BAINBRIDGE ISLAND — Born into silence and without the words to share the story of their lives, these 15 children will not be able to tell you their story — but they can show you.
The gallery at Bainbridge Performing Arts hosted the opening of a very unique photo exhibition last week, and the show continues through January. All of the photos featured in “Our Silent World” were taken by Ometepe, Nicaragua, children who are deaf.
Ometepe, Bainbridge’s sister island, has been the focus of numerous charitable works organized by the residents of Bainbridge and volunteers through the Bainbridge Ometepe Sister Island Association (BOSIA).
It was Dale Spoor, the head of BOSIA’s Special Needs Committee, who proposed the idea to bring 15 cameras to the Ometepinos. Spoor has volunteered with BOSIA in the past, helping to organize sign language classes for people who are deaf, but in these 15 cameras Spoor saw a new means of communication — one entirely separate from the spoken word.
“I was just thinking about these kids who never had any schooling,” Spoor said. “The government doesn’t provide any resources for them. They’ve sort of been shuttered off to the edges of their society and, with no language, they were totally just in this little bubble of silence.”
After bringing his idea to the Bainbridge Photo Club, Spoor was met with great enthusiasm and shortly thereafter he had 15 new digital cameras, all purchased with donations from photo club members.
Jon Root, one of the members of the Bainbridge Photo Club and an avid photographer, understood the importance of Spoor’s project. Root was so enthusiastic that he agreed to travel to Nicaragua with Spoor and others from BOSIA in order to teach the children how to use their new cameras.
“They all have stories to tell,” Root said. “Perhaps the most important part, aside from the photography itself, is [telling those stories] gives them the chance to feel good about themselves and to know that they’re important in their own way and that they, too, have ideas and can express them and that others can appreciate them,” Root said.
To teach the children how to use their new cameras, Root was tasked with writing out a script of instructions for operating the cameras. Root’s instructions were translated into Spanish by Spoor and read to a Nicaraguan sign language interpreter, who then signed the instructions to the children.
With their new cameras and the knowledge needed to start making photos, the children were given just one assignment: “Tell us about your lives.”
Hundreds of photos followed — of family members, pets, livestock, and the island of Ometepe itself. The kids were told to pick a few of their favorite photos and, of these, two by each child were selected for exhibition. An additional 20 photos which stood out to the members of the photo club were also selected for the exhibition.
The visual storytelling effort didn’t end back in Nicaragua, however.
Root and Spoor will travel back to Ometepe this week to bring three printers to the children and to teach an advanced photography class. Root is hopeful that photography will act as a gateway to a better life for the children.
“The main thing is that these kids are well deserving of whatever help we can give them, and we’re hoping that some might even acquire this as a vocation from these experiences that they’re having right now,” Root said.
For Spoor, the project isn’t just about giving a creative voice to the kids who are engulfed in silence, it’s about showing something to the other community members of Ometepe.
“One of the things that we’re trying to do down there is to sensitize the rest of the community to who these kids are,” he explained. “The people in Nicaragua thought these kids were stupid. We’ve exhibited these photos down there a few times and one of the things that’s happening is the people in the community are beginning to realize that these kids have some talent and some skills.”
The BPA Gallery showcases regional artists in monthly rotating exhibits in the C. Keith Birkenfeld Lobby and regularly participates in the First Friday Art Walk on Bainbridge Island. BPA is located at 200 Madison Ave. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, plus one hour prior to each performance at BPA. Admission is free. Info: www.bainbridgeperformingarts.org or call 206-842-8569.