Traveling abroad always forces me to respect my access to education in a much more profound manner. Recently, I took a trip to Ladakh, India, a three-day journey from just about anywhere in the U.S., to volunteer at the Siddhartha School, a private institution that values a strong academic curriculum and a culture of giving and compassion in India.
The school, which encompasses children from early childhood through grade 10, was started by the Buddhist monk, Khen Rinpoche Lobsang Tsetan, in his hometown of Stok, Ladakh, to give area children “access to a rich, thoroughly modern education that is in harmony with their Himalayan heritage and their cultural traditions.”
Siddhartha School itself lays in a shallow valley 11,000 feet above sea level, nestled tight in a ring of massive snow-capped Himalayan mountains, high on the Tibetan plateau. The surrounding land is parched and dusty except for the oases of farmland and trees created by thorough irrigation.
There were no other schools accessible to the children of this mountainous region in 1995 when Khen Rinpoche founded the school. Rinpoche took it upon himself to establish the Siddhartha School, turning down an invitation in 2000 from the Dalai Lama to become the Abbot of Tashi Lhumpo Monastery to instead work with local children.
Only 20 students enrolled in the school’s inaugural year, but as time went on and the school grew, Khen Rinpoche started a sponsorship program to help those who were unable to pay for tuition, transportation, or both. Sponsors enable children to attend the school for approximately $360 per year. Some students attend the school and live in the hostel for $400 annually. There are now 400 students at the Siddhartha School and half of them are sponsored.
During my two week stay in Ladakh, I interviewed students who needed financial help. In addition, I interviewed students that already had sponsors so that they could thank them. For the students that had sponsors, I noticed that, despite their shyness and the language barrier, they wanted to make it clear that nothing meant more to them than being supported. One of the children our family sponsors wrote in the school newspaper that the day he was sponsored was the happiest day of his life.
When I was filming and taking photos for the sponsorship program, I found that almost every student, when asked what he or she enjoyed doing most, said approximately the same four things. The students all loved school, their teachers, reading in the newly constructed and furnished library, and playing soccer. I was humbled by how fondly they all spoke of getting the opportunity to learn and attend school.
When I was taking photographs of the students, I was most challenged by getting them to become comfortable enough with my camera to ignore it. The students had certainly seen cameras before, however, they were definitely not accustomed to seeing a young white male with one. Regardless, they were always glad to smile.
One afternoon I headed down to the boys’ hostel with an American friend who was also volunteering at the school. He had been visiting the school for six years in a row and was very close to all the boys in the hostel. We decided to create a video about where the boys were from and how they came to the Siddhartha School. The video never really took shape, however the project provided me with the opportunity to make friends with all of the boys living in the hostel. They taught me some rudimentary phrases in Ladakhi that became incredibly useful throughout the following weeks. Once the proverbial ice had been broken, I found it much easier to take photos that more accurately represented them and their school.
For me, the relationships that I established while photographing these children were much more rewarding than the photos themselves. In my limited experience, the story from which the photograph emerges is always what sets the photo apart. To me, photography is a medium through which I can explain things that I couldn't with words.
For a photograph to be meaningful, it must evoke a feeling or establish a connection; the observer should be able to identify the story behind what made the image possible. The photographer should be able to write a comprehensive back story about the picture. How photographs make the viewer feel is very important for capturing their attention and drawing them into the story behind the image.
This step is akin to the first sentence of a paper because it must convince the viewer that it's worth reading. The story of the photo, and how the photographer tells it, is far more important than the photo itself, even if the story is very simple. To hold the interest of the viewer for longer than the amount of time it would take to see a photo and then scroll past it on social media is as much an art as photography itself.
The most moving part of my trip was the connection I felt as I photographed the students, along with just getting to be so far from home. If schools could create programs that allowed students to travel abroad for shorter periods of time, more young people could experience the world as I have, learning from the stories they find along their journey.
Miles Lipton is a junior at Waynflete School.