Reflections is a BitterSweet podcast series formed out of the idea that in seasons of uncertainty we can ground ourselves by recalling past moments of faithfulness—holding on to the hope extended by the good work of those who use their lives to serve their neighbors.
In this series, we ask our contributors to look back over the catalog of BitterSweet stories they were a part of and discuss the how and why of the story that impacted them most.
Hosted and produced by Robert Winship.
Episode Five: Photographer Erica Baker discusses “The Strongest Little Beats in Beijing"
In this fifth episode of Reflections, host Robert Winship speaks with Erica Baker, a photographer based in Washington, DC, who looks back on her contribution to the story of Morning Star Foundation, an organization that helps families with severe heart disease in children get life-saving medical treatments.
EB: When I'm taking someone's photograph, I want to make sure that I am highlighting them as a person and not just the circumstance that they find themselves in, in this phase of their life, that they are honored and dignified, and that I hold their story really well, because it's not mine, it's theirs.
RW: Welcome to BitterSweet Reflections, a six-part audio series, where BitterSweet contributors reflect on memorable stories. I'm Robert Winship. In this episode of Reflections, we talked to Erica Baker, a documentary photographer who looks back on a story about the Morning Star Foundation.
Erica Baker is an independent documentary and commercial photographer who primarily works with nonprofit organizations, social enterprises, and corporations doing good. She is also a contributor to BitterSweet Monthly. Erica, welcome.
EB: Thanks Robert. I'm so happy to be here.
RW: I want to start by asking what I've asked each other contributor, which is, how do you describe your work with BitterSweet to others?
EB: Sure. Yeah, when I'm talking to other people about BitterSweet and my work specifically, I am a photographer, so I contribute my time, talent and resources as a photographer to a few different stories each year. And these stories being about different nonprofit organizations all over the world.
RW: You do other work with nonprofits and organizations, kind of doing good as you say, why do you spend your time working with BitterSweet specifically?
EB: So I had the amazing privilege of hearing about BitterSweet Monthly directly from Kate many years ago. Kate is the founder of BitterSweet. And at the time it was a in-print magazine called BitterSweet Zine. And she described this product she was working on and how she was tapping artists and creatives and writers to tell the stories of nonprofit organizations. And I just immediately connected with the idea and with the concept. I really actually didn't study photography in school, my background was in International Studies and Peace and Reconciliation. And so I always thought I would actually work for a nonprofit organization as a career. That was always the goal, and kind of fell into photography somewhere between college and starting my career and quickly realized how much NGOs and nonprofits need photographers.
And so that was kind of how I got started—as much as I love photography, my first love was for nonprofits and NGOs. When I found BitterSweet Monthly, it was kind of the marriage of these two passions of mine. Like if you could take—imagine two circles drawn and a Venn diagram... I feel like BitterSweet Monthly is in that perfect center part of the Venn diagram of what I'm passionate about and also what I do for my work. It just appealed to me from the start and I have loved every minute of it over the past...I guess it's been seven years now that I've been working with BitterSweet Monthly.
RW: Well yeah, you've done quite a few stories as a photographer.
EB: Yes. I think 17, 18 something along those lines. Yeah, since my first story back in 2013, until now.
RW: This series is titled Reflections and each guest is asked to select a story that they were a contributor to. Erica, you picked "The Strongest Little Beats in Beijing," which focuses on the Morning Star Foundation. Morning Star Foundation is a global nonprofit organization that helps families with severe heart disease in children get life saving medical treatments. Their work is centered in the areas of Jordan, Uganda and China, where this particular story took place. So for this story, can you just briefly describe what this is about and maybe tell me why you were interested in contributing to it?
EB: So Morning Star Foundation has a home in Beijing called their Baby Home. It's essentially a foster home for children who have complex cardiac defects who were coming out of Chinese orphanages, and the Chinese government actually contacts Morning Star Foundation and asks them to take on some of their most severe cases. And then Morning Star raises funds to pay for the children to be able to have surgery—most of the time it's life saving surgery. And then they also provide the children with the loving care of an Ayi who is essentially their foster mom in the home until they're eventually placed with their adoptive family.
EB: I'm always drawn most to stories that address the root of an issue or a problem, and Morning Star Foundation, for me, immediately stood out that they were not just addressing the orphan crisis in the world. They were looking for the root problems, they were looking for why are there so many children and orphanages in these countries specifically? And in this instance, we were in China.
