PHILANTHROPY 

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These black-and-white portraits of the people living in Manila’s Happyland slum are captured by Swedish-born photographer Anna Bärlund for the coffee-table book Mysterious Happiness, now sold by Leica to raise funds for Filipino charity ANAK-TnK Foundation. She says, “The heart gesture is a call to feel the sincerity and love in everyone’s heart and appreciate the beauty that unites us”

Sunil Kaul, managing director of Leica Camera Asia Pacific, has only one guiding principle when it comes to doing good: support those who know best what is happening on the ground. With this in mind, he leverages on the German manufacturer of premium cameras’ strength by providing equipment and expertise to produce soul-stirring photography that can move the hearts of Leica’s well-heeled customers to contribute to a meaningful cause.

“As a business, we have responsibilities to our employees and shareholders. We may not be able to give money directly but we can find ways in our capacity to generate funds for a charity,” says Sunil. “We can provide an event space, print pictures, provide the equipment and send photographers to take the best pictures, and the money can be raised through the purchase of prints.” 

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In June, Leica coincided the opening of its Leica Galerie Singapore at The Fullerton Hotel with the launch of Mysterious Happiness, a thought-provoking 200-page documentary book of slum dwellers living in the Metro Manila area of the Philippines, such as the Happyland, Aroma and Smokey Mountains dumpsites.

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Life may be hard, but the children living in the Tondo slum area in Manila have found ways to learn, laugh and play as intensely as any other kids in this image by Singapore photojournalist Mathias Heng

All proceeds from the sale of the coffee-table book, which was first launched in Manila in April, will go to the ANAK-TnK Foundation, a Filipino non-profit organisation that has helped more than 2,800 street kids since it started in 1998. Sunil targets to raise $35,000 through sales of Mysterious Happiness at Leica Galerie and the company’s online store for the foundation’s rehabilitation programmes, which reaches out to children with special needs, those living in the streets and the slums, as well as those scavenging for a living by providing them with an education and improving their living conditions.

This is the third fundraiser Leica has done for the foundation, after two previous photo exhibitions, with the company covering the costs of items such as the logistics and the printing of photographs, as well as the travel expenses and equipment for local photojournalist Mathias Heng and Manila-based Swedish-born photographer Anna Bärlund, to capture life in Manila’s slum communities. From stark black-and-white portraits to the beaming faces of playing children, the result is a powerful visual narrative coupled with real-life stories from Father Matthieu Dauchez, the executive director of ANAK-TnK Foundation, on how happiness can be found even in the hardest of circumstances.

  “The beautiful pictures function as a bridge in connecting people to the situation here,” says Father Matthieu, who has worked with the foundation since the very beginning. “We are thankful for Leica’s contribution not only materially, but also sending people such as Mathias and Anna to the field to meet the people in order to make an impact.” 

Mathias, who has covered poverty and conflict‑inflicted regions for international publications such as The Washington Post and Oxfam America, and is also a photography instructor at Leica Akademie, says, “I want people to be aware that even though those in the slums may suffer from poor living conditions, there’s so much to learn from their open and friendly nature. Even though they have less, they complain less and can be as happy as any of us.”

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Sunil first came to know of the ANAK-TnK Foundation in 2013 through his good friend, Alexis de Laporte, who was then Jaeger-LeCoultre’s regional managing director for Southeast Asia and Australia. During a personal visit to the slum communities at his own expense—something he still does at least once a year—Sunil saw children living in squalid slum conditions, at risk not only from substance abuse and prostitution, but also disease and malnutrition. 

Deeply moved, he set the camera gears in motion and the first fundraising photo exhibition, Left Behind, was organised in February 2014 by Leica and Jaeger-LeCoultre, followed by a second one, Left Behind II, by Leica last March. Both exhibitions sold prints taken by Mathias of Manila’s abandoned street children. 

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Leica Camera Asia Pacific managing director Sunil Kaul believes in using the brand’s strengths in photography as a tool of change for slum communities in Manila

Sunil eschews bringing hordes of volunteers from his company over as he feels it is insensitive to the children’s feelings. He says emphatically, “These children are aged between seven and 15 years old. You can’t be seen cleaning and teaching one day, and gone the next. The constant change of faces is not good for them and they will think we are treating them like animals in a zoo. So we focus more on making sure every cent raised goes to support the local volunteers taking care of the children on a regular basis, such as buying books for the children’s education and building drainage systems.”

He adds, “Charity begins at home. We use whatever we have, such as our customer base and tools, to raise funds for a good cause. We also encourage local artists to showcase their skills at our gallery with the condition that they participate in a charity project by donating prints for sale to help the children.”

 Images: Leica, Mathias Heng and Anna Bärlund

Tags: art, philanthropy, manila, leica, asia, Camera, Leica Galerie Singapore, Leica Camera Asia Pacific, Sunil Kaul