Portraits of Myanmar Refugee Children
Rentwise has recently returned to the Pasar Borong Community Centre (PBCC) at Selayang to celebrate “Children’s Day” with its Myanmar refugee children. My first visit with a representative from Rentwise was brief but truly “unsettling” to say the least.
I was present this round to cover the event and played my part in fulfilling my company’s collaboration with Rentwise’s CSR program in helping these kids. What I provided was a simple portrait session for the children, which would result in A4 prints to be given to them after the shoot.
I arrived a good 1 hour earlier to setup and began my photo shoot session. I had a black velvet backdrop clamped onto two C-stands. One bare speed lite scrapped the backdrop behind (for added texture and background interest) while another ¼ CTO on a reflected umbrella was to camera left as my kicker/accent. A third and last gridded beauty dish key light on ¼ CTO was aimed at subject’s face. This light was constantly being adjusted to go with the varying height of my subjects. It was a really simple setup.
All shots were taken in the region of 1/160 sec, f/4.5 (needed a shallow DOF to blend into background, but not too much) and ISO 100.
I’ve wanted to go with a low key all-black background to depict the rather somber experiences of these children. However, I soon realized it would be a little too drab with the subject lost in oblivion. I then decided to add the background light to give the picture a little lift. It helped. In some instances, it looked as though it was a misty smoke-filled background. However, the light meant much more. It helped painted a glimmer of hope in an otherwise “dark” existence.
The first problem I had was communication. All these children couldn’t speak a word of English or Malay. So I had a difficult time in trying to pose them. However, I soon realized the futility and later on just tell them to do whatever they wanted or get the teachers to speak with them to get their attention. When they’re distracted, I took the shot.
All the while, I was communicating with them through the Myanmar teachers whose command of the English language was very minimal at best. Hand gestures were the way to go. As time goes by, I began to take notice of their hair style, attire, body language and facial expressions. They offered some pretty interesting tell-tale signs of themselves. I thought for a moment before I directed them to assume a certain pose in accordance to a feeling evoked deep within from my observations.
For instance, a very young girl with an elaborate head band who looked so totally lost and bewildered; that meant a closed up head shot that further emphasized the emotion. A rather stiff boy whom I had trouble posing who looked equally lost and confused but with haunting eyes; that meant a closed crop just at the fore head and a depiction of his twisted body chest-up. A boy with unusually big eyes and a dyed funky hair style; that meant a side profile looking downwards with hands on waist, to emphasize the hair and thoughtful stance. All the above 3 examples, illustrated with pictures as follows:
It went on and on and it wasn’t long before I spotted a recognizable trend. It wasn’t that difficult trying to figure out a pose for them. These children came up to my make-shift studio on a dilapidated 2nd floor shop lot, perhaps for their first time ever experience of a professional studio photo shoot; some looking confused, others, giggling and excited at all the attention and contraption. Each and every one of them came with their own story written all over their faces. It wasn’t hard to elicit those emotions and direct them according to what I felt. A pose per se wasn’t necessary. They were natural. Some undeniably thrilled and excited, while others, wary, nervous or just plain calm.
The shoot lasted about an hour and a half, before the children adjourned to a fun-filled arts and craft session with Rentwise personnel who guided them into making gift cards. The children dabbled in colouring works and played with fancy shiny stickers to be pasted onto the hand-made gift cards. Most of the children were clearly thrilled and absorbed in this creative activity.
After the gift cards making activity, all the children were treated to a sumptuous meal of nasi briyani, vegetables, rendang, fried chicken and savoury fruits. The satisfied looks of enjoyment and worriless countenance would have simply moved anyone who’s unaware of what these children have gone through. They were just living in the moment, relishing the goodness of life and a delicious meal they hardly ever get to eat. The expression of joy and contentment was in stark contrast to their heart-wrenching grueling experiences living as refugees in a foreign land.
Rentwise may have just contributed their time and physical donations of groceries, toiletries, food items and essential necessities for these children. These could have come from anyone. These items will not last a lifetime as the ongoing need of the centre knows no end. More importantly, a contribution of “hope” has been made. A dedication of time and a demonstration of empathy indicative that someone cares is all that matters to these children.
I made only 31 portraits that day, as not all children were photographed. I believe every single one of these images speak for themselves. I realized taking portraits isn’t about documenting what you can clearly see but more of eliciting a subject’s essence and interpreting your observations and evoked feelings into an identifiable expression worth capturing on camera. A seemingly definitive expression that ironically may also be open to different interpretations.
Whatever the resulting conclusion drawn from these images is, truth be told, these portraits speak of an underlying innocence and vulnerability prevailing in all children. That’s the essence of children photography.