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Feeble Children of Cambodia Evoke Heartbreak, Inspiration

Jan. 21--DAYTONA BEACH -- The child lies quietly on the straw mat covering the hard hospital bed. His eyes are huge and dark in his fever-flushed face.

The photographer, pausing at the foot of the bed, is captivated by those eyes. The expression is unfathomable but irresistible.

Carefully, as if not to disturb a skittish bird, she raises her camera. Focuses. Takes a picture.

The child does not move, doesn't blink. The little face remains calm, the gaze inscrutable.

Julayne Farmer wonders, as she does every time she photographs a gravely ill child: Should I be doing this? Do I have the right?

Farmer, a graduate of the photography program at Daytona Beach Community College, returned recently from three months volunteering as an art therapist at the Angkor Hospital for Children in Cambodia. Naturally, she took her cameras. Just as naturally, she started taking pictures. But always, there was the question: Am I crossing some line?

One day, she got her answer.

"I would take pictures of the children during the day," says Farmer, 25, during a visit to Florida. "Then I'd ride into town to the Fuji lab to get prints made for the parents.

"I didn't know how important it was until I photographed a little girl one Tuesday. I gave the print to her mother on Thursday. The child died the next Monday.

"The mother came to me. She thanked me. She put her hands together and bowed toward me. She was so grateful. It was the only photograph she had of her daughter."

Such graciousness in the face of tragedy affected Farmer deeply. So did the stoicism of the families she encountered daily. She was awed by their dignity and capacity for joy -- despite their extreme poverty, despite the ravages of AIDS, pneumonia and tuberculosis. Cambodia has the highest AIDS/HIV infection rate in Asia, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"Growing up American, you spend a lot of time in a fantasy world," says Farmer. "To suddenly do something like this really grounds you in reality. At some point in your life, that's really necessary.

After a week at the hospital, "I thought I couldn't go on. It was all too heartbreaking," she says.

"But after one month with the children, I realized I was changing. They were the happiest kids. It was like they knew something that someone like me didn't. They really valued every day. They made it hard for me not to do the same."

Photography can be cathartic, says Eric Breitenbach, a former instructor of Farmer's who arranged for her to exhibit her photos and lecture at DBCC.

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