A picture is worth a thousand thank-yous

TheStar.com - entertainment

Sandy Reimer has assembled donated work from top photographers in exhibition to benefit India

September 15, 2007
Prithi Yelaja
Staff Reporter

On her way to the Himalayas in India on vacation, Sandy Reimer had an epiphany.

The Gemini-nominated Toronto filmmaker and photojournalist spotted a group of women in colourful saris, balancing baskets on their heads, picking fruit by the side of the road in Haryana.

Reimer stopped to take their pictures. As she was thanking the women in her broken Hindi, one of them ripped off a piece of her sari, perhaps the only clothing she owned, filled it with all the fruit she had picked and offered it to Reimer, who was in tears at the gesture.

"That kind of generosity from people who have nothing is just overwhelming. When I came back to Toronto, I thought, I want to make sure that I'm not just taking pictures, but that I'm also giving something back," recalls Reimer, 48, her eyes welling up at the memory from her 2005 trip.

Her mother's death and parting advice shortly thereafter underlined the urgency.

"She told me, `There's lot of things I'm not going to get to because I've run out of time. But you do have time, so go and do whatever's in your heart.'"

Reimer used her savings to launch World Heritage Project, an organization she largely runs out of her Kingsway Dr. home. The premise is to use images of the heritage, culture and people of a host country as a springboard to raise awareness as well as cash, to support grassroots charitable groups there.

The project launched with "Bharat," a photo exhibit that runs until Oct. 31 at the National Film Board office in Toronto. Admission is free. The exhibit showcases 42 pictures donated by half a dozen top international photographers. Among them are photos of travellers at Mumbai's main train station and breathtaking images of monuments such as the Taj Mahal. (Bharat is the Hindi word for India.)

Proceeds from sales of the "Bharat" exhibit photos as well as a coffee table book will go back to India. She calls the country her "second home" because of her frequent travel there over the past two decades – "long before it was `hot,'" she says with a chuckle.

"I saw the beauty, but also the suffering and hardship. So the idea is to harness the power of art in a celebratory way, to get people excited about the country and help empower, particularly women and children, through education and sustainable development programs. There's no point in having a shiny Taj Mahal if people in the vicinity don't have access to proper medical care and education.

Among the photographers she persuaded to take part are National Geographic's Steven McCurry, famous for his cover shot of an Afghan girl with green eyes; New York photographer Mary Ellen Mark, renowned for portraits of celebrities such as Bill Clinton and Nicole Kidman; and Time's James Nachtwey, best known for his haunting shots of the Somalia famine.

Toronto-based Jag Gundu and Malcolm Armstrong are also featured, along with Reimer herself, for whom social justice is an enduring theme. Trained at the Canadian Film Centre, she produced a documentary short film Short Hymn, Silent War, on the aftermath of a gang shooting in the Jane and Finch area. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was nominated for a Gemini in 2003.

Reimer is putting together a global advisory board for her project, including Dr. Naresh Trehan, one of India's top heart surgeons. She hopes to turn the lens next on Africa to help raise money for AIDS prevention and treatment.

United Nations-designated world heritage sites, such as the Great Wall of China and Machu Picchu, are a focus of the project.

"People have such negative conceptions of other parts of the world – that it's all about bombs, looting, poverty," says Reimer. "This will show them a different side that they might not otherwise see."

This article originally appeared in The Toronto Star Saturday, September 15, 2007.