In my mind, Peace Corps and photography are inextricably linked. If there is one chapter of my life that opened my eyes to photography, it was without a doubt the 27 months I spent in Mongolia as a teacher trainer with the Peace Corps. In honor of 2011 being the Peace corps’ 50th anniversary, I would like to reflect a bit on how my experience being a Peace Corps Volunteer helped foster my photographic side, and explain how it might help others do the same. Before we look at how being part of a development program can improve the quality of your pictures, we ought to understand what the Peace Corps is.
Peace Corps is a developmental organization, which was founded by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. It is a completely volunteer-based branch of the U.S. government aimed at capacity building in developing countries. It currently has over 9 thousand volunteers in 76 countries, from Albania to Zambia. It has three simple goals with the purpose of promoting peace and cross-cultural understanding:
- Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
- Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
There are dozens of organizations with similar goals throughout the world. The Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO) and the Australian Youth Development Organization (AYDO) are just a few examples. Like most things in life, one’s experience with a developmental organization will likely reflect what the volunteer makes of it. That being said, there are a number of ways that being involved with organizations such as the Peace Corps or Volunteer Service Overseas might just help unlock one’s potential as a photographer.
Free time– Although it depends largely on where you are placed, chances are you won’t be forced to work 60 hour weeks, trapped in a cubicle, entering data into a spreadsheet. As a teacher trainer in Mongolia, I had a great deal of flexibility with my schedule and was able to fit plenty of time in for photo-walks, reading photography manuals and interacting with interesting people in my community. Most places where volunteers are placed tend to put an emphasis on quality of life and family over work. Following the ‘work to live’ over the ‘live to work’ paradigm will give you an opportunity to develop your photography skills if you choose to.
Lack of distractions– Once again, it depends on the volunteer’s particular situation, but in my experience I had far fewer distractions in Northern Mongolia than in North America. I didn’t have a television or computer in my apartment, which forced me to spend my time developing other interests such as photography, reading and writing. You just might learn how much you can absorb plenty from a photography manual when you read it from cover to cover the 5th time through.
Integration into culture- One of the things that Peace Corps really stresses to its volunteers is community integration. Two major components to being well integrated into the community are knowing the language and being familiar with the customs. To this end, Peace Corps Volunteers live with host families during their three months of training prior to service.
Many volunteers grow extremely close to their host families, and they often visit them throughout their Peace Corps service. This was certainly the case with me; I would return to Dulaankhan every month or two to reconnect with my family, celebrate birthdays, milk the cows, help slaughter goats and get a heaping helping of Mongolian countryside life. I have a very large Mongolian family, my Mongolian parents have 18 siblings combined, with nearly 120 cousins, aunts, uncles and the like.
This is a photo of my youngest host-brother Enkhtuguldur, but everyone just calls him Tugii. His mischievous grin says it all; he is the Chinghiss Khaan of five-year-olds. When he was three, I saw him climb a one-meter wooden fence, fall down and smack his head on the other side, only to courageously stand up, approach the very fence from which he had just fallen, and punch it. One night my family and I were slaughtering a goat in the summer shack, cleaning the intestines and organizing the organs when little Tugii confidently strode into the room. He was wearing oversized fake Gucci sunglasses and in his hands was a super soaker. He sprayed everyone in the room and erupted into an ecstatic gleeful giggle. My brothers and I chased him down and we had a tickle party, staining his shirt crimson with the blood of the slaughtered goat. When my HCA (Host Country Agency) moved me into a new apartment in Darkhan, my host-mother helped me throw a house warming party. Tugii came along and when I took him to the bathroom, it was the first time he had seen a toilet. He went #1, but was so excited when I helped him flush that he dunked his hands in the bowl and then jumped in!
I took this photo while visiting my host family during Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia’s version of Lunar New Year. I asked Tugii to stand in front of a blank wall so that there wouldn’t be any distracting lines in the background. As far as light goes, I used the natural early morning light coming through the kitchen window. To compensate for the relatively low light I set the ISO to 400. To show a bit of Mongolian culture, I put both of my Mongolian hats on Tugii’s head, both my warm winter fox fur hat as well as my summer wrestling hat. The photo has a great variety of textures, a slightly asymmetrical composition and I’m very pleased the end result: a portrait of someone I love that also shows a bit of Mongolian culture in a non-traditional way.
Limitless photo opportunities- Spending a long period of your life in an interesting part of the world will doubtless present a number of opportunities for thought-provoking photos. In my experience, understanding the language and culture as well as forming close friendships with others organically led to countless picturesque experiences. Working as a teacher trainer in a Mongolian school was an amazingly rewarding experience. By the end of my two years there, I had developed a deep rapport with many of the teachers: I designed workshops for the language teachers, I wrestled the gym teachers, sipped moonshine with the training technologists and worked on paintings with the art teacher.
The teachers I worked with had a great sense of humor. During winter, different teams of teachers had to take turns manning the main doors in order to keep an eye on the students and make sure they were speedy about putting on and taking off their winter clothing.
Snickering, one of my counterpart English teachers, Tsegi, taught me to scream what I thought everyone else was yelling at the students: Shaatgalaarai! Shaatgalaarai! A few confused glances in my direction however made me reconsider. Although very close to the Mongolian “Shaatlaarai” which means “Please hurry up”, I was saying something completely different. As it turns out I was bellowing that the kids “Please get naked! Please get naked!”
When I had free time, I would sit in on a few of the Russian teachers lessons. Not to critique their methods, but rather to improve my Russian language skills. One day in class, it was class portrait day. Before I took the official class portrait, the Russian teacher Otinoo was arranging the students on desks and chairs and I managed to take this candid shot.
I love the variety of emotions and expressions from all of the students. Cheerful, playful, solemn, coy, not a bad representation of genuine children anywhere in the world.
Open doors– This photo, which was recently published in National Geographic Traveler, was taken when a good friend invited me to join him and his family on a picnic. After getting out a Russian microbus the family and I slaughtered a sheep and prepared a dish of boiled mutton potatoes. Bottles of airag, fermented mare’s milk and Mongolian vodka warmed up everyone’s musical side and a man brought out his accordion. Photos I took while in the Peace Corps led to a series of photography exhibitions in both Mongolia and the U.S., and helped me find my photographic style.
Photography certainly shouldn’t be the first thing to consider when deciding to join a developmental program like the Peace Corps and Volunteer Service Overseas. That being said, participating in programs like JICA, KOICA, Peace Corps or AYDO might lead to life changing experiences, both photographically and otherwise.