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From our photo library: Visual Philanthropy

July 16, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joni Kabana for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Joni Kabana for Mercy Corps

When we receive pro bono work from photographers it's particularly gratifying. As a contribution to the organization, this visual philanthropy is invaluable.

Recently, for example, I was contacted by local photographer, Lloyd Smith, who had just returned from Haiti. He offered us several hundred beautiful portraits from his trip. One of them became the cover of a book we recently published called "Notes from the Field: Haiti After the Earthquake". Since I've been here, image contributions have come from noted photojournalist, James Nachtwey and from humanitarian photographer, Nancy Farese, who has mounted two pro bono trips for us: to Liberia and to Haiti.

We've also received contributed work from Portland photographers — Craig Alness, Juan-Carlos Delgado and Joni Kabana. Joni has been a particularly good friend to Mercy Corps for several years and has donated a wide variety of large format prints that we've used to augment our permanent photography collection on the walls here at headquarters.

This image at right is from India in 2008, when she accompanied a Mercy Corps Phoenix Fund trip. I've always been intrigued by the way the boy's hand rests on his chest — it looks spontaneous and genuine. As it turns out, that was precisely the case. Here's what Joni says about it:

I asked if I could go to the lowest caste neighborhoods, and it took quite a bit of persistency to get someone to take me there. What I found was a tight camaraderie and loving encouragement of one another. Rarely does a foreigner come to these neighborhoods, and their excitement was fast and genuine. They showed me where they lived, tiny things they were proud of, such as a torn page from a magazine.

"I let them use my cameras and their hands shook as they held the devices. I was struck by how much feeling they could express from their eyes. The culture felt pure to me. Yes, they are ostracized and live in the slums. But this seemed to only intensify their spirit.

"This boy watched me photograph the more jovial and outwardly extending girls. He stood by shyly, taking it all in. I knew he was near me and I could feel all of his curiosity that he politely kept at bay. When I finally asked him to sit for a photograph, he had a catch in his breath and he sighed as he put his hand on his chest. It felt like we both got exactly what we were looking for, at the same moment. It made me cry. Of course they all laughed at this.

"Ever since I photographed him, I now use more hands in photos as I believe they tell another part of the story. Our hands reach out, and it feels like a connector or bridge across the cultures, blending our common stance as simply being human.

"The boy's name is Gunaratna or 'Jewel of Virtue.'"