchange, a photography and writing workshop meant to help the children find an outlet to express themselves, their fears and hopes.

The project began in February 2005 when photojournalist Masaru Goto and his wife, graphic designer Yumi Goto, decided to have the young tsunami survivors tell their stories using visual images that the rest of the world had not seen.

For the next several weeks, the workshop organisers taught two groups of children – in Banda Aceh and in Phang Nga – the basics of photography and journal writing.

“We are not the teachers here. Through their extraordinary images and stories, these kids taught adults (a very valuable lesson),” Hallacy added.

Patrick de Noirmont, one of the photographers who helped conduct the workshop, beamed with pride over the children’s work. According him, these youngsters have a natural knack for knowing what pictures to take and how to tell their personal stories.

“It’s great to see their photographs here and I still couldn’t help but be amazed at the quality of their work,” enthused the OnAsia photographer, who has more than 30 years’ experience up his sleeve.

For Suthep Kritsanavarin, InSIGHT Out! photo editor, working with the kids has been a “beautiful experience”.

“What they produced were very pure and came from their hearts. Professional photographers often get caught up in techniques and ‘rules’ but these kids just naturally followed their instincts and came up with something very beautiful and honest,” he continued.

Currently drawing raves is 12-year-old Win Maw’s photograph of ‘Thanaka’, which was featured in a full spread by ‘National Geographic’ Thailand in July. The photo shows a wide-eyed little girl, her face painted with patches of ‘thanaka’, watching the preparation of the white powder produced from the bark of a tree of the same name and commonly used in Burma.

“People use the thanaka as a cosmetic. They put it on their faces for beauty and as a protection from the sun, as well as acne. It’s the best cosmetic ever for the ladies. It’s fragrant too because special water with rose and jasmine petals is mixed with thanaka,” the girl who lives in Khao Lak explained.

When the tsunami struck, her family ran up the mountains from their home in a construction site.

Win Maw said she chose this picture because she wants to tell the world how much the Burmese love the ‘thanaka’. For the world at large, however, the picture symbolised hope amid tragedy. It gave people a glimpse of how life goes on and how traditions are faithfully kept despite severe challenges.

Suthep recalled that it was difficult to reach out to the kids the first few days of the workshop. “They were afraid and found it hard to express themselves. We never talked about the tsunami; we just brought them to a place and told them to take pictures,” he told IPS.

Although still traumatised by the tsunami, the children have started on the first step to the healing process – they have learned to acknowledge and accept the event that killed their loved ones.

“They are happier now and have come to understand that they couldn’t really blame nature for taking away their loved ones,” said Zink, one of the project coordinators of the project.

However, she admitted that it is still hard for the children to talk about what happened with strangers. “They open up to their family and friends, even with trainers, but they are not ready to tell their stories to strangers directly,” she added.

This is why the InSIGHT Out! project has been a very crucial ‘gift’ for them. Through these dramatic images, the kids were able to share their grief and their hope with the rest of the world.

Jaree Srisukkeaw, 12, is one such girl who prefers to keep mum about the death of family members. But she excitedly opened up when asked to talk about her favourite photo.

“I like the one with a footprint on the sand,” she said, adding that the workshop taught her how to put a good story altogether.

Like any youngster her age, she does not ascribe any deep meaning to her image – this is what adults do. As far as she is concerned, she likes the picture simply because it looks like a 3D image, like a bas relief of the footprint.

Eleven-year-old Kapkaew Leebumrung, meanwhile, would rather forget the “horrible tsunami that destroyed all the good things” in her life. Instead, she would like to focus on the positive effects.

“Because of what happened, I had a chance to get into the InSIGHT Out! project and meet new friends, as well as learn how to use digital cameras,” said Kapkaew, whose house was partially destroyed by the tsunami.

She is very proud of one of her works – an image of a boy hanging upside down from a boat that the tsunami’s waves carried from the sea to a hillside in the Baan Nai Rai community.

Painfully shy, 12-year-old Teera Khongthip wants to be a photographer himself. “The workshop taught me how to look at the environment in a different way, a deeper way,” he said in Thai. His one wish? To have a camera of his own so he could take all the photos he wants.

A very poignant reminder of the devastating effects of the tsunami could be seen in 10-year-old Wareewan Tansakul’s photo of a posy of orchids tied to what used to be the facade of a hotel.

“They put the flowers to pay respect to the people who have gone,” said Wareewan.

Sumalee Leebumrung, meanwhile, has learned the value of family more than material gains. The 11-year-old Baan Nai Rai girl considers the image of her fisherman father as her most cherished photograph.

“Our income is not stable but we don’t need a lot of money. We are happy just being together,” mused the eldest of two.

“These kids taught us something about generosity, spontaneity of spirit and openness,” said Hallacy.

Suthep mused that the project somehow bridged the gap between children from different countries and religious and ethnic backgrounds. Like Hallacy, he agreed that this is not just about the tsunami anymore. “There are no more boundaries for this project,” he said.

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