Scooping out a dry river bed. Trudging miles to a community tap just to collect clean water. Piling into a tiny room with dirt floors and mud walls with over 100 of your classmates packed inside to learn your daily lesson. These are just a few aspects of life in the developing world that most American children will never experience, and many adults don’t even think about.
The harsh realities of childhood in an underdeveloped country tend to be out of sight, out of mind for most Americans as we grapple with our own ever-growing problems. However, Richmond photographer Jake Lyell hopes to remind us that children all over the world face even bigger issues in his latest exhibit, “Safe Passage.”
A collection of 20 photographs at the Richmond Public Library, Lyell’s work gives a glimpse into the daily lives, hardships, and inequalities facing families, especially children, living in 10 countries including Ecuador, Peru, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Mali, Philippines, India, and Nepal.
“I wanted to express an idea of uniqueness and themes that you see across the developing world,” he said. “I wanted to bring issues of kids growing up in the developing world to light.”
A freelance photographer and VCUarts graduate, Lyell has traveled to over 60 countries working as a photographer for various humanitarian organizations. On his assignments, he depicts the challenges people face, along with scenes from everyday life. Most of the photos in the exhibit come from Lyell’s work with Richmond-based Childfund International.
Before moving back to Richmond in 2015, he lived in East Africa for six years, where he met his wife. While he’s been photographing in other countries for 15 years, the photos in the exhibit span from 2008 to 2018. The title “Safe Passage,” which stems from the photo of a little girl on a riverboat taxi in Peru, encompasses the central theme of the collection.
“Safe Passage is about the dangers kids might face when they’re growing up, also the joys and the connections they have and the relationships they have, and the organizations there that are actually making legitimate strides in helping kids get through,” he said.
From capturing the aftermath of the deadly 2015 earthquake in Nepal, to the ongoing food and water crisis in Ethiopia, to children battling malaria in sub-Saharan Africa to documenting forced child labor in the Philippines where children forgo school to work in sugar cane fields for hours, much of the time without pay, Lyell, through his work, hopes to bring these problems to the forefront of the conversation.
“I feel like Americans have forgotten where they came from and [are] oblivious to the outside world. So much about our country is founded on being a haven and a place for the rest of the world to become. Maybe something like this [exhibit] can help educate people,” Lyell said.
While he’s been all over the world, one of Lyell’s assignments has stuck with him and continues to be a subject that’s hard for him to discuss.
“I’ve seen a mom have to fight for the life for her kid, and lose, dying of HIV,” he said. “I was with her for like two weeks before it happened. That was my photo assignment to stay with this mom and kid to see what happened. The kid didn’t make it and I had to fight between being a photojournalist and caring person because I had developed a really good relationship with this mom.”
And even though a bulk of the collection sheds light on problems in developing countries, Lyell also showcases the efforts of humanitarian organizations on the ground. His photographs create a record of the impact of short and long-term aid, such as Childfund’s LEAP program, which seeks to lift and keep children out of sugar cane fields in the Philippines and end unsafe forced labor in other areas.
“I didn’t just want to show the problems, I wanted to show the solutions,” he said. Take a glimpse into Lyell’s “Safe Passage” exhibit below and be sure to check out his entire collection at the Richmond Public Library, which runs through Sept. 4.
All Photos By Jake Lyell. Main Photo: Sita Shresthra (49) and her son, Bisan (2), of Gorkha District, Nepal were made homeless following the devastating 2015 earthquake that killed more than 9,000 people.