Children Around the World
Story By Randy Peyser
Photos by Jon Kaplan

 

 

What kind of world would we live in if we had the opportunity to meet people from every walk of life, and to experience customs and cultures far different from anything we have known? What if we were able to visit, not only industrialized nations, but developing countries where material wealth is almost non-existent by our Western standards? Would we discover that we were worlds apart from the people we met? Or would we realize that culture and economics are only surface differences, and that underneath it all is a tie that binds — a common heritage of the human desire to give and receive love, to nurture and share with one another.

Through the lens of his camera, Jon Kaplan has glimpsed the cultural richness that abounds in developing countries. His photographs of children show faces of joy; the joy that comes from being loved and nurtured — priceless gifts of the heart that these children receive daily, and which Kaplan believes are severely lacking in our “wealthy” Western society.

Jon Kaplan began his photography at age six, when his dad, an amateur photographer, presented him with six rolls of film and a polaroid camera. Jon recalls roaming his neighborhood, taking pictures of his six-year-old friends, and by age nine was developing his own prints. “Things haven’t changed much,” says Jon. He’s still taking pictures of six-year-olds, but now the globe has become his neighborhood.

Jon’s prime interest is in portraying the richness of the cultures of developing countries. Americans tend to think of developing countries as places where people are backwards, suffering and poor. Although materially this may be true, in other ways, Jon believes “We are the ones who are poor and suffering. We are the ones searching for a stronger sense of family, community, spirituality, and greater meaning in life. These elements are found in abundance throughout the cultures of developing countries.”

For example, in the picture of the four children from Mali, the joy in their faces is obvious. On the edge of the Sahara Desert in West Africa, Mali is the most destitute country Jon has visited. “Only a couple of the children in the picture have plastic sandals, no one has fancy clothes, and their only toy is an old tire. Yet when we see their smiles and the joy in their faces, they seem to have everything. Mali is one of the poorest places on the planet, but it’s also where I’ve seen some of the happiest kids anywhere.” Jon can’t imagine seeing a happier group of four American children.

“Although parents of these children are involved in the struggles of daily existence, they also seem to be happier than most American adults. Perhaps this is because the people of Mali value ‘being’ more than ‘doing.’ In America we believe if we’ve spent an hour a night with our children, that’s quality time. There is a greater quantity of time naturally shared among family and friends in Mali. People spend hours visiting neighbors, just hanging out and talking. In America, we must always be in motion, either doing something or accomplishing something. We do not typically spend lots of time just hanging out with our children or our friends.

“Because people visit one another often, everyone knows everyone else in the community. Consequently, children are not taught to be fearful of strangers, because if there is a stranger in town, everyone immediately knows it. If a child is in any kind of danger, any neighbor will go out to help.”

Jon has developed deep connections throughout the world. On his last visit to Nepal, he was greeted by the father of a family he had visited five times over  the past fourteen years. When he first visited them, the daughter, Xita, was twelve. Now she is in her thirties with children of her own. When the father saw Jon approaching, this man who had never talked much, had tears in his eyes. Jon realized he was important to them; not just someone they saw as an American coming to take pictures.

Jon prefers not to pose his subjects. Rather, he spends time clowning around and interacting with the children, using whatever little bit of language he knows, and then lets whatever happens occur naturally. For example, “In the picture of the little girl and boy from Nepal, I didn’t create the relationship between them, it was already there; the girl was shy and she looked up to her older brother who was very protective of her.”

In 1985, the first time Jon arrived in Nepal, he took pictures of a group of kids in a schoolyard. Returning with the developed pictures five years later, within two hours word had spread to every child’s family who was in that picture, and each child came to get a copy. Now, every time Jon travels to Nepal, he must visit each family and sit and have tea. “Even if they don’t know English well, perhaps only a few words, we sit together and smile.

“Nepal is crowded and extremely poor materially, but spiritually it has been a very rich culture for thousands of years. Although the majority of people are Hindus, a large percentage are Buddhists, and there is no conflict among them. Hindu and Buddhist temples stand side-by-side, with people peacefully observing their respective traditions.

“Bali is also a land rich with culture and spirituality; and a proliferation of temples. Practicing their own brand of Hinduism, every day, the women bring beautiful baskets of fruit piled two feet tall on top of their heads, to the temples. They carefully place an offering on the altar, giving the gods their first choice of all  the food. After it is deemed that the gods have chosen the spirit of the food, the fruit is taken home to be eaten.

