Apr 12, 2010
*Special to asia!

As a photographer, we're always taking things away from people. Entering their home, we take their hospitality, their time, patience, and welcome. So it's a real privilege to be able to give something back once in awhile.

Staff at the Little Sisters Fund thought it was appropriate to inform the parents of the girls that Edwin and I worked with for the Life of my Sisters project.

Edwin and I arrived late. We always seem to underestimate the time it takes us to get places on his motorbike in Katmandu city. But while we get to ride a bike, most others are arriving by foot or a local mini bus called the "micro". So we were not the latest. Lucky us.

Meetings have always been more or less casual during the course of this project. We gathered on the floor, legs crossed on the carpet. There were only enough chairs for maybe five people. One by one parents began to show up. It was wonderful to see their familiar faces, though it took me sometime to recall whose parents they were. Edwin with his brilliant memory had a much faster response than I did.

Some of the girls we worked with two years ago, came along for this rather impromptu meeting. The agenda was to give them the headsup on the project, so no one is surprised. Their daughters, their names, and the stories of their lives were about to be put up on exhibition at a gallery in the Nepal Arts Council in downtown Katmandu. Journalists were going to be covering the project in local English and vernacular newspapers. We needed them to be aware of this. I wasn't sure what their reaction was going to be, and if anyone was going to get uncomfortable with having their life story put out into the mass media.

About 20 minutes into the set time, everyone had arrived. The parents and girls sat quietly in their spots. Not speaking unless spoken to. One of the girls I worked with, Minakshree Nepal, sat close to her mom and peeked from behind her mother's arm, staring at me. I'd wave and she'd squeeze her shoulders together and lean into her mother somemore. I wondered if I should call her over, but wasn't sure how she'd respond. So I sat tight and smiled back at her.

Usha didi (didi is an endearing way for addressing an older "sister" in Nepali) took the initiative to get cracking on the agenda. She explained how the project we'd started in 2008 had evolved into what it was today - a roving exhibition and a published book. Ramesh dai took one of the books out from a cabinet and began passing it around. I took a book out of my back and passed it to a Minakshree's mom. I nervously anticipated her reaction. She doesn't speak any English and didn't make much eye contact with me, so I had nothing to moderate my expectations with.

  LOMS parent meeting

She opened the book, thumbed through the first few pages that had a lot of text explaining the experience of putting the book together and all that jazz. Minakshree's photographs and story wasn't too far into the book, and she reached those pages soon. As she opened up to the page with Minakshee's photographs, she stopped thumbing, and my unflinching gaze was fixed on her. How was she going to react? Did she like the photographs? Seconds crawled by.

In what seemed like the pace of a sprout emerging out of a moist seed, I caught the edge of her lips turn upward, and with patience, her lips parted and teeth became visible, her jaw relaxed, and there it was the consent I'd been waiting for - a smile.

The time Edwin and I spent with the girls in 2008, were made up of moments like these. Patience, waiting, judgement, reaction. We didn't speak any Nepali (this is not currently true for Edwin who attends Nepali classes) and relied on fragments of English words and a keen attunement to observing and responding to the nuances of body language from the girls and their families.

I was relieved and pleased, and finally took a moment to blink.

debby ngDebby Ng forayed into journalism following failed attempts at becoming a world-class equestrian. A wildlife crime investigator, underwater photographer, dive master and founder of a marine conservation organisation, she spends what remains of her time writing about the environment, its wildlife, and its people.

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