Following this little introductory paragraph is my first draft for an article I wrote for the JHU New-Letter. By writing it, and then seeing the final version of the article in the news-letter, I learned a lot more about what was important to put into a news article, to get less caught up in the details of a situation, and to more clearly articulate the event as a whole. Also, I learned so much about George and his work from his talk. It made me realize how much more there is to learn at Hopkins outside the classroom setting, or just outside of our classes completely. It wasn’t something having to do with my major requirements, or something that I needed to go to for a grade, yet I feel like I gained knowledge from his insight so willingly, perhaps because it wasn’t forced. Johns Hopkins has the ability to attract great thinkers like him, in every field, so giving one of these talks a try is definitely worth it, and definitely a reason to go to Hopkins that I only discovered once I was here.
On Friday, Mar. 10, a new way of looking at the world was represented by George Kolotov, a Kyrgyz photographer and activist. He spoke in a forum presented by the East Asian Studies Student Advisory Committee titled “Intersecting Art and Development: Capturing Kyrgyz Lives Through a Camera Lens” describing the way in which he faced both success and failure in drawing attention to unaddressed issues in the everyday life of the less fortunate.
At first Kolotov talked about how he first got involved depicting situations of the impoverished. He recounted his first experience in a rehabilitation center for disabled children. He recalls his first meeting with the center’s director as a pivotal moment, one that has defined his body of work since.
He remembers how she interrupted his long string of reasonings for wanting to help, how he could help, etc. She had noticed his distracted manner while speaking and realized its source, a flower made out of tissue paper, surrounded by thick black borders.
At the event, Kolotov illustrated the moment when she gestured to the flower, “You see this, this flower was made by children from this rehabilitation center,” she questioned again,”Do you see the colored papers inside it?”
“Yes,” Kolotov replied.
“My children say that these pieces of papers represent themselves, their souls. This is their heart and she continued “Do you see this black border? Do you understand what that means? This is the wall between them and the rest of the world. So you are there”, pointing outside the lines, “now you are here. Welcome to another world,” she said.
From this point on, Kolotov’s work over the past decade has given viewers a glimpse into the tissue papered colored world of unseen poverty and beauty. He finds a way to pay this rite of passage forward, to invite others beyond the wall of our own ignorance. This is his way of alleviating the poverty that he finds; he mobilizes resources by bringing unknown stories to the light. In this way,
Kolotov assured the audience that we all can make a difference no matter our background or our wealth.
“We all have our communication skills”, and with them, “we find there are resources”.
He also talked about how the interconnectedness of the world can enable us even further through communication.
“Now we are connected with all the world; we can connect anyone with anyone,” he said.
However, this interconnectedness globally and even just within Kyrgyzstan can also have its downfalls. He warned of the mishaps of charity without thought.
“Most people think that any donation is a good donation” he said, “This is the wrong state of mind.” He also conceded that this applies to his own actions.
His failure that he described struck the crowd the most. . His work in this project depicts a young woman who worked in Kyrgyzstan’s Cancer Center and Center for Blood Diseases named Dasha. She was the only certified child psychologist and hospital clown in the entire country. He photographed her work with terminally ill children in order to help her improve her own working conditions and expand her capabilities.
“open a school for hospital clowns,”
The project was stopped after the death of many of the children she worked with. Both Dasha and Kolotov needed a step back from their work.
“For the next two months I tried to find someone who could support Dasha and her work … with no results” said Kolotov. After a fruitless search, Kolotov decided to publish the story on Facebook. The next day, things were completely different.
“Dasha literally woke up famous,” recalled Kolotov, “Crowds of local journalists flooded the hospital.”
In the end, the attention to the story and the corruption of the hospital coming to the light ended up doing more harm than good. Dasha was kicked out of her position by those who ran the hospital and the prices of treatments skyrocketed past their already inflated positions, making treatment impossible for many. Also the images did nothing for the children they captured.
“Only one child survived during the project. There were 96 young patients in total.” Kolotov recounted.
In this series he is able to find this intersection between sadness and beauty. Should these images be beautiful? Professor Phyllis Berger, who teaches photography and supervises the department at Hopkins was unsure if whether or not these images were exploitative of their subjects.
“Capturing human suffering through the camera lens becomes objectification of the person or subject,” she wondered, especially in context for this specific project, “Does it sense a higher purpose? Where will these images go: in an exhibition, in a book?”
Others who attended the event, like Constanza Mayz (2019) also noted the beauty within the suffering in these pictures. Out of the projects he presented, his failure example was actually her favorite. She was particularly drawn to a picture of the one patient who survived throughout the project.
“That one with the picture of the little boy with his eyes, you could see everything in his eyes. It was amazing,” she said.
Overall, his message was one that reflected the complexity of charity work and the art of photography. His message inspired those who attended that making a difference is possible, with the right amount of thought and the necessity of a connectedness with the issue, it is possible for anyone to make a difference even if they do not necessarily have sufficient funds to do so on their own.
Daniel Kim, the President of the Speaker’s Committee of the East Asian Studies Student Advisory Committee first met George Kolotov during the summer at an internship with the Baltimore World Trade Center. He hoped that Kolotov’s work would make an impact on those who attended.
“What I promised him at that brief 10 minute talk was that I would bring him to campus and that I was going to have other people listen to his story in order to be similarly inspired,” said Kim.
If y’all would like to read the published article, here it is:
Kolotov photographs untold Kyrgyz stories