Money alone cannot transform a child’s life, according to Compassion Thailand photojournalist Piyamary Shinoda. And that’s why she’s so passionate about telling the multidimensional stories of children in Compassion’s programs.

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Have you ever wondered where Compassion’s stories come from? We recently had the honour of chatting about humanitarian storytelling with Piyamary. Join us behind the scenes and discover her sensitive and respectful approach to capturing a child’s story of transformation.

Could you introduce yourself and tell us what you do in your role with Compassion?

Piyamary: My name is Piyamary Shinoda. But people call me Oo because that's the Thai culture [to use nicknames]. I was born and raised in Thailand, and I'm still based in Thailand.

I work as a photojournalist for Compassion. So my role is about interviewing and asking people questions and taking photos. When I get an assignment, I search for the story and talk to a lot of people who know where to find the right story.

How did you start working with Compassion?

Piyamary: I used to work in a ministry for children at risk in Asia. We had a database of all the organisations that work with children in Thailand. When Compassion contacted me to apply for this role, I had only ever heard of the name Compassion. I prayed with my friends about whether the job was the right thing, the right decision and truly what God was calling me to do. So that's how it began.

How has your life and work has been impacted by COVID-19?

Piyamary: For photojournalists, 90 per cent of our work is travelling. When the pandemic hit, many of us could not travel. If we can't travel, we can't get the stories because it requires us to physically be there. We had to make do with remote work where the centre staff took photos with their phones when they could. And then we did a lot of phone calls and long hours asking questions. We had to ask really solid, in-depth questions because we couldn’t see the homes or the environments around the area.

That was the first year or the first wave of COVID-19. But the second year for Thailand was more intense compared to the first year because the quarantine was stricter. Even the church staff and the centre staff couldn't visit children and families. All of them had to stay home and a lot of children, families and centre staff were infected with COVID-19 as well, so they had to do a lot of quarantine. So that was a rough time. We can now move around freely.

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What is the journey of capturing a story for Compassion? How does it begin?

Piyamary: There are definitely two parts of that journey in order to have a final product or a complete story. The first part is gathering information and searching and understanding where I can travel to. So when I first get an assignment, I have to picture what kind of story I want to see. I try to roughly draft it out.

Then I’ll find some specialists from Compassion Thailand who can help. We call them ‘PFs’ or Partnership Facilitators. We call and talk to them and ask if they’re familiar with a story or anything in their area that could fit the assignment. Then we contact the church partner through a phone call and roughly pre-interview the staff about whether there’s a family or child story that relates to the topic.

The second part is the travel. I think the traveling is the biggest thing. The minimum travel I make on land is three hours.

But mostly, I would say it takes between three to four days to get to the Compassion centre. Not because of the length of the distance, but because how rough the journey is. Most of the places are in very isolated areas. No roads, no nothing.

Especially in the rainy season, which is one of the roughest times to travel with landslides. The roads are very narrow. Often, one side is just the mountain and the other side is a cliff and it’s slippery! There were a few times where I had to walk and carry all my equipment. This is mostly during the rainy season. In some places, they even have to use elephants because people can’t even walk! In some places, there are also security reasons and it’s not easy to get in and out.

For one story, I usually go for four to five days. I would say it usually takes a day to get there and a day to get out, plus three days staying in the village. And then afterwards, we come back and the writing and editing takes longer.

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You must sometimes find yourself connecting with children, families and staff about personal or sensitive topics. How do you build relationships and safe spaces for families to share? What works well and what can be challenging?

Piyamary: I would say it's three simple things that I've learned over the years, but I have to backtrack first. Before I came to Compassion, I decided to live in a Karen village to learn about their language, habits and culture. And with Compassion, some of the families and churches are Karen. So, from that, I think I kind of knew what kind of interaction is appropriate for them and what can allow them to be themselves.

But it comes down to three simple things that I do every time to break the ice in a short amount of time. It's super simple: smile. Even if you are in pain or it’s really hot, keep smiling. If you experience visiting a family or community in poverty, one thing that really opens their heart is smiling.

The second one is to not comment. Don’t make comments on anything! If you're not familiar with one another, if your lifestyles and foods are different, never make a comment on food or facilities or on anything. We just appreciate it. Let them hear that affirmation about how you appreciate it.

The third one is just to listen. A lot of times, they are actually quite a shy people group. They are very quiet and reserved. So we just keep smiling. No comments, no opinions, no teaching. That's pretty much my simple three things for them to open their homes to me and create trust.

The challenge is with sensitive stories, for example on migrants or displaced children. They’re very often shy or frightened by a stranger. The stories on abuse are also hard, not only for the family but for the centre staff who just want to protect the children. But to open their homes and let them talk, let them tell their stories to me.

I won’t get out my camera. I spend one whole day getting to know them, learn and listen to their stories first. And then finally they will open up and share their stories.

Sometimes it’s hard because neighbours and other family will come and answer questions instead of the person I am actually talking to! The first question I always ask in an interview is whether they would like someone with them during the interview. Someone close to them, maybe a centre staff member or friend.

What do you wish supporters in Australia knew about Compassion and poverty in Thailand?

Piyamary: I often discuss this with my teammates: how to write about poverty and certain things in our society. It’s really hard to describe or explain in words. For example, law enforcement in a poverty area—that’s very hard to explain. I wish supporters would open up to hear and learn about the story of poverty here in Thailand. For example, why we might do certain things that don’t make sense to the rest of the world, such as separation between tribes. Tribal people live very separate from urban life. Their lifestyle is completely different. They are treated different, and it won’t make sense to anyone who lives in an urban area.

Or the fact that children in poverty normally don't have enough financial support from their family to go to school. If they live in an isolated area, there is no school there. Even if they do have a school, the teacher may only come once a month, and they might only get to study less than ten hours per month. And usually the centre staff from the Compassion centre in that area would try to help children to study in another city with a better quality education. And it won’t make any sense why we would send children to a dormitory or boarding school. A boarding school in Thailand is a completely different world from a boarding school in England. Children in poverty will often go to a boarding school because they don’t have a school where they live.

The other thing is that migrants and displaced people groups don’t get benefits like other people in Thailand. They won’t have an opportunity to get vaccines and they don’t have documents to get treated in hospital. That’s why our medical support in the Child Sponsorship Program is very important. I really hope that supporters would open their hearts to consider how children’s lives have been transformed or impacted by our program.

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What is the impact of sponsorship in your experience?

Piyamary: I would say transformation. Transformation is the number one thing that I’ve seen. I have worked with children in poverty before I came to Compassion. I’ve seen other organisations that work with children.

But I think Compassion is very unique and truly impacts children in a way that is not just about financial support. Because money alone cannot transform someone’s life. The transformation I’ve seen in children’s lives is because of the efforts of many people together. That’s what I’ve seen.

For example, before we had Compassion’s Mums and Babies program in Thailand, I heard so many stories of mothers losing their children. This was a big problem in Thailand. But I’ve seen that change completely.

More children now have access to the right medical support. Picture those children who are displaced, don’t have any documents and have leukaemia. This might cost US$90,000 to treat. Picture a family in poverty where the parents make $30 per month. They don’t have the privilege of accessing free medical care at all. How could they save their child’s life?

The impact I’ve seen on a child’s life is when they’re saved through the support of their local church and Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program. A lot of times, I’ve found that parents or families become Christians through their children.

A lot of families accept Christ because of their children. They’ve seen their children’s lives change. Not just a lifestyle change, but a change in their character. They’ve seen their child become someone they never expected them to be, and that transforms a whole entire family.

What would you say to an Australian supporter who is hesitant about starting a sponsorship with Compassion?

Piyamary: I was on a trip with a sponsor who came to visit their sponsored children. The journey for them to get to a child’s home was really rough. They commented that they never knew how sponsorship really worked. They felt that every cent given and invested into this sponsorship program was so worth it and they were so blessed to see it.

To someone who hasn’t sponsored yet, I would say don't just look at the amount of money that you invest in this program. Look at the value of how many people are working really hard together to improve one child’s life.

Sponsorship brings a lot of impact and transformation to people. You may never know that your sponsorship saved many children.

I would also encourage parents to think about how much effort it takes to grow your child’s health physically, mentally and spiritually. It’s a lot of effort! I want to encourage them to look at our sponsorship program as a parent. Parents work so hard to keep children healthy in every area of their life. And that’s our sponsorship program.


Words and photography by Piyamary Shinoda, interview by Rachel Howlett.