Voluntourism / Photography Workshop – Dali, China­

[ 0 ] February 3, 2013 |

It always amazes me how the smallest gestures somehow end up yielding the most profound impact. Dali was one of those experiences for us. It all started several months ago. Alison and I received an email from Daniel Anggara from the Muskoka Foundation. Following the mantra, “doing good as you go”, Muskoka focuses on connecting travelers with various partner organizations around the globe. Daniel had been reading our blog and was particularly interested in some of the volunteer work we had done in Uganda. After reading our working itinerary on-line and realizing that we were scheduled to arrive in South East Asia (Daniel’s home and base of operations) in the next couple months he reached out to us about partnering up with Muskoka to do something with one of their partner NGOs. After months of communication the perfect volunteer opportunity soon fell into our laps.

Muskoka Foundation Photography Workshop - Dali, China 2012

Muskoka Foundation Photography Workshop – Dali, China 2012

Based in the small town of CaiCun, situated just east of the city of Dali in China’s Yunnan province, Rishi Labs is a mash-up of socially constructive ideas. Rishi is part artist retreat, part working café, part guesthouse, and part vocational job training center. Six Chinese teenagers, all between the ages of 16 to 20, were currently living at Rishi when we arrived. After aging out of a local orphanage, Rishi Labs decided to take them in, providing them a place to stay as well as teaching them some useful vocational skills. Mauro, the resident chef at the café, was a recent transplant from Italy. Mauro had been brought in to both run the café as well as teach Rishi’s residents cooking techniques in hopes that they would be able to leverage these skills to procure a restaurant job in the neighboring tourist mecca of Dali. In hopes of expanding their skillset beyond just cooking, Muskoka had sent a digital camera to Rishi a few months ago hoping that someone down the road would be able to teach some of the Rishi residents the basics of photography. That someone just so happened to be us.

hanging out at Rishi Labs

hanging out at Rishi Labs

Quirky Rishi Labs

the quirky enclave of Rishi Labs

Alison communicating anyway she can

Alison communicating anyway she can

While we are not professional photographers by any stretch of the imagination, having a camera strapped around your neck every day from dusk till dawn for almost a year and a half now, we did manage to pick up a few pointers along the way.

Armed with only a camera and a smile-inspiring bad haircut, we finally found our way to Rishi Labs were we introduced ourselves to the six teenage students we would be teaching photography to over the following week.

Meet our students:

Meet the Students - Olivia

Meet the Students – Olivia

Meet the Students - Sha

Meet the Students – Sha

Meet the Students - Pai

Meet the Students – Pai

Meet the Students - Xiong

Meet the Students – Xiong

Meet the Students - LiChun

Meet the Students – LiChun

Meet the Students - Zhou

Meet the Students – Zhou

Being the first time any of them had interacted with a westerner, let alone held a camera, we anticipated a mix of trepidation and excitement on their part. Reading their expressionless faces on the first day, I could see that growing up in an orphanage had somehow numbed the persona of these kids, as though nothing exciting could ever happen to them.

With no common tongue between us, the most epic game of charades ensued. We paid close attention to their non-verbal cues, adapting subject matter and teaching method to their individual interests. Noticing Xiong’s lens perpetually focused on the faces of passers-by, we decided to spend a day focused on portraitures. Watching Pai attempt to capture water coming out of the faucet, we determined a trip to the nearby waterfall was in order. After a week of field trips into the countryside, to the lake, and even to the nearby city, we started to see something extraordinary develop in these kids. As they captured the dance of a dragonfly to the way fog rolled over the nearby mountains, through the lens of a camera I saw them start looking inquisitively at the world around them. Pai’s eyes lit up as he successfully adjusted the shutter speed, capturing the soft flow of water for the first time. A rush of wonder and sense of exploration was exuding from the group. They had become curious.

introduction to photography at an outdoor photo exhibit in Dali

our first field trip…an introduction to photography at an outdoor photo exhibit in Dali

Sha at the photo exhibit in Dali

Sha exploring the photo exhibit in Dali

Field Trip to the Lake

field trip to the lake

Olivia testing out her portraiture skills

Olivia testing out her portraiture skills

LiChun at the lake

LiChun at the lake

Igniting the latent curiosity that existed in these bright and budding minds through a continuous dance of observation and adaptation was by far one of the most humbling and privileged experiences of our lives. We will never forget the faces of Pai, Xiong, Zhou, Sha, and LiChun and that (literally) speechless week we spent together.

Rishi Labs Crew - We'll Miss You Guys!

Rishi Labs Crew – We’ll Miss You Guys!

If you are interested in taking a look at some of the truly outstanding photos captured by these students, please take a look at the Photo Gallery blog post.


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Category: Asia, Blog, China, Destinations, Featured Posts, Pat's Blog

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