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Priest spreads understanding through disposable cameras

Camera project shows Koreans how the poorest live

Zambian children smile in one of thousands of pictures taken as part of Fr Cha's project Zambian children smile in one of thousands of pictures taken as part of Fr Cha's project
  • John Choi, Seoul
  • Korea
  • December 11, 2012
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As aid projects go, Father John de la Salle Cha Poong’s ‘Dreaming Camera’ is not only counterintuitive – it is also counterproductive in some ways.

In 2009, he started giving out disposable cameras to poor children in Zambia, then a year later in Mongolia, followed by Burundi and Laos in 2011 and Sri Lanka this year.

The project is simple: Ask children to take photos of their everyday lives with the cameras and exhibit the tens of thousands of resulting pictures in South Korea.

“Commonly, we think people in Africa are starving. It’s right. There is misfortune and despair and they seem to have nothing with which to cope,” says Fr Cha. “So, we come to think we need to give money to them.”

This is where the dilemma comes in. With many pictures presenting a more nuanced and realistic snapshot of what life is like in some of the poorest countries in the world, they hardly represent the kinds of images commonly used by charities to drum up financial support.

“They are all laughing. Their photos show smiling friends and parents although their environment is poor. There is a difference between what we see and what the children see because they have dreams and hope,” says Fr Cha.

He recalled seeing a middle-aged mother who cried at his exhibition.

“I asked why and she answered: ‘My kids do not laugh and smile like this. They have no dreams,’” he said. “Our children have much more than the kids in poor countries. In fact, if they want, they can have almost everything. But, they have no dreams.”

The project was at first just for fun before it grew into a medium for changing attitudes among South Koreans towards poor people in other, less fortunate parts of the world.

Visiting these children three or four times a year, Fr Cha began to learn what they really needed even though there was no specific plan to help.

“It was clean water – so we dug wells for them. Also, they needed books, stationery and lights to study with,” he says, adding that only at this stage did it turn into a type of aid project.

The source of the money is simple. Fr Cha sells the photos taken by the children – turning them into professional photographers of sorts – and collects donations.

“We cannot collect enough money for all their needs. We just do what we can,” he says.

Visiting parishes for six months, the diocesan priest from Uijeongbu – a short subway ride north of central Seoul – gathered a container full of books in English and French and set up a library in Zambia.

Other gifts included solar-powered lamps and other audio-visual equipment to help the children study.

Next year, the photo project heads to Cambodia and Chad for the first time.

“When we help other countries, we need to know their situation and context, circumstances, ways of life and culture,” says Fr Cha. “However, we don’t know them. We don't try to know them. We just think they are poor and need help. This makes a big difference between helping others with understanding, or not.”

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