Tourists take photographs, but Don Perrault is the rare traveler who uses photography to give something back. I met Don Perrault at an Amnesty International get-together at an art gallery in South Boston. He fit the type of an optical engineer, unassuming, conservatively dressed and soft-spoken. But he spends his free time traveling and taking photographs, primarily in Africa and Asia. He’s begun selling these to raise money for nonprofits working on health, education and gender empowerment. His highest-grossing photos, sold at a silent auction, went for a cool $5,000.
Perrault wants his photos to spread awareness of the world’s natural beauty and cultural diversity and to improve the prospects for health and education for indigenous people. It brings him satisfaction, and a bit of glory — in 2011, his high school, Sacred Heart in Kingston, Massachusetts, gave him its highest honor, the Ketteler Medal, named for a 19th century German bishop who worked for social justice for the working poor. Perrault gave his acceptance speech wearing a traditional Mongolian outfit.
How did your travels translate into this mission, to fund-raise for the causes you’re interested in?
I started off traveling in China in 1991 — I’ve always been interested in Asian and South Asian culture. I also traveled to East Africa and to Pakistan. I got more interested in culture, landscape, diversity and the preservation of cultural traditions. When you travel to these places you learn a lot about how great the culture is but also what problems there are.
So how did the fund-raising part start?
A couple of things happened around the same time in 2010. Liz Sheehan is a childhood friend. She started Containers to Clinics, in which shipping containers are converted into portable medical clinics for places like Haiti and Namibia. Her clinic was on display at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) in Boston. I gave her 10 photos, of the Himalayas, to auction, and she sold all of them in a silent auction at a salon party at her house, for about $5,000 each. That raised money to cover half of the cost for the clinic to go to Haiti.
I helped another friend, Jagdish Dhingra, a surgeon who volunteers with Medical Missions for Children; he goes every year to Rwanda, where he operates for free. He had a fund-raiser at his home in Brookline; I gave him photos I had taken in Uganda in the early 1990s, coincidentally just 10 miles from the border of Rwanda where he works. He had a silent auction and sold them all.
I realized that there’s potential in doing this regularly, working with other NGOs.
What are you involved with these days?
My main focus is on the Dance for Everyone project, which was started a couple of years ago with the classical dance artist Aparna Sindhoor in Somerville, Massachusetts. We sponsor two dance teachers, a male and a female, to go from Trivandaram in Kerala, in south India, to a village on the weekends and give free dance lessons to children.
Through my photography, I volunteer for Women for Afghan Women by helping with promotion and fund-raising. I also sponsor a girl to go to high school in Afghanistan, funded through my freelance photography. On a personal level, I’ve been sponsoring a girl from a family I stayed with in Tibet to go to school – she’s now in college.
Another thing I’m working on is the Visual Raga project, looking at the connections between Indian ragas (classical songs) and nature, interpreting music through photographs, sometimes in a natural scene, sometimes with a dancer to help interpret them. I’ve been working with students of Neena Gulati, the director of Triveni School of Dance in Brookline, Massachusetts. One of my photos from this series uses six different poses of Tara Ahmed, dancing through Arnold Arboretum, superimposed on one image (see photo below).
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Just this, that people have their own way of doing things; photography is just the way I chose to contribute to the world – that’s the message I’m trying to get across. What I’m doing is nothing amazing or unique, it’s something everyone has the ability to do.