Photographer promotes cultural diversity through his portraits

Posted: Thursday, June 03, 2004

As a photographer, Phil Borges has traveled the globe in order to capture pictures from quickly disappearing indigenous cultures that rarely are seen by the rest of the world.

Whenever Borges visits one of these remote, generally isolated groups of people, he takes from them images that give some insight into their way of life to share with people in more urban settings who sometimes never even knew the subjects of the photography existed. In his latest endeavor, Borges is trying to give something back to the people he photographs an educational program designed to foster better understanding and communication between indigenous people and the more mainstream urban world.

On Monday, Borges will visit a community that is not as remote as say Irian Jaya, Indonesia, but still somewhat off the international beaten path Soldotna. Borges will give a photography slide show talk and book signing as well as discuss his Bridges to Understanding educational program as part of the "Integrating the Arts with Integrity" Summer Arts Institute at Kenai Peninsula College.

The institute, now in its seventh year, is a week-long series of classes and presentations for teachers, artists or anyone interested in learning how to integrate the arts into education in order to promote achievement. Borges' background makes him a tailor-made special guest presenter for the institute.

"Because of his Bridges program, that made it a perfect fit, definitely," said Jayne Jones, a photography professor at KPC who helped arrange Borges' visit. Jones met Borges when she lived in Seattle, where he's from, and was aware of a mentoring program and other work he did with kids. "He does so much with young people ... I was real impressed with what he's doing."

Bridges, which Borges launched in 2002, is an online classroom program that links sixth- and seventh-graders in indigenous cultures with kids in urban settings. Interactive digital photographic storytelling methods are key to the program, and the kids are assisted with the technology by photographers, translators and other professionals who serve as mentors. The students first study and photographically illustrate their own way of life including topics like language, customs, geography and beliefs then create a Web page to share that information with a partner classroom somewhere else in the world. The students ask each other questions and complete projects together.

"It's a kind of a self discovery they're learning about their culture as well as other classes they're connected to," said Celia Anderson, an organizer of the institute and a professor at KPC. "... It's a really a cool idea. How exciting to get questions back from a classroom around the world. How exciting for kids, you know? I just think that would be awesome."


This shot is of Rawzan, 70, of Soor Laspur, Pakistan. Borges says Razwan has been a farmer all his life and has never ventured further than 30 miles from his village in the Hindu Kush Mountains, especially since several generations of his family live there.

Borges will discuss the program and answer questions at 2 p.m. Monday in the Brockel Building at KPC. Anderson said the presentation likely will be of most interest to middle school teachers who may want to participate in the program, but anyone interested is welcome to attend.

Anderson said she thinks the program would have tremendous value to kids on the Kenai Peninsula, especially with its mix of rural traditional Native communities and urban towns.

"I think connecting with a culture that's different somewhere else in the world might also benefit kids here so they could better understand the indigenous people in the state," Anderson said.

Later Monday night, at 7, Borges will give a slide show talk of his photography and sign copies of his "Tibetan Portrait: The Power of Compassion" book, although only 30 books will be available to purchase. His portrait photography makes Borges an ideal speaker for this year's institute, since this theme is "Faces and Facades."

Borges travels the world to take portraits of people in indigenous and tribal cultures in order to bring attention to their way of life, especially as trends in population expansion and technology mean these cultures may not exist for much longer. His pictures focus on the people and generally are shot very close up so the subjects are in focus but the background is not. The backdrops can be anything from rolling vistas of wind-swept Mongolian plains to dense textured clumps of intertwined jungle foliage.


Borges took this photo of Munkhbat, 39, in Darhat Valley, Mongolia.

"You have a sense that we're very small in a very large world. It gives you a sense that they're really close to their environment, that this large landscape is their world," Anderson said. "What I like about it is I think it just sort of supports that kind of expressive message he's trying to get across (that) indigenous cultures understand their world."

Borges has enjoyed some international acclaim for his photography, even though he came to the medium as an adult after a career as an orthodontist.

"He had it as a hobby, took some classes and just really had an inspiration and it was like a calling," Jones said. "As an artist when you pick up a particular medium you know you need to be doing that, and I think that's what happened to Phil."

Borges has been pursuing and melding his interests in photography and promoting cultural diversity for more than 25 years. He joined Amnesty International in 1998 and produced an exhibit and book, "Enduring Spirit," to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He also has hosted three TV documentaries for Discovery and National Geographic

"I think that Phil's career as a photographer is fairly exemplary in that he really defined who he was as a photographer and what he wanted to do and became very singleminded in his pursuit of that," Jones said.

Along with Borges, the institute will offer several other presentations during the week that are open to anyone, whether they're enrolled in the institute or not. For a presentation schedule, see the What's Happening list, page B-1.

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