At the end of the winding countryside drive, the caravan of trucks pulled into the driveway of the Gateway House of Hope. Young boys looked up from the corner of their opponent’s elbow grip, halting the yard wrestling match. Girls gathered in close groups, spreading hushed giggles, and fighting back smiles, clasping one another’s arms. Each pair of hands folded together as we passed by greeting us with a ginormous, inquisitive smile followed by a gentle “sawadika” (hello). The children were much older than I expected, early to late teens, and as I ran through my list of prepared crafts I knew much of what I had brought would be too young for them. Before dinner we lined a long table with chairs providing the kids with beads and thread and a lesson on the Lord about how your personal story makes you who you are. Much to my surprise the friendship bracelets were a big hit and the seemingly reserved and engaged group had to be hurried along to their next activity. Just as the sun was setting behind the walls of the orphanage I noticed an imposed shyness in the kids, one they wanted to break out of but were too well mannered in front of their English speaking guests to. So, I did what any photographer would, I busted out my polaroid camera and had “let’s take some pictures” translated.
Instructing the younger kids and teens to “pick their favorite friend” (this made for some hilarious interjections), the children began to shine. A group of small boys in particular, caught my eye. Mai (who’s parents had both passed away), and two younger boys. Grinning big, throwing the shaka and posing silly, the boys were in awe of the instant photos, scrambling to be the first by my Instax when the shot came out, hoping I would place it in their tiny cupped hands. I shot several packs of film with different combinations of the kids--the boys loving the fist to chin look, and the girls peace signing (how did these poses make it international? Next year I am sure duck face will make it to the repertoire!). And after each shot it never failed. They laughed, ran over in a group, claimed their image, then waited for it to develop (sometimes shaking it, which I found entertaining). Passing it around for inspection once all the chemicals had formed, laughing and pointing in awe, then lining up for another go. Seeing their cheerful smiles and comrodery made my heart melt. With their birth parents deceased, these kids are all one another’s got. They’re family, and I was more than honored to give them tangible reminders of that.
For the remainder of the evening, the kids kept inspecting their images, showing them to the group, comparing shots. A few kids in particular caught my eye, and the way they treated their images kept me captivated. Mai, one of the youngest, sat down across from me after dinner and started drawing the alphabet into the sky. We said the english letters out loud together, and soon a crowd of several young boys had formed, all to practice their English (and to teach me Thai to no avail and to Mai’s frustration). After we cleaned up, I turned to head inside and from the corner of my eye caught Mai. A look of sheer panic on his face, he clasped his hand over his shirt pocket, as if something had suddenly gone missing. With a quick draw he pinched his fingers into his pocket, halfway pulled out his instax photo, and let out an audible sigh. “Oh my gosh, he was so afraid he’d lost it!” I swooned. Throughout the night he kept checking and re-checking his pocket to confirm the polaroid of him and his three friends hadn’t mysteriously vanished, and I couldn’t help but notice how literally near and dear to his heart that photo really was. To him this photo was more than just a polaroid, he treated it like gold.
The kids sang the most beautiful worship songs for us, we shared storyboards and scripture from the Bible, the older boys requested more polaroids this time as solo portraits (this made made me smile) and some with Pastor Allen, the head of Gateway of Hope and an father figure to them (this made me smile even bigger). As we made our way through the crowd that had formed outside the front door, I noticed one of the littlest boys, about 4 or 5, running across the front stoop. His small stature lost in the crowd, he tripped and fell sending a mini Altoid’s box sliding across the cement. The box lid cracked open, expelling a stash of instax photos to scatter in the wind. The boy frantically scurried to gather them, as if he didn’t move fast enough the moments would be gone forever.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing--these little tiny in the photos, making a difference. I couldn’t help but cherish the kid’s excitement. See how much they adored those photos. Notice how much the action of being together and silly with their friends for a photo moment made them open up and be themselves. It was all real life proof of what a tangible image can do, and evidence that we all can have an impact, no matter what our talents or purposes are. The meaning of a photo, one with people you love can stir so much. Seeing them smiling over their images, something that seems quick and easy to us but is a luxury to some made my job feel worthy. I had a purpose there in Thailand, and as a photographer, and in that moment I knew the photos I was taking did actually mean something.
I waved one last goodbye to the crowd seeing us off and as I turned one of the young girls who I have given washi tape (to decorate their photos of course!) took my hand, pulled me close and in English said “God Bless You”.