A professional photographer, Yang Che-yi (楊哲一), is helping children on offshore islands to dream big by undertaking a “Send a Picture Postcard to the World” project.
To the children of Dongjyu (東莒) on the Matsu islands, the center of the world is not Taiwan, but neighboring Nangan (南竿島), which is the most populated and developed island in the region.
Surrounded by the sea, Yang said the children of Dongjyu feel isolated from the world and they lack a sense of belonging.
This inspired the 31-year-old photographer to give new hope to the children and change their lives through “photography education.”
Yang is conducting his project in isolated communities so that children discover the beauty of their homeland through a camera lens. Pictures taken by the children will be shown at exhibitions and made into postcards to send overseas, so that children living in these remote areas can feel a link to the rest of the world.
Though Yang originally had the idea in 2009, the project only got underway last year. To date, Yang has visited Penghu’s Huayu Islet (花嶼), Matsu’s Dongjyu and Lanyu (蘭嶼), off the coast of Taitung County.
This year, he plans to make one more stop at Nanao Township (南澳), Yilan County, and then next year he plans to visit Pingtung, Yunlin, Hualien and Taitung counties. Yang said he also hopes to take the project to Thailand, Myanmar and Kiribati — a Pacific island nation which is a diplomatic ally of Taiwan.
“Funding and manpower for the project is limited, so under these conditions we choose to work with kids in elementary schools where the need is greatest, but it will have the least cultural impact,” Yang said. “It’s not just handing out cameras to the students and showing them how to take pictures. To me, photography has a mystic power. It allows me to see the past and link it to the future, but the current young generation does not seem to able to see the future and they have no feeling for the past. Photography can help fill this void.”
“The simplicity and straight-forwardness of photography can inspire people and instill new values in them,” he added.
Yang said he had often heard other photographers complain that there is no photography education in Taiwan and that he felt it was up to him to do something about it, but he found that it was very difficult.
“It was quite difficult to get funding and to find suitable teachers. For your own portfolio, you only need to focus on your own production. To conduct photography education, you need to write teaching proposals, prepare for the courses, and do lots of tedious and arduous work. Also education never stops. After summer camps, then we work with schools to organize photography clubs,” Yang said.
As Yang’s project remains outside of the mainstream education system, taking it into the regimented programs of Taiwan’s schools can lead to conflicts, but despite the difficulties and hard work, Yang has persisted with the project with stubborn determination, because it was photography that transformed his life.
“Once I started to take a new look at Yilan, my home county, through the camera lens I had a strong feeling of my responsibility to the land. I wanted to teach kids everything I learned from photography. That way, I hope it can also transform their lives,” he said.
When Yang visited Dongjyu, there were only six students at the elementary school — and only one pupil, nicknamed Hsiao-fang (小芳), in first grade, while there were none in second and third grade.
Hsiao-fang said she is happiest when she goes with the older students to take pictures of the local communities and old military bunkers.
On one trip, a sixth-grader nicknamed Laoyu (老瑜) put her camera inside a gun barrel on an old military bunker. She was asked why she was taking a picture there.
“Since I was little, I always wondered what was inside the gun barrel of a cannon. Now I know, it is dark and rusty,” she said.
On the other side of the bunker, Hsiao-fang excitedly, but nervously tugged the hand of a volunteer teacher, asking him: “Can I take you to see a mysterious place?”
They went inside the abandoned bunker, where the emblem of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is still inscribed on one of the walls.
Yang has enlisted a number of volunteer teachers for the project who all have a passion for photography. They work with the schoolchildren, give them instructions, find out about their lives and families, and after taking pictures, discuss the images with them.
One of the volunteers is Hsu Po-kai (許博凱), a graduate of National Chung Shan University who had just finished his compulsory military service.
Hsu said “Send a Picture Postcard to the World” is a worthy education project, as it gives an opportunity to children on offshore islands.
“This is very meaningful for the schoolchildren to reach out to the world. It is a way for them to travel without leaving the island,” Hu said.
“This project does not come with a fixed framework, it give the kids lots of freedom and this helps to cultivate their creativity,” said retired teacher Yang Chung-huang (楊仲璜), another volunteer.
Another volunteer, poet Yang Shu-hsuan (楊書軒), takes the picture postcards produced by the students and adds short poems and portraits. As some of the cameras are donated, the children send the postcards to the donors to thank them for their generosity.
Photography exhibitions and charity auctions are being planned to help raise donations. Half of the proceeds will be used to purchase more cameras, while the other half will provide funding to support the project so the outside world can get a glimpse of the lives of these oft-forgotten children.