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. 

The Power of Story

I’ve been studying the craft of photography since I was eighteen years old. I’ve spent (and still spend) lots of time becoming the best photographer that I can be. I wrestle with perfect exposure, swear at my gear on the days when technicalities get me down, and work with the light that is available to me. I’ve taken thousands of terrible pictures. And all those terrible pictures taught me how to make amazing photographs. 

I love photography. I love reading about it. I love talking about. Mostly, I love doing it and learning from it. I love every part of the process from shoot, to edit, to digital asset management. (Yes, I just said that out loud). I geek out over this stuff because it’s so amazing!

But this year, I am challenging myself to do more than make pictures. I’ve seen myself as a storyteller for quite some time. But I must admit that my priority has been on photography not on story. And the more I shoot, the more I realize that without the story the photograph looses its power. 

Why does everyone want to know the story behind a photograph? They want to understand what that person is feeling or living or doing. They want to see themselves. They want to be a part of the action. Without the story, there might be beautiful colors on the page and tac sharp focus but there is no connection until someone can relate to what is happening. 

©Steve McCurry. National Geographic Cover June 1985.

©Steve McCurry. National Geographic Cover June 1985.

There are many photographs that I could give as an example of the connection phenomenon but the one that comes to mind is Steve McCurry’s image called the Afghan Girl, which appeared on the cover of the National Geographic issue in June 1985. The girl, Gula, attended a informal school in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp where McCurry photographed. You can read more about Gula’s story but this photo sparked the imagination of people around the world and eventually Steve McCurry returned to photograph her in January 2002. Gula first saw the famous photograph of herself seventeen years after it was taken and yet it is one of the most recognizable images in the world. 

©Steve McCurry. 

©Steve McCurry. 

This is why I am challenging myself to study story as deeply and as passionately as I have studied photography. I believe that our photographs or videos alone are not enough to truly touch people or motivate them to action. It is only when they connect with the story of a beautiful image that that image holds power. 

I’m sure that if you are in the nonprofit world you know that storytelling is being heralded as the next best thing since sliced bread. You are probably sick of photographers throwing down that gauntlet and asking you to get excited by it. 

Perhaps the biggest problem with storytelling is that we haven’t learned to differentiate between the mediocre stories and the amazing ones. Instead when we’re told to create a story, we fall back on the formula that we all know: Person A has a problem. Nonprofit B helps Person A with that problem. Then Person As life improves. 

This story is the one I see the most often and I wonder if we’ve become immune to it. I wonder if it’s our fallback because we think it should motivate others to action. Just because a story exists doesn’t mean that it's good. It doesn’t mean that people will find it interesting or compelling. It doesn’t mean that it will motivate people to take action. There are a lot of boring stories out in the world and just because storytelling happens to be the latest, greatest thing doesn’t mean that it is.

So this year, I’m asking myself one tough question. Am I willing to put the same amount of study into the story building process as I have into photography? Every storyteller from Shonda Rhimes to Joseph Campbell use formulas to tell a story. And certain genres like to stick to certain formulas. But I am interested in all the formulas. I’m interested in telling incredible stories.

I’m talking about stories that knock your socks off. Stories that make your donors want to give you a million dollars. Stories that turn your video into an Internet sensation because people cannot deny the power it holds.

I believe that it’s possible that if I spend the next year looking at stories, storytellers,  and story formulas that I might stumble on some magic. I might discover the secret sauce. If I can understand what makes people tick or the psychology of why they give and how they connect then I can not only create incredible images, I can use those images to tell stories that create change.