So why is there a crisis? And before I started working on the story, I assumed what I think most Americans assume, is that the root of the orphan crisis in China is just completely coming from the one-child policy. And obviously that's part of it, but that ended several years ago. So the bigger problem is the affordability of having children, especially children who have severe medical issues or disabilities. So many Chinese parents are given the impossible choice of either trying to care for their child without having the resources or the funds to pay for surgeries in cash, which is the way that the Chinese Medical System works, or they can abandon their child on the street corner or at a government building in hopes that the Chinese government would be able to care for their child.
I personally can't imagine being put in that position. It's just an impossible situation for a parent. And working on the story really gave me a whole new empathy and appreciation and just sorrow for the parents of all these children in Chinese institutions and orphanages. Whereas I think the narrative I'd always heard before was, "How could these parents abandoned their children?" That really flipped for me to, "Wow, what a heavy and impossible choice? They must have really loved their children to try to give them another chance." I guess that narrative was really compelling to me. And so that was a big reason that I decided to contribute to the Morning Star Foundation story.
RW: So as a photographer, what was your approach to this story?
EB: From the get go I knew I'd be working with children and that's something that I do love, but also can present challenges. So if you were to look at my work, you'll see that I've taken several different approaches, I've moved in everything from recreating someone's story with actors to portraiture, with strobes in different lights, to documentary photojournalism. And this story to me just lend itself perfectly to more of a photojournalistic approach.
So right from the moment that we arrived at the home, I really tried to just be a fly on the wall and watch. And one of the great things about kids is that they're really great at ignoring you. Obviously I was still there. I was obviously the white American woman in the room, but I tried to stay as outside of every situation as I could, and just observe and photograph everything that was happening in the home, just watching each of the kids be cared for. And then also going along to the hospital and observing with the amazing physicians and nurses who work with Morning Star Foundation and just seeing what the day-to-day life of these children looks like in this stage, when they're in the foster home with Morning Star.
RW: When you think about putting together a story like this, and with most of these BitterSweet stories, there are at least two or three different contributors. The story can change from the initial pitch through to that final asset, if you will, how did this story change for you, from forgive me, but conception to delivery?
EB: Yes, I think as I was saying before, what I thought about China and the orphan crisis there at the beginning of this whole process of telling the story was just so drastically different than how I felt or thought about it at the end, when we hit publish on the story. And that was through different books that I read in preparation for this trip and for the story. And then also, obviously there's just something so powerful about actually meeting the children and meeting the foster parents and meeting the adoptive parents who are part of this issue of the orphan crisis in China. And so, just meeting them personally and getting to know their story completely changed everything I knew about the issue as well, which is a huge reason that I do what I do—is that I really believe that getting to know people personally and getting to know individual stories really changes the way that you think about larger issues. That people are no longer statistics, our just numbers, but they're living, breathing people.
And I absolutely loved working with the other people on my team. Jessica is an incredible writer. She just told the story so beautifully, just wove it together. And then Dave did an amazing job with the video and there's something so powerful about words, but I also really believe that there's something irreplaceable about looking into another person's eyes and that's just the way we connect as humans. And so as a photographer, I'm always conscious of that. So my hope is that after you've looked at the story and you've seen the images and you've read what Jessica wrote, that now when you think of the orphan crisis in China, or when you think of adopting children with special needs, that you'll specifically think of these children and their faces and their eyes, so that they'll sit with you. I guess that's my goal, is for you to be able to look directly in their eyes and see them. Does that make any sense?
RW: Yeah. That actually gets at some of the themes that you approach in your work as a photographer with kids. I like how you said that they don't change in front of the camera, the way someone who's older and might be a little bit more performative or see themselves in a different way. Kids treat the camera the way they would any amount of attention, which is they love it. And they're constantly taking in information about it. So even better when you're trying to kind of capture their eyes and that sort of wonder, and being educated about the world, just by taking it all in. That's a beautiful sentiment. Is there ever, especially in this situation with very young children and babies, and talking about the issue of potentially abandonment or very difficult financial issues, does that present an emotional challenge for you as a photographer, for you as a person?
EB: Whenever I'm working with children, I'm always really aware and mindful of the fact that they are obviously completely unaware of what I'm doing there. I'm always trying to kind of walk and balance the fact that I want to tell the truth and show that their medical complications are severe and that they're in a vulnerable position, that they need help. But I'm also want to make sure that they're portrayed with dignity and their story is honored. I would love for 25 year old Oliver to go back and look at this story and read it and feel that his story was honored. And feel that the images of him...that he's not embarrassed in any way or that he feels that we violated his privacy. I'm always trying to think of 25 year old Oliver, or of Oliver's birth mom, or of Oliver's future adoptive mother. Could they all look at these images and would they all feel that they were dignifying and telling the truth?
RW: You said that you have done other, or you have contributed to other pieces, or you photographed in situations where it was staged.
RW: Do you prefer shooting more documentary style, or fictionalized, or staged?
EB: If I have a choice, I typically prefer to work with the actual individuals whose story that we're telling. As much as it can be difficult as a photographer to try to navigate the line between exploiting someone and telling their story with dignity and honor, I care about that so deeply that it can be stressful for me to walk that line, sometimes.
RW: One thing that I've talked about with other contributors, and I feel like is very relevant, especially based on what you've said is empowerment as it relates to especially the subjects of each of these BitterSweet stories, in as much as the writers and the filmmakers and photographers who covered them, what is the word empower mean to you?
EB: The word empower as it relates to photography and storytelling to me really means who in a situation is holding the most power. And in the instance of photography and photographing individuals who have been part of the work of a nonprofit, I really want to make sure that they're the ones that hold the most power in these situations.
RW: So you feel like the word empowerment, and even to kind of approach that, you have to know who holds power in the situation or in this story coming in. And if I understand you correctly, it feels like maybe you as the storyteller, the assumption might be that you have that power because you control the narrative. Right?
EB: Right. And so I, as a photographer, as a storyteller, I'm very aware that there have been a lot of circumstances where people have been taken advantage of or exploited all in the name of storytelling or fundraising for NGOs or nonprofits or for good causes. And so that's obviously not at all what we want to do here. We want to do the exact opposite. Who's ever story that we're telling, I want to make sure that they feel that they had complete buy-in, that they knew exactly where their story was going. And not only that they knew where it was going or what was happening with their story, but that they were excited about it. And they felt like they were also contributing to this, to BitterSweet Monthly, in a way that their story was honored. I hope that they go and read that issue, and that they're just so excited about what we all created together. And to me, that's true empowerment, when we're all contributing in a way to the story.
RW: Do you ever keep up with the subjects of these stories, or stay in correspondence, see them again?
EB: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, something that's been really fun about Morning Star Foundation is that the children who I met in the Baby Home, many of them were actually adopted several months after we visited, to the States. And so one of them is actually local to DC and the DC area. And I haven't gotten to see him yet, but it was funny, I actually, crazy enough, knew his adoptive father through a corporate photography....I photograph for his company. So that was a crazy coincidence.
So I now follow a lot of these kids on social media, and I see their new lives here with their new forever families and their adoptive siblings. And it's kind of fun to see where they've ended up. And also one of the little boys who I met there, Toby, he was adopted a few months after we were in Beijing to Nashville, Tennessee. And I've been following along through social media with his story. And his health declined severely—one of his heart surgeries, and there's been several times where they thought they were going to lose him, but he just keeps pulling through. He's such a fighter.
EB: And I'm just...I'm a little attached to all of these kids after having seen them. I don't know, following their story over a year, I have actually considered...I'm interested to continue photographing them. Because as I was saying before, I'm really drawn to the women who have cared for them at these different phases of their lives and to have met their Ayis who cared for them in the foster home. And then I would love to go and meet their adoptive mothers now too, and just to be able to see where they end up and then also follow along with their health journeys, as well as they just continue to pursue whole hearts.
RW: You could start a, BitterSweet's kind of a, the Seven Up series of films. That every seven years they track these different... Now they're like in their sixties, Bittersweet could have a longterm study of some of the different subjects.
EB: Yeah, right?
RW: Certainly not at all a costly...!
EB: Yeah. The BitterSweet decade, that will just get every decade and follow the kids.
RW: That's true. It's certainly a lot of interesting subjects that have come up. And yeah, that's interesting that you now know the adoptive father of one of these kids and you sort of are still following a story that you had a small part in, but lives on as the greater story of someone's life.
EB: And then the other funny thing is we worked so hard to try to keep the kids' privacy by using pseudonyms that Meredith, the Morning Star director at the time gave them just for social media and for fundraising purposes. And then several of their adopted families liked the names and they kept them. So now they're actually their legal names. So they're no longer pseudonyms, but we tried. Yeah, they were not their legal names at the time that the story was published, but some of them actually, they're their legal names now.
RW: That's fantastic. So you had planned in your professional life to work with nonprofits, not necessarily as a photographer. Do you take that as a kind of inside baseball when you come into these situations kind of knowing how the gears of nonprofit work?
EB: Yeah, I think going into stories or working with NGOs and nonprofits I immediately connects really well with the people who are working with the organization. And I just think they're all incredible. Yeah. Whenever I'm photographing them or telling their stories too. Because it's not always just the participants or the recipients of the organizations that we're telling stories about. It's often the people who work there or work with the organizations as well. And so many of them are just everyday heroes. And I know that sounds kitschy or something, but as someone who's just passionate about NGO, nonprofit work, and as someone who thought that's the career I was going to have, I think that it's a whole other dimension to why I loved working with Bittersweet or why I think that this kind of storytelling matters. Because as far as which stories get elevated in our world, it's definitely not the stories of the Chinese foster mom who is living in a foster home with eight to 10 babies away from her family, away from her own life to care for them. We're not elevating those stories.
EB: That's another aspect that I really love about BitterSweet is that we're just highlighting some of the best of humanity. Like if we were going to give an award somewhere, like the best of humanity, I think that individuals that work with nonprofits, whether they're aftercare workers or foster parents or counselors, or what have you, I think that they're just incredible and they should be more celebrated. So I'm happy that we get to celebrate them a little bit in each of these publications or in each of these stories.
RW: Working with nonprofits or NGOs, it sounds like it's energizing for you.
EB: Absolutely. Yes. I can't tell you how many times that someone who works day in and day out at an NGO, just how... They're usually so camera shy. They're never in front of the camera. People aren't asking them questions. They're not being celebrated in that way. And so it's just fun for me to be able to take a really nice portrait of them and show it to them. And yeah, just let them feel appreciated because it's often a thankless job or just a job where, just so under appreciated...people who care for the most vulnerable in society.
RW: And I think that sounds like that kind of goes back to the question I had asked about empowering, right? You're shining a light on people who may be working kind of thankless jobs, that them to care a lot and often about something that is important.
RW: What is the relevance of "The Strongest Little Beats in Beijing"? What is the relevance of Morning Star Foundation right now?
EB: Yeah, I think as a world and as a country, we're talking a lot right now obviously about healthcare and all of the problems that we have there and how so many people are slipping through the cracks. How can we do better? How can people not be put in a position where they're forced to pay for a life-saving surgery for their child in cash that they don't have? I think that we're in a place—in our society, in our country, in our world, where we're really faced with the fact that healthcare needs to change and that no parents should have to be put in that position that they're wondering whether or not they can save their child's life, simply over money. That's just unacceptable on every level. So I think that's a conversation that's really at the forefront of everyone's mind in our current situation.
Someone once pointed out to me that we use the word, take, for photographs, we don't say make like you do other art. And it's because you're kind of taking something from someone, right? I'm not making this out of thin air, you're participating, I'm taking your image, right? And so when I'm taking someone's photograph, I want to make sure that I am highlighting them as a person and not just the circumstance that they find themselves in, in this phase of their life. That they are honored and dignified and that I hold their story really well, because it's not mine, it's theirs. And it's not the organization's either, and it's not BitterSweet's. It's their story.
And so I just don't take that responsibility lightly, at all. It weighs heavily on me as I'm walking around taking photographs for each of these stories. Yeah. I hope that when people look back at their photographs or when they see them, that they feel that. Or that when someone looks at the stories or anyone reads the story, that they see that I truly tried to be honoring in every way that I could.
RW: Thank you so much for your time, Erica.
EB: Absolutely, it was a lot of fun, Robert. Thank you.
Read the Story
Read the full story about Morning Star Foundation for Bittersweet Monthly, Issue 043 The Strongest Little Beats in Beijing, here.Read
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