Photography With A Purpose – House of Mary Orphanage

by John Downey


A couple of posts back, I briefly mentioned photographing some great kids at House of Mary orphanage in Lalibela, Ethiopia.  This happened by chance as I was entering the hotel restaurant where I was staying and the staff sat me next to Mr. Michael Johnston of Wisconsin.  It was a little early to eat and I began working on some other photos over a beer and Mike took notice.  We struck up a conversation and he told me about his grass-roots orphanage. Having been exposed to a number of NGOs here in Ethiopia, I almost dismissed this as just another self-perpetuating aid organization.  However, as Mike went on, I felt like House of Mary was different.  What sets this non-profit apart is the end state for the kids.  The first phase is to find abandoned children and get them off the streets (this in and of itself is a daunting task).  Phase Two is to shelter, feed and educate.  Phase Three is to “graduate” each child where they are self-sufficient and productive members of the community and leave them wanting to give back to others in need.

So, the following afternoon, I walked to the house and met a handful of quietly reserved children with big hearts and wide smiles.  Initially, they were a little skeptical of me but after a few minutes and some translation help, courtesy of two Ethiopian orphanage founders, we enjoyed each other’s company for a while (as I’ve written several times in the past – always allow for a warm-up period before diving in to photograph).  Unfortunately, I didn’t bring any flash equipment with me for this unexpected event but I did have a tripod and, with a little direction to the kids, these are the results.  Inside the reading room above, I was shooting almost in the dark, so I needed all to be still for a three-count.  An overcast sky helped even out the light outside and for individual portraits (not in this post), I asked Mike for some help with a couple of blank sheets of paper to bounce daylight into the eyes.  Overall, I was very pleased with these images despite the lack of some additional gear.  Chiggar yelim.

It was a great afternoon.  I sent these and other photos to Michael and told him to use them on his website as he wished.  There are so many in so much need globally, it’s difficult to choose who to support.  Local?  Regional?  Foreign?  Doesn’t matter.  I just happened on this wonderful group of people and felt a connection.  So, in addition to this small mention here I would encourage you the readers to consider a donation to the House of Mary (see the website above).  If you don’t like sending money, consider used clothes, books or the like to help them learn and grow.  If interested, you can drop me a line at johnadowney2 at gmail dot com and I’ll provide you my address to, in turn, forward supplies overland or by air to Lalibela.  It would be great to see these kids strike out on their own one day due to a few people like you who read this blog and the positive thinking and drive of folks like Mike Johnston.  Read his blog, facebook page, or send him an email directly to learn more.  Thanks for taking a few minutes to read this post.

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