A little girl shows her painting at Children's Village Ben Tre, Vietnam…
I love that painting, so pretty and delicate. To go with it I have a story about education.
A little girl shows her painting at Children's Village Ben Tre, Vietnam
I love that painting, so pretty and delicate. To go with it I have a story about education.
For many children throughout the world, learning the three Rs goes without saying. In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic, their education also involves developing values and self-confidence, and acquiring various skills such as the ability to think logically and formulate their own opinions. But there are other children and young people who do not get an education at all. SOS Children's Villages help those who are disadvantaged in various ways and would have no future without an education or vocational training.
The response of SOS Children's Villages to this huge demand for education is reflected in its many years of working with children and young people. In many countries where educational and vocational training facilities are inadequate or non-existent, SOS Children's Villages builds its own nursery schools, primary and secondary schools, and vocational training centres and runs them for the children and young people in its care and also for poor children from the neighbouring communities.
SOS Nursery Schools
The children at SOS Children's Village facilities are treated as independent young people with different needs. SOS Children's Villages accordingly attaches great importance to personality development and individuality, and employs all its know-how and experience in promoting these aspects.
At many SOS nursery school the Montessori method is employed as the basis for pre-school teaching because it contains many elements that are in keeping with the SOS Children's Village approach to child development and education, such as love and respect for the dignity of the child, the family as the point of departure for holistic development, and the focus on responding to individual needs and promoting self-reliance. This goes hand in hand with child development at the emotional and social levels. The children learn to integrate within the group, to listen to others and make friends. They also achieve independent creativity and the ability to develop and communicate new ideas and to express their feelings, both positive and negative.
Whether in Latin America, Africa, Asia or Europe, the result is that SOS nursery schools - of which there are 255 now operating and a further fourteen under construction - enjoy the status of models for pre-school education in a large number of countries.
Children dancing in a circle at Children's Village Hyderabad, India.
To go with this photograph of children playing I have a story about the photographer Benno Neeleman who has documented the work of SOS Children many times over the years.
Other than the President of SOS Children's Villages, there can hardly be anyone who has seen so many different SOS Children's Villages. Benno Neeleman does not know exactly how many he has been, but he is sure about one thing: for him, they are among the nicest places in each country.
Nice places are soothing for the soul of a man who often portrays the horrors that result from violence, disasters and poverty. Benno Neeleman has now been a professional photographer for more than 20 years and is often on the road for SOS Children's Villages. The relationship between the child care organisation and the Dutchman dates back to a trip to Romania at the beginning of the 1990s. It was there that he fell in love, first with a woman and then with the work of SOS Children's Villages, or rather with the children who blossom again at SOS Children's Villages. At first, he associated SOS Children's Villages with "something religious". When he went to the facilities in Cisnadie, the first SOS Children's Village he visited, he knew this was it. Since then, the relationship has become stronger and has grown significantly.
Neeleman takes photographs for different aid organisations, which all have their own visual language according to the difficulties and problems that they fight against. At SOS Children's Villages he focuses his camera lens on happiness. "Ironically enough, that does not sell as well as misfortune", says Neeleman. The special thing about SOS Children's Villages is that "you can see a solution. All across the world, children express their feelings in the same way. No matter which cultural setting you are in, the atmosphere at SOS Children's Villages conveys that the children feel secure."
He recalls a girl he met in Albania who had never even been inside a school before she went to the SOS Children's Village in Tirana. Two weeks later, he saw the girl again and he was already able to notice an amazing difference. They met again two years ago and she is now studying graphic design. He has great respect when he talks of the changes seen in the girl, who, despite having a bad start, was able to discover the skills she had and make use of them within just six or seven years.
Neeleman has been to many crisis areas across the world, but does not see himself as a war correspondent. He calls his work "social documentation". He does not like to fight for a good shot, but tries to get close to people and the reality of their lives, showing caution and respect. At SOS Children's Villages, he can, as in the case of the Albanian girl, observe people over a longer period of time, "track" them and follow up on their development. Portraying a disaster for the sake of it does not correspond with his way of thinking. Neeleman is concerned about getting people to take responsibility for people who are suffering, and giving a voice to those who cannot reach the public, who do not have anyone who tells their stories.
Whilst talking, we come up with a nice term: photographer of hope.
Do you need a particular approach to take photographs of children? "It sounds quite simple, but it's love. I love children! That's the first thing that you need. I usually spend a couple of days in an SOS Children's Village so that the children learn to trust me and so that we can get to know each other. Then everything comes on its own. The children are playful and are not self-conscious. For me, they are a real source of strength", says Neeleman. They are the source of strength that he needs when he goes to countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Benno Neeleman is a big man, he has big hands, a wealth of experience and a big heart. The fact that he goes behind a tree to cry unobserved shows that he does not need to explain to us in detail what a seriously traumatised woman in the Democratic Republic of the Congo told him in a flat, emotionless tone, in a single flow of words, about how she had suffered during one of the worst, most constant and under reported conflicts in Africa today. Here, he had almost reached his limit, as a person and as a photographer. How could he intrude with his camera at this intimate, dreadful moment? "If I reach out to someone with the story then it has been worth it." He was in Rwanda just after the genocide. When he returned, he began to think he should give up taking photographs, but the gentle voice of this strong man asks us: "But then who would tell their stories?"
We manage to brighten up the conversation when we ask him which SOS Children's Village he liked most, knowing that each child arrives at an SOS Children's Village with their own different tale of suffering which is deeply rooted in their soul. Neeleman told us that he felt most comfortable at Lilongwe in Malawi, but could not say why. "There's a particular atmosphere there - the friendliness of the people and the laughter of the children." There, he has even apparently been mistaken for the President of SOS Children's Villages, Helmut Kutin, "because of my bald head". He also very much liked SOS Children's Village Morelia in Mexico and SOS Children's Village Flores in Indonesia, and this village and that village...
And now, in all honesty: "What do you think of the work of SOS Children's Villages?"
"It is not perfect, but it is very good", says the "photographer of hope", who has an eye for things that need to be depicted without the use of words. For Neeleman, a good photograph does not need an explanation, whether it is good or sad. But he sometimes does need to reach for words, like in southern Sudan, and make short notes so that the burden is not so great.
Since we are speaking so much about roots and the importance of having a home, has he, the world traveller, a fixed abode? It was not until recently that Neeleman realised that there was an SOS Children's Village in Kleve am Niederrhein, just over the border in Germany, right next to where he lives. The man who has already been to 86 countries has gone "as far away as possible" before discovering what was on his doorstep. It is as if he has removed one layer of onion skin after the other before reaching the centre and going back to his roots - the Netherlands. He then shuts the door behind him, opens a good bottle of wine and enjoys his peace. But it tends not to last for very long.
Since the SOS Children's Village in Imst is seen as being the very centre of the organisation, Benno Neeleman wants to go there. But at the moment, it is probably too near for him!
A number of professional photographers work for SOS Children's Villages on a regular basis. They charge the organisation lower rates for their photographs and sometimes even provide photographs free of charge. Benno Neeleman (born in 1957) takes photographs for other organisations such as UNICEF, UNAIDS, Plan, Terre des Hommes, Médecins Sans Frontières and Caritas and has won several prestigious prizes for his work. He has worked for SOS Children's Villages in more than 30 different countries.
Benno Neeleman's website: http://www.fotobene.eu/