Picture this: World traveler takes photos that make us care

Traveler sells his photographs to help the places he's been

Beena Sarwar By Beena Sarwar

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.

In Pakistan’s Hunza Valley in 1994, Perrault says, “I was amazed at the ethnic diversity of the people in this region. These women look like they are from Eastern Europe – and they have family living in New York City.” Because of a lack of health care, the mother had an untreated toothache. (Don Perrault)

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.

Perrault went to the Zhala monastery, in the village of Daotongba in eastern Tibet in 2000. The abbots of the monastery, Kenpo Lobey (with stick in center) and Tenzin, invited him to stay for several days. “Apparently I was the first Westerner to ever visit their village on the grasslands at 13,000 feet.” (Don Perrault)

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.

A girl in Ladakh in Northern India watches as goats are herded through her village. This photo was sold to support Containers to Clinics. (Don Perrault)

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.

A Ugandan boy plays in his yard in Kabale, Uganda, in 1992, about 10 miles from the Rwandan border. This photo was sold to help support Medical Missions for Children. (Don Perrault)

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.

Perrault spent three months riding a bicycle around Kham, Tibet. He was struck by the fashion sense of Tibetan women, including their use of turquoise. (Don Perrault)

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).

Tara Ahmed practices Bharatanatyam, a traditional Indian dance. This image connects to a traditional Indian song, “Sudhamayi Sudhanidhi” (Nectar of Bliss). Among the lyrics: “One who is the source of the nectar of immortality; one who has lotus eyes; one who is the essence of the Vedas & Mother Goddess Vijaya.” The yellow flowers and orange costume represent nectar. Tara’s lotus eyes reflect a state of bliss while performing in union with nature. (Don Perrault)

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.

Perrault looks for expressions of calligraphy in nature. “In this photograph of Half Dome at Yosemite National Park, the tree branches are like a poem written in calligraphy by an ancient Asian landscape artist.” (Don Perrault)

 

 

 


  • Scalero77

    Amazing, truly inspiring work…can’t wait to see more. Truly strikes a bakance between art and journalism. Thanks so much Latitude.