The Boy Monks from Dohla

Two weeks ago, I photographed a group of children who left their homes to join the monastery. They are between six and ten years old.

Over the last few months, I’ve begun building a relationship with a Tamang community that was displaced after the earthquake and one of the nonprofits that is helping them. Their homes and livelihoods were destroyed and there was no hope of rebuilding. The community has been living in tents for over a year and the monsoon season is coming. Their lives are far from easy, which is why I joined a project supporting them in building new houses.

I want to better understand why such young children are joining the monastery. I try to keep my own judgments at bay. I ask a lot of questions and I learn that there are a variety of reasons that children come to the monastery. For some, it means a roof over their head, food on the table, and education. For others, it is truly an honor to their devout families to have a Buddhist monk in the family. I realize that almost every family in the community has sent at least one child. There are also more nefarious reasons that drive children from their communities.  In many rural communities, child trafficking has increased since the earthquake and families may feel that the monastery is simply a safer place for their children. One monk tells me that he joined at 14 because he knew it was the right thing for him. I honestly don’t know why these children are joining today, but I am grateful to be present for a small part of their journey. 

The boys unload off the bus. They walk into the monastery with khatas tied around their neck, uncertainty on their faces, and their parents by their side. They line up for a group photo and sweetly greet the camera with a namaste. Then they rush over each other to get to lunch.

Afterwards the monks lead them down a set of steps to the water pump. Here they will have their heads shaved for the first time. They rinse and shampoo their hair and wait in line for an free monk, razor in hand. The older monks meticulously shave all but one small bit of hair, leaving this final, holy task to lama Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. He will remove that last bit of hair when the boy Monks take their initial vows.

As I photograph this small part of their ceremony I sense the comradery between them. One boy assists his friend whose arm is in a cast with removing his t-shirt. A mother gently wipes water from her six-year-old’s shoulder. While the boys are leaving the home and the life they know, they are doing it as a part of their community. I gather them together for one last – and this time hairless – group shot.

A few days later I see them in their red monks’ robes ­– the boys from Dohla, still hanging together. 

Compassion is My Superpower

I am an empathetic person. I cry during movies.  You might even see me shed a tear when a commercial pulls at my heart strings. I feel things deeply, and there's nothing I can do about it.

My empathy turned into a problem when I was a graduate student. I was told that I wasn’t tough enough to be to be a photojournalist. I’ve been shooting for fourteen years (albeit I prefer documentary photographer to photojournalist). My compassion allows me to connect with people around the world and to tell their stories.

Sometimes my compassion and intuition tell me to put the camera down.  I can feel if my subjects are uncomfortable and I am duty bound to do what is best for them. Sometimes I choose to put the camera down so I can share experiences over a cup of tea. There have certainly been a few lost photographic opportunities. But I'd choose human connection over a spectacular photo any day. And I appreciate a spectacular photo.

I spent the last few years working exclusively with nonprofit organizations. It’s a magnificent way to see the world. But there are heartbreaking moments in between. I have come to discover that my job is not just to show up with my camera. My job is to capture reality and stay within the bounds of human dignity. My job is building a story that does not reduce my subjects to one-dimensional sad victims of life. My job is to use the human connection to dig deeper into the narrative.

My method requires time. It requires cultural understanding, curiosity and being open to where the story leads me. My life is surprisingly similar to the people I meet. No matter what their life story. We are all just people living our lives. 

Even the most vulnerable people that I photograph seek understanding. They have the capacity to improve their lives, they simply lack resources. I believe that compassionate storytelling holds the key to connecting vulnerable people with those resources. I hope my stories will inspire others to act with humanity, kindness, and purpose.

I look at the world, and I realize that I lucky enough to win the genetic lottery. I get live where meals are plentiful, health care is available, and I go to sleep at night feeling secure. I’d like to think that it is because of my hard work. But I was born a leg up in the world. So I try to take all that I was given and give back in some small way. So I tell stories. I meet people. I strive to understand the world beyond my own reality. But most of all, I try to have compassion and empathy for all the things I can't possible understand. 

My empathetic connection with humanity isn’t a weakness. It’s a superpower.