“You must understand what you have done for them,” he said, a tear welling in the corner of his right eye and a grin that stretched across his olive face. Our guide was of the Pa-O people, and was able to take us deep into the villages of Southern Inle Lake. “These children have no way to get such things here,” he continued as the children scattered screaming back to their houses with their new treasures.
He was referring to photos that I had made of the children. We had stopped by their school to say hello earlier in the morning, and moved on to see a little more of the village. When the lunch bell rang, they had come searching for us. Lines of little bodies creeping around the winding alleys in search of the visitors to their village. We blew balloons and taught the children to hit them back and forth. Then I made a few portraits of the children with their friends.
A permanent fixture in my travel kit now is a zink printer, for the purpose of giving back. It takes up next to no room, and prints directly from my camera. Using this, I was able to sit with the children and take part in their awe as their photos were printed over the course of 60 seconds. They jumped up and down screaming, offered me parts of their lunch, and climbed on me from every angle to get a look at the magic before their eyes.
My guide explained that with the cost of taking a boat to the nearest large town, then a bus to a city, and the high price of portrait studios, that these children had never seen a photo of themselves. We had given them something they would never have otherwise had access to. Not only that, but these children now had a memory of a window into a whole different world; the exact same thing they had given us.
The next morning, in the market at Indein, an elderly woman called me over at the breakfast table as I was waiting for my twice fried tofu and reviewing some pictures from the morning. She gestured that I should make a portrait of her, and I obliged. I’m a sucker for faces, you see, and she had a wonderful one. She tried to hide her cheroot as I made the picture, but I gestured that she should continue smoking it and made the picture. I showed her and she smiled, then continued with her breakfast of Shan noodles. As I ate my own breakfast, I connected the printer and quickly made a small print. I passed it over the table to her, and she regarded it for 10 seconds or more before placing it in her breast pocket, tapping it a few times for safe keeping, then returning her gaze back to me with a smile and eyes deep with gratitude.
These connections were made through the most powerful thing we as humans have, our actions. None of the people in these exchanges could understand a word the other said, but connections and memories were made. I had travelled.