“The Balinese culture is incredibly wonderful toward children. During the first year of life, a child is not allowed to touch the ground. Someone must always hold the infant. The belief is that children are holy and the earth is dirty, and for the first year of the child’s life, they don’t want to break the spell. You can see and feel the results; people seem more nurtured and gentle. The Balinese are comfortable with their bodies. They’re not at all uptight about nudity, and the three boys playing in the water jumped spontaneously into position to have their picture taken.

“Unlike the United States, extended families exist everywhere in developing countries. In Bali, for example, all of the families are extended families with grandparents,  parents and children living under one roof. They have a strong respect for their ancestors and for older people. The younger people may run the family’s business and do harder work, but the elders are very much valued for their opinions and knowledge.” 

Wherever he travels, Jon has encountered an amazing generosity among people who have so little by material standards. When Jon gives his subjects photographs of themselves, he is usually given something in return, sometimes a little trinket or an invitation for a meal. “In America, where people have fancy cars and everything else they need, nobody cares as they do in places with less material wealth.

Having a picture taken often becomes a big event. Jon has sometimes discovered as many as fifty people watching as he takes his photos. When Jon took the picture of the nine children in the photo from Ecuador, the father of one of the children came out of his house and gave him a tour of the village, as well as a tour of both his father’s and brother’s homes. Then he was invited in for something to drink. According to Jon, the little girl in the middle of the picture was actually rather stern at first. It took her some time to warm up, but the picture is evidence of her newfound happiness.

Jon believes that it is important to give back to the children and families whose pictures he takes, so he gives each of his subjects a photo. Trading photos for money seems wrong to Jon. He has seen innocent children corrupted by begging. “In places where children learn to beg from tourists by posing for pictures, they make good money which only turns them into good beggars. They’re taken out of school to beg, which creates a vicious circle of growing up without skills, then having kids and teaching them to beg. A picture is more like a gift.” Jon also donates much of the proceeds of his work to the Seva Foundation, which in part, empowers women in countries he visits with micro-financing to start their own craft co-ops.

Throughout developing countries, pride in tradition and custom are prevalent. Most of the indigenous women in the little towns and highlands of Guatemala wear traditional dress all the time, but there are also a few towns where the men also wear traditional clothes. In Todos Santos, for example, the men are intensely proud of their clothes, especially of their hats and pants. They wear distinct colors and patterns, and only people from that village wear those clothes. Even when they are in neighboring larger cities, they can spot each other from a long distance by the colors they wear. “There is a natural camaraderie among the children, a feeling of special identity in wearing the colors of their village. It’s a familial sense, like we are all in this together; we are one big family.

One of the first pictures Jon gave away in Todos Santos was of a Guatemalan man from the waist up, with no evidence of the color of his pants. Looking very puzzled at the photo, the man asked, “Where’s the other half?” Jon learned he had to make sure the whole image of a person appeared in those photos.

Each time Jon travels back to this area, he notices increasing signs of modernization. Fast-food chains now exist, and fewer people wear traditional dress. Of two boys in the Guatemalan photo, one is wearing a traditional outfit from his village, while the other boy has adopted the current trend toward American styles and is wearing jeans.

Both the men and women work very hard, many as weavers. “The men weave skirts on big mechanical wooden looms, while the women typically use back-strap looms, which are basically a bunch of threads and a couple of sticks tied to the end of a tree and around a loose belt around their back. On the simplest of equipment, using their two-pound looms, women do the most beautiful, detailed weaving imaginable. Girls learn to weave at age four or five, and the skill is continually passed down from mother to daughter through the generations. Weaving is a very time consuming process and the style of weaving differs for each village. Overall, women do the more creative and interesting kinds of weaving, while the men sit in one room at two looms doing the back-and-forth, tedious kind of weaving. For the women, weaving is alternated with child-care. A woman works for a few minutes, then stops to take care of her kids, then goes back to work, then back to the kids in an ongoing cycle.

 “People in developing countries seem to have more time for family and friends, as well as time to spend with a funny-looking American wandering around with a camera.” Like the people he has met along the way, without knowing what he will encounter, Jon prefers to let the experience define itself. Wherever he goes, he captures the joy in the faces of children. His message... ”From our point of view, we think these people have terrible lives, but they are more satisfied and happier than we are.”

For information regarding Jon Kaplan’s prints, please e-mail: jonjkaplan@hotmail.com  or see www.thresholdofvisibility.com


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