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Baan Gerda

The series portrays a group of children living in the community village called Baan Gerda, in Thailand. Baan Gerda is a community project run by the Children Rights Foundation Organization. Most of the inhabitants of Baan Gerda are orphan children affected by HIV. In november 2012 I visited the village with the idea of developing a photo-project able to involve the kids in it’s realization.

The portraits were shot on film and developed with a special technique, using expired materials such as old films and old developers. I used this technique to recreate the feelings that I had the first time I met those children. A feeling of extreme fragility. The portraits themselves though are far to be portraits of sadness. The kids in Baan Gerda are happy kids. They live in a safe environment and the medicines are accessible.

The project was made with the active collaboration of the children. Together we set backgrounds, lights and we stage the scenes. The project was also an attempt to introduce the use of photography to the children.

_DSC4125_DSC4179_DSC4207Documentation pictures of the portrait session.

More information about Baan Gerda

In November 2012 I visited Baan Gerda, a small village situated in the beautiful countryside near Lop Buri, 260 km north of Bangkok. The village was established by a Thai- German organization at the end of the 90’s as a place where to accommodate orphan children infected with HIV/AIDS. At the beginning the organization’s aim was to provide a place where to ease the suffering of kids with AIDS. Later, when the medicine started to become available and the organization started to gain more financial support Baan Gerda became a place where the kids could get a long-time care. “At the beginning the children were arriving to the village in an advanced stage of AIDS, little did we imagine that one day we would be able to nurse them back to health” says Karl Morsbach, founder of Baan Gerda and director of the children rights foundation.

Nowadays Baan Gerda looks nothing like a place for ill people. There are kids playing in the fields, a big open canteen, ten houses where are living all the inhabitants of the village. There is a small nursery that is nowadays used mostly to store medicine. The houses are simple but cozy. In every house live approximately ten children and a few foster mothers who take care of the younger kids. The rooms are shared and full of life. Like in every teenager’s room there are posters of pop singers on the wall, famous cartoon characters dolls on the beds, books, toys…

At 19.00 the alarm clock starts ringing. Everybody has to go back to his or her houses; it is the time to take the medicines. It is important that everybody take the medications at the same time of the day, every day. There are several different kind of medicines used to contain the HIV virus. Nowadays all are provided for free in Thailand. Not everybody uses the same and some have to take a combination of several different medicines. After some time the one used might not work anymore, in that case the patient has to start using another kind of medication or a combination of different ones.

The ritual of taking the medicine reminds me that I am not in a normal village despite the happiness of the children. Most of the kids living in the village have horrible background stories. Stories of abandon, illness and suffering.  Before being rescued by the organization, some of the kids were in terrible health and psychological conditions. Some were not rescue in time and died, some arrived to the village in tragic conditions. Most of the children share a common story; they are son and daughters of farmers, truck drivers, poor people usually living in the countryside. The father of the family is the one who spread the disease, infected the mother and consequently the children. Truck drivers, who traveled far from their families and came back with an invisible but mortal infection. The women are the double victims of the story. They got infected, gave birth to ill babies and died before they could even try to take care of them. At this point the children are left alone, abandoned by their families, discriminated and feared by the community for their disease. Stigmatized by the whole society and left to die in a hospital bed.

In the late 90’s Karl Morsbach red an article on the newspaper about the children who were dying of AIDS in the Thai hospitals. He was so impressed by the story that together with his wife decided to start an organization to help those kids. And that’s how Baan Gerda started. After the first week of activity the number of children coming to the village doubled. From the beginning they had to start building more and more houses, looking for more founding and for people helping. Now in the village there are 85 infected orphans living. Two more houses are almost ready; those will be made available for the older orphans who decide to stay in the village. Some of the older inhabitants, mostly teen-agers, have decided to move away from Baan Gerda and to go to live in the city. Some have already tried but so far all of them decided to come back and start working in the village. That’s why the decision to create two new houses. Lately a few girls have been admitted at the entrance test of the university in Bangkok, if they will get in, the organization will have to provide them a place where to stay in the city and a monthly salary to live. “It won’t be easy, but we will find the money, we really hope that they will have the chance to study in the University” says Moo, the main coordinator of the organization.

When the project started the discrimination towards people with HIV was very strong in Thailand. Especially in the countryside, people were afraid of getting infected just living in the same room with somebody who was HIV positive. The infected people were seen as the carrier of an ancestral guilt, a punishment given by God. Nowadays, thanks also to the information campaign against AIDS made by the Thai government, the discrimination is slowly decreasing. The disease is still a stigma that affects more than just the health condition of a person though. It still leads to abandon, expulsion and repulsion. It can lead to a terrible and solitary death. Baan Gerda it’s the opposite of death. It is life. It is the place where many children got a second chance. Where they can start again and have their childhood back. 

In the village live also a few Burmese refugees. They don’t have any documents and they are not entitled to live in the country. The Thai police know that they are living in Baan Gerda but so far no action has been taken against them. The people in the village murmur that the police don’t want to come to the village because they are afraid of HIV.

In the morning the village is silent. Almost nobody is around apart for a few adults making some renovation works. The children, of all ages, are in the local school. Almost all are attending the same institution, which provides education from primary level to high school. The kids of Baan Gerda are attending classes with other students, coming from the villages around. Some of the kids look much younger than their classmates. The disease and the medications can slow down the growth of a kid. HIV positive people are also more predisposed to get other diseases such as cancer. There have been unfortunately a few cases also in Baan Gerda. The organization has to keep monitoring the state of health of the children constantly. A doctor and a psychologist are also often visiting the community, but most of the time the kids are under the control of the foster mothers. There is a strong solidarity between the residents of the village. They feel empathy for each other because they all share the same sad past and the fear for the disease.

In the big open space of the canteen there is a display cabinet with many pictures. The cabinet is divided in two parts, one has written, both in Thai and in English, “before” and the other part “after”. The “before” pictures show some of the children when they first arrived to Baan Gerda and on the other side there are their portraits nowadays. Some of the images in the “before” section are hard to look at. Many children were taken to the village in desperate conditions. Skeletal limbs and bruises all over the body. Our dinner table is just in front of the pictures and I cannot take my eyes from one of the images. Karl, sitting in front of me notices my distraction and turns his head at the photographs. With a deep voice tells that there have been difficult moments in the village. The time when the nursery wasn’t used only as storage for the medicines. Then he turns to me and with a smile on his face says: “We should take away those photographs, shouldn’t we?”