A Conversation With A St. Louis-Based Humanitarian Photographer
Karin Doolin and her husband, Roger Doolin, began their photography careers shooting local weddings and photos for high-school seniors, before heading off to Nicaragua on a humanitarian photography trip. There, in villages developed countries would deem “poor” and “impoverished,” they found intellectually curious children and adults who had never held a camera before, and had no way to document their lives. The Doolins brought a Polaroid camera with them, so they could take pictures and immediately provide the people they met with meaningful images. Karin remembers first and foremost, they wanted images of their families. One woman requested a photo of her wedding dress, and another asked for a photo of her pig, a great luxury in her village.
“People living in these villages rarely had any photos to show. They had no proof of life. Photos are our proof of life. So, they really cherished these Polaroids. When they’d show us things they wanted us to photograph, it really resonated with us,” she says. So much so that the Doolins developed a nonprofit around teaching photography to individuals in these communities called The Big Picture Project. They’ve since completed four projects: two in Nicaragua, one in Kenya and the latest project in Myanmar.
This Friday July 21, The Big Picture Project will host an art show in St. Louis at the .ZACK, showcasing artwork from 18 of the selected children the Doolins worked with in Myanmar.
We spoke with Karin to learn more about the project, inspiration and upcoming event.
How did you set the idea for this nonprofit in motion?
Well, I have a bunch of photographs of my dinner on my phone [laughs]. But I was interested in the idea that if you’ve never held a camera before, or taken a photograph, what is most important to you in your life that you want photographed? When we came home after our first humanitarian trip, we looked for organizations that taught photography in those areas. We found some ventures that were similar to what we wanted to do, but nothing that really gave back with those images. We thought, “Maybe these photos have the power to do more than just provide perspective. Maybe they could be sold, and provide funds to be put back into their community towards something they’re lacking.
Luckily, I also have a husband who’s very encouraging when it comes to chasing dreams and taking risks. We thought, “Let’s just go for it.” We applied for our 501(c)(3) and got it. And soon after, we planned a project with the mission organization that had facilitated our trip to Nicaragua. At the time, we knew it was an idea that may or may not work, so we decided we’d start somewhere that was somewhat familiar. We had seen firsthand that that organization was helping build homes that had been destroyed by a flood, and we knew the funds raised would go directly back into the community. The woman who oversees the project in Nicaragua also had some ideas of core people who would work for what we wanted to do. We worked with a 40-year-old woman who spoke English, two teenage boys and a 13-year-old orphan girl.
We worked with them everyday, and had no idea what we were going to get in terms of the quality of photos. But immediately, they took to it.
Why was this specific creative outlet so important to these communities you visited?
Everyone has creativity—but these people don’t have the opportunity to showcase it. Everything they’re doing is for a job, chores, or to get money. It’s all about survival. It’s not about fun. So when they get that first opportunity, they respond wonderfully. It was really inspiring to watch them, because their life is so much work. The joy that comes off of them—you could tell they were having some of the best memories of their life. That first project was extremely successful, and the images we got were incredible. We raised $20,000 in donations and [from] selling their products, which shows that the model worked.
We’ve now done four total. We did another one in Nicaragua. There’s actually a large trash dump in a city nearby where we worked. Most of the people in Nicaragua are poor, but [those] in the trash dump are the poorest of the poor. You see three-year-olds going into the garbage dump to go through trash instead of going to school. As soon as they can walk, they’re sorting through recyclables of value, or they’re so impoverished that they’re looking for food. We worked with a woman to establish a feeding station in that dump, so children can get two hot meals a day. That allowed some of them to go to school. They can play, do puzzles and color—it gives them a chance to be kids.
Tell me about this project in Myanmar.
It’s a very special project to us. When you say “Myanmar,” many people don’t know where you’re talking about. The country was run by the military, and everything about the citizen’s lives was censored. There was no freedom of speech. If you were caught taking a photograph in public, you would be imprisoned. So to go into a place that has this history that’s now been opened up, with freedom of speech and the internet—they’re absolutely blown away by it. But to be able to put cameras in their hands, when a few years ago they would have been put in prison for that—it’s amazing. Our whole purpose is to give a voice to the voiceless. That’s really true here, probably more than anyone else we’ve worked with before.
We worked with a couple—who are actually coming to the event—and they’ve never left their country before. They’re a husband and wife who traveled with us and spoke with the people they worked with, helping us throughout the project. They noticed we were asking kids their opinions about the photos they were taking, and what they liked. They told us if we did that, we wouldn’t get a response from people, because they’ve never had the opportunity to have an opinion. There’s been no value placed on that. Having an opinion could get them in trouble.
What is the importance of the show and event component of the project?
After every project, it’s a time to showcase the best photos. That way, people can see printed images and artwork of what each person has done. Audiences can get to know the person who took the photo and see their work firsthand. It’s a celebration of what these people have shown us. One thing we’ve learned throughout is that when people come, they walk away touched. If we showed them the images on a computer, it wouldn’t be the same. It’s when they read the story firsthand and understand the reasoning behind the photo—then they really become attached and become fans.
Since the first one that we’ve had, we’ve always thought it would be so neat to have the person who took these here, so they could see people admiring their work. That’s really empowering for someone. So having the couple from Myanmar come is huge for us. It will be one of the biggest moments for the Big Picture Project.
What has been the importance of travel for you, and experiencing other cultures in your life?
Honestly, the first trip completely changed the trajectory of our lives. That came from having an eye open to the things that other people do without—the things we take for granted—but mostly seeing other people’s happiness when they have so little, and seeing them appreciate the things that matter the most: their family and their sense of community. Seeing that consistent theme throughout the places we’ve gone has hugely changed our lives and the way we choose to look at things.
There is a common theme we’ve found through the project, for all of these people. They have very harsh circumstances. Some are starving. These people live in huts, and have often lost family members to starvation, and things like that. But all of them choose positivity in their photos. It shows the power of perspective when you choose positivity. It’s not about what you have. It’s how you see it. In all of their photos, there’s hope. There’s joy. It shows we have a choice in how we see things.
If we were just travelers taking the photos ourselves, we would have missed that, because we wouldn’t be seeing through their eyes. Had we not handed the camera to them, we never would have had that perspective. That has made an impact on how we choose to see things. We often have first-world problems—things that seem like a catastrophe, but when you really look at it, you realize it just doesn’t matter.