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For Lao refugee, passion for photography began in small-town Saskatchewan
May 19, 2010
DRAKE, Sask.—Inspired by the prairie landscape and the ever-changing light in the prairie sky, Chai Bouphaphanh spends his leisure time exploring his surroundings through the lens of a camera.
His most recent success is having a photograph that he entered in a contest selected for the National Geographic collection of photographs.
“The timing was perfect, the beam of light looks like energy coming from two people in love,” he said as he reflected on the photograph that captures stunning rays of sunlight engulfing a couple on their wedding day. The photo was taken at the Jackfish Lodge golf course in North Battleford.
Bouphaphanh’s interest in photography goes back to his childhood when the late Wally Ewert, a man that Bouphaphanh describes as “my second dad,” captured treasured memories of birthday parties, picnics and many other family events through photographs.
“Wally took a lot of pictures of our family, he was a photographer and was always taking pictures,” recalled Bouphaphanh.
This was among many small and seemingly insignificant gestures of friendship that helped Bouphaphanh, his parents and two younger brothers feel at home in Drake, a small rural village north of Regina.
The family, refugees from Laos, was sponsored by Drake Mennonite Church through the newly formed Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Canada refugee assistance program.
Bouphaphanh, now an employee at Drake Meats, was 11 years old in 1980 when his family arrived in this small village of fewer than 300 people on a blustery winter day in February.
“We felt we were living in the middle of nowhere,” recalled Bouphaphanh, explaining their sense of isolation markedly decreased the first Sunday they attended Drake Mennonite Church.
“We went to church and saw 200 people in church—we realized then there are people living here.” he said.
It was through the church that the Bouphaphanh family met Claire Ewert Fisher, now executive director of MCC Saskatchewan, her late husband Wally Ewert, their children and extended families.
“Claire and Wally had lived in Vietnam and could relate to the political situation that forced us to emigrate,” said Bouphaphanh. “We became very close, we became a family.”
One of the first treasured memories of this friendship is receiving the May 1979 National Geographic magazine, an issue that featured stories, photographs and a map of Saskatchewan.
“That’s how I learned about Saskatchewan,” said Bouphaphanh. Over the years Wally gave him many more issues of National Geographic and they shared an enjoyment of admiring the high quality photographs in the magazine.
“I have kept all National Geographic magazines that Wally gave me and have collected many more,” he said. “This magazine has a lot of sentimental value to me.”
In 1984, Claire and Wally served as MCC workers in Thailand for four months and visited Bouphaphanh’s maternal grandmother and other relatives. “Wally took pictures of my mom’s family—that was very special for our whole family,” he said.
These photographs were taken with the Nikon F3 camera that is now part of Bouphaphanh’s collection of 63 cameras. Another special camera in his collection is the Nikon Nikkormat FTN camera that Wally used to take photos in Vietnam, 1973-1975, when Wally and Claire were MCC community development workers in Pleiku.
Bouphaphanh’s volunteer activities include taking photographs for Open Door Society in Regina, an organization that supports newcomers to Regina. A rewