For Compassion Indonesia photojournalist Vera Aurima, capturing children’s stories is about building relationships and safe spaces to share.
12 Jun, 2023
Have you ever wondered how Compassion finds and captures the incredible stories of the children we serve? We had the joy of interviewing Vera to uncover the journey of a Compassion story in Indonesia. Join us behind the scenes and discover how our local photojournalists go above and beyond to tell children’s stories with care, respect and dignity.
Could you introduce yourself and share where you're from and where you're based at the moment?
Vera: My name is Vera Aurima. I was born in Maluku—one of the beautiful islands in Indonesia. I have a twin sister, and my parents live in my hometown. Right now, I'm based in Manado. I moved to Manado in January 2013 and so I have been here for ten years.
The sports that I love the most are running and swimming. In November 2020, I did my first half marathon and I was so proud of myself. I think maybe because of COVID-19 I pushed myself to be more healthy and active at the moment.
Could you share a little bit about your role with Compassion and how it began?
Vera: I'm a photojournalist for Compassion Indonesia. I capture stories and photos from our local churches—our partners. I joined with Compassion in January 2013. I learned about Compassion for the first time in 2012 from my friend. My background is NGOs and I love to work with NGOs. I love kids, especially babies. So, for me, why I joined Compassion was because children are a fun factor that made me want to join! I really enjoy talking and making a conversation with children rather than having a conversation with an adult stranger.
Mostly when people hear about being a photojournalist, they just think we are filmmakers or writers or storytellers. But in this role, we are also known as entertainers because when we work with children, we need to be fun. You cannot be so serious when you come to take their photos. Sometimes you even need to be a teacher and work with the centre staff. They ask you questions and you need to explain more to them. Sometimes you act as a counsellor when you have hard conversations, especially for sensitive stories. We are especially entertainers and I really enjoy that part of my job.
How has your life and work been impacted by COVID-19?
Vera: I think for most of us, 2020 was the hardest year. Not only for the photojournalists but for all people. Especially for us who spend 70 or 80 per cent of our time in the field.
This pandemic really challenged me regarding how to become more creative and rely on others, especially our centre staff, to continue telling stories. When you have not many choices, that's where you get more creative solutions!
I also got infected by COVID-19 a couple of times. I remember in September last year, for a nine-day trip, I had to have five different COVID-19 swab tests. Each island had different regulations so even if I already had the test before, I still had to do another one. Nine days and five different swab tests!
In 2020 until the beginning of 2021, I was really depending solely on centre staff to help me take photos of the children because I could not make a trip at all. At the time, I was unsure about coaching others in taking pictures. You can write a story from a distance but for photography, you need to go there directly. So, at that moment, I thought that I could not produce any content.
I cannot believe that for a year, from 2020 until the beginning of 2021, all photos were coming from centre staff. I worked closely with them through Zoom. Once a week I gave a short training to centre staff on how to take pictures. I provided some simple photo examples. Our work, especially photography, is sometimes more abstract. You cannot just tell them, you need to show them some examples. It helps centre staff to have a better understanding of what exactly you mean.
Since then, my strategy has changed. Before the pandemic, I went to the field to interview children directly and meet with them at the centre or at their homes. Since the pandemic until today, I now do all interviews on Zoom. Meeting children, the families and centre staff in person is solely for photography. This is working very well. It means I can just go there, meet with them, get out and take the pictures and be very playful. This one day of meeting with the child and their families gives refreshment, even for myself. I feel I am getting recharged. Because you already have the interview and all the information. It helps me to create some photo inspiration before I even meet with them.
What is the journey of capturing a story for Compassion? How does it begin?
Vera: With any production, even for our films as well, we have pre-production, production and then post-production. But in terms of my role as a photojournalist, the thing that I want to highlight about the journey of a story is how we build a relationship with our Partnership Facilitator or PF. Our Partnership Facilitators are always connected with our centre staff, so they are key for us to find a good story. They really know exactly what happened at the centres.
Whenever I get my schedule, for example for the next six months, usually I communicate with the PF. I send an email and I share with them, “Hey, I have this schedule for the next six months so if you have any idea or if you think that you know a story, just share it with me.”
After I find a good topic and I discuss with my manager and my team, I will talk with the centre staff and arrange a schedule with them. Then the centre staff talk with the children and their family. Afterwards, I will go back to the office and process everything. That’s the journey!
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 in this way? What works well and what can be challenging?
Vera: Most of the time, I only meet the children I interview one time. The best thing I can do is try to find all the information about the family, the children and their community from the centre staff. So, for all stories, before I meet with the children, I already have completed a pre-interview with project staff. Let's say 80 to 90 per cent of the information comes from the centre staff. So the only thing I need to find out from the child is what their feelings are about the experience.
When I meet with the children, the family just sitting in their home and having a conversation, I always try to start by asking their permission. I always start like this: “If you feel you want to share with me about this question, it's fine. You can do it. But if you think you don't want to, let's not do it.”
For all of us, not just photojournalists in Asia, we always need to ask their permission. I always let them know they have a choice.
Mostly they are willing to share their stories. I think maybe because they know there is a way for them to say no or yes. They feel safe to share their stories with me. And to make the situation feel more friendly, I always try to tell them about my vulnerability as well. For example, if I have a conversation with a mother and I say that I’m not good at cooking. That’s true—I’m not good at cooking! It lets them know that I’m a human just like them and I understand. Because maybe they think that we’ve come from Compassion and we have good education, things like that. So it's good for us to just share that we are the same. I let them know that I also have my own struggles and vulnerabilities and it helps them to just feel safe.
Once I met with a mother from Compassion’s Mums and Babies Program, a young mother maybe only 17 years old, and I was 30-something at the time. I told her, “I'm really proud of you because you are young and you are able to take on the responsibility of a mother. Even myself, it would be too hard for me. I'm so proud of you.”
What do you wish supporters in Australia knew about Compassion and poverty in Indonesia?
Vera: The fact is poverty in each country is unique, including Indonesia. Compassion works very carefully in each country with different approaches. Poverty is very different. Living in poverty is not easy. It is a very hard situation not only for children but even for adults. Helping kids living in poverty is long-term unique life support.
I can see that Compassion Indonesia is very carefully implementing the program, even for each area. The context in Kalimantan is totally different to the context in Papua. You cannot make the same statement about poverty for all countries. It’s totally different.
Also, it’s not only the sponsor who has a right to know the child’s living situation, but the child has the same right and it happens through letter writing. It's unique because the sponsor and the child can build a relationship through sponsorship, through letters.
It's not only a once-in-a-lifetime letter, but every year—even a few times per year—a sponsor and a child can get letters. I'm confident to say that even for some children, their sponsor can read their sponsored child’s story globally in our stories! And I imagine I’d be so proud if I could read my sponsored child’s story and also their letter about how their life has changed because of sponsorship.
What is the impact of sponsorship in your experience?
Vera: The most important thing that I can see is about their dignity as a human. Someone who has the same rights as others.
For example, a child knows that he or she is valuable and loved, not only by his or her parents, but also by someone from another nation and even from another race.
I can also see the improvement of self-esteem, the change of the mindset of the parents and also the child. So it's not just about a child who can buy food or can go to school or can buy new clothes. It's more about their dignity and self-esteem. They are always so proud to share what their sponsor said or asked in letters. They know this is something very unique and special.
What would you say to an Australian supporter who is hesitant about starting a sponsorship with Compassion?
Vera: For me, there is no help that has zero impact. So no matter how small the help or the support that a sponsor gives to his or her sponsored child may be, it always has an impact on the life of the child, the family as well as for the community. Let's talk about how proud a child feels telling his or her friends about their sponsor and their letters. They say, “Hey, someone out there sent a letter to me and says, ‘I think about you, and I pray for you.’”
When a child knows that he is known and loved by someone, it can boost his or her self-confidence and bring hope to the child. I can see from the impact that real changes happen in their lives.
Words and photography by Vera Aurima, interview by Rachel Howlett.
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