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From Madagascar to Mozambique

Neal Baer
M.D. / Filmmaker

Posted 8:55AM on Friday, August 03, 2007 Pacific Time

If you had the chance to visit any place in the world, where would you go? I chose Madagascar. It's one of the most ecologically threatened places in the world and I wanted to explore the region, to understand the importance of maintaining biodiversity first hand. My son, Caleb, and I have been introduced to the evolutionary splendor of the island by Dr. Russ Mittermeier, President of Conservation International. CI's mission is to protect the biodiversity of our planet, which as we all know is being treacherously threatened by overdevelopment, slash and burn agricultural practices, and dependence on fossil fuels. I've seen a dozen species of lemur, primates found only on Madagascar, and I've come to appreciate the undeniably important work Russ and his colleagues are doing to insure that all species survive our often egregious practice of destroying nature. Please go to www.conservation.org to learn more about CI's work and how we all can support them.

On Saturday I leave the glory of nature for the city of Maputo, Mozambique. As many of you know, I am going there to continue my work on a project in which American photographers teach photography to children orphaned by AIDS so that they themselves can document their lives. This project grew out of my interest in storytelling to change lives. I've been so fortunate in being able to write on two compelling television series, "ER" (from 1994-2000) and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (2000-present), where I can tell stories on the cutting edge of social issues. It struck me some years ago that everyone should have the chance to tell stories that move them, because storytelling is the most human and fundamental way we have of communicating with each other. Just think of all the stories you've told your friends, colleagues or families today. What would our lives be without the ability to tell stories?

I was also moved some years back by the book, "Shooting Back," by Jim Hubbard a renowned photographer and Pulitzer Prize nominee for photojournalism. Jim was one of the first people to do something simple: He gave cameras to homeless children in Washington, DC, and taught them to "shoot back," to tell the stories of their own lives. This idea of Jim's was profound. In the past, photojournalists and documentarians went in to often impoverished areas and took pictures, then went home. Yes, these pictures moved us; yes, they were often tragic, beautiful, compelling. And they often moved us to take action. Recall the photo of the young girl in Viet Nam being napalmed, or Walker Evans's images of rural Southerners. As important and moving as these pictures are, they only tell one story -- the photographer's view. I wondered what the "photographee's" story was too.

So I found Jim in Venice, California doing engaging and important work with kids, teaching them to tell their stories by teaching them photography. Almost everyone can tell his or her story nowadays because technology has made cameras relatively inexpensive and easy to use. We raised money last year for a trip to Cape Town, South Africa, where Jim and Lynn Warshafsky, his wife and the director of Venice Arts, taught fifteen mothers with HIV how to shoot. The results are compelling and can be seen on our website, www.thehouseissmall.org. We are now going to Maputo to complete the second half of our project, which looks at HIV in Africa from the perspective of mothers and children. In Maputo, which has nearly half a million children orphaned by AIDS, we will teach fifteen photography so that they can tell us in their own way what it means to live without parents. Our hope is that these photos will tell Americans a story that haven't seen or heard -- and will give these children a chance to share their own tales with people across Africa.

I will continue to blog a bit about this adventure and what we are doing to link people around the world who are doing these projects. Please go to our blogsite -- www.thehouseissmall.org. -- to follow our trek.

My heartfelt thanks go to many people who have supported this project from its inception: Malena Ruth and Gerrie Smith of the African Millennium Foundation, Jeanie Linders, Dick Wolf, Paradigm Literary and Talent Agency, the Kaiser Family Foundation, Universal Media Studios, Peter Hermann, Geoff Cowen and Josh Fouts of USC's Annenberg School of Communications, the wonderful and talented members of Venice-Arts, and of course Jim Hubbard and Lynn Warshafsky for their tireless work.

All my best,

Neal

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What I can say to my family, and my community, is that the most important thing is love, not money. Sometimes they say that they donít visit us because they have nothing to give us. We need love, not things. Even with money you can still feel alone inside.
Inocencia
Maputo project participant


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