December 10th 2008--Nathaniel and Susan Tileston were professional photographers in New York City for 20 years. When the couple moved to Annapolis County in 1982, they took up innkeeping for 16 years.
Initially, Susan and Nat went to teach English in Thailand. They heard painful stories of refugees being chased out of their homes, living in the jungle or watching their parents get shot.
"When I volunteered as an ESL teacher with the Burma Volunteer Program in 2005, working in the border town of Mae Sot, one of the things I noticed was these refugees from the military junta in Burma didn't have much fun. Life for undocumented refugees is precarious at best; they are subject to harassment and/or deportation by the police and immigration authorities."
Inspired by Oscar-winning documentary
Coming back to Canada that year, the Tilestons watched Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids, which is an Academy Award-winning documentary about the children of prostitutes learning to use cameras. A series of exhibits, a book and a foundation called Kids with Cameras was the result.
The film inspired Nat and Susan to start their own photography project with young adults at the refugee camp. When they returned to Thailand, it was with five digital cameras.
The teaching began and after three months an exhibition took place in Mae Sot. Susan said, "I wish I could have captured the looks on their faces at the packed opening reception. For a brief moment, they were no longer refugees; they were artists, valued for their work. "
Since 2006, the Tilestons have helped students document lives in limbo. This past winter they worked with 67 youth. Susan says they are very motivated to learn and to document their lives.
The classes were linked to a free clinic called Mae Tao that treats thousands of refugees from Burma each year for malaria, TB, HIV/AIDS, landmine injuries and illness.
"Our students came from the clinic community of health and social workers, teachers and medics. The third workshop was for eight people from IDP (internally displaced people) areas inside Burma. Our students from the 2006 project worked with us as assistant teachers and translators."
The fourth workshop was held with 14 Burmese teens considered 'at risk.' Working in pairs employing lots of energy and laughter, the youth were also able to mount an exhibition.
Sense of worry emanates
Many of the images show young faces and beautiful smiles, but a sense of worry about the future emanates. Living is obviously crowded.
Their My Story Photo Project is now a registered charity, which offers participants creative expression and a new skill in an otherwise bleak environment, says Susan.
Through the generosity of family and friends, the Tilestons say they have been able to provide digital cameras, batteries, battery chargers, memory chips and CDs to their students.
The photos have traveled: from Thailand to Vancouver; Nova Scotia; Quebec; and San Francisco. Currently they are on display at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts near Canning until Dec. 18.
For more information about the My Story photo project, visit www.msppa.org. Prints are available for $30.