Alessandra Petlin + The New York Times

VAUGHAN HANNIGAN’s Thea Vaughan recently sat down with Alessandra Petlin, who had just returned from her week in Nepal shooting for The New York Times Magazine’s cover story, “D.I.Y. Foreign Aid” by Nicholas Kristof.  Read their interview below the images.  The full story and a slide show of images can be seen on The New York Times website.

Thea Vaughan (TV): You recently got a call from the The New York Times Magazine for a project. Can you describe the project?

Alessandra Petlin (AP):  The project was to make photographs for a cover article by Nicholas Kristof about a new and yet “unnamed trend of do it yourself foreign aid” that is being led mostly by young women outside the traditional channels of established aid agencies, politics and the United Nations. Three women were chosen for the story, two of which I would photograph in New York, Elizabeth Scharpf and Lisa Shannon, the third, Maggie Doyne, with the most extraordinary story, in Nepal. Ms Doyne, at the age of 23, has built and created the Kopila Valley Children’s Home, a residence for orphaned children and just recently finished a school that educates over 200 children in the remote Kopila Valley of Nepal.

TV: Tell us about your travels to get to Nepal?

AP: Let’s just say it was the longest and most challenging journey I have ever made.

TV:  Once you were there, you mentioned having a lovely experience with the people of Nepal. Can you describe the people you encountered at the orphanage and the story of how it was started?

AP:  The experience was life changing for many reasons, but mostly because of the children and the visionary spirit of Maggie Doyne.  At age 18, on a pre-college trek around the world, Maggie found herself in a refugee camp in India with so many orphans streaming in from Nepal, she decided to go there and find out why.  Nepal had been in a civil war for ten years and the number of orphans for such a small country was staggering.  Once there she decided she could help even if it meant helping only one child. She called her parents in New Jersey and had them wire her the $5000 she had saved in babysitting money and purchased the land where the Kopila Valley Children Home.  She went to the community and asked for help and they gave it.  As more people in the west learned about what Maggie was doing, financial support streamed in.  Now there are over 30 children living at the home.  What is most extraordinary about what Maggie has accomplished is the way she transformed the traditional model of an orphanage into an extended family in which the children love and care for one another and are supported by an in-house staff of loving, caring adults who complete the “family.”  These bright and beautiful children are happy, healthy and vivacious because they are truly loved and nurtured.  In addition, the entire community – the village – has been involved in both the home and the school.

As complete outsiders, my assistant and I were welcomed into this community with a generosity of spirit beyond anything I have ever experienced.  My heart was opened and filled to overflowing with the love and excitement of these children.

TV: It looks like a very photogenic place. How many days were you there, how much did you shoot and what was your focus?

AP:  Nepal is incredibly beautiful – the surrounding mountains, the rice paddies, the magnificent faces of the people, how they dress, their astonishing sense and use of color, the way they create structures within the landscape – it’s all gorgeous, creating an amazing environment to work, a bonus if you will, but not my focus.

My focus was Maggie, the life of the children at the Kopila Valley Children’s Home and the extraordinary school she has created and how it all functions.  My assistant and I had the privilege of staying in the home with the children, which gave us a more immediate and tangible experience of their daily lives.  One of the most beautiful things we witnessed was a daily ritual in which Maggie and all the children would gather together after dinner and before bedtime.  Everyone would sit on the floor around the room.  The meeting would begin with a discussion of any grievances the children had that day.  Stories were told and apologies and compromises made.  Afterwards, songs in many languages – Nepali, English and even French, were sung.  Then came the dancing where the children sang and clapped and anyone could get up and do their thing.  After, there was a moment of silence for everyone to make a wish either for someone else or for themselves, and to conclude, a basket of cut fruit was passed around by one child. The first night we arrived and joined the meeting, the children gathered baskets of flower petals and showered us with them to welcome us.

TV: Do you have any stories about particular people who touched you there?

AP: I was touched to my core by everyone we encountered; all were kind, generous, curious and helpful. Of course there were certain children that I absolutely fell in love with and forged a real bond with.  I must give special thanks to Tope, Maggie’s right hand in the running of the home and school, whose patience with me was monumental.  He was the ‘go to’ man, the great organizer, who drove with me for hours in search of the perfect rice paddy to shoot the cover and who pulled me out of the wrong ones,  when I fell in…covered in mud.

At the end of that day of scouting, in a small village, a very old and beautiful woman approached me with great insistence.  Tope translated – “She says at this point in her life she’ll probably never see New York so she wants you to photograph her so at least New York will see her.”

TV: Do you think you will keep in touch with anyone there?

AP: I plan on going back to volunteer and will be sponsoring one of the children.  I truly felt joy on this assignment and I think of my experiences there and those magnificent children every day.

Take a look at the slide show of Alessandra’s images at The New York Times.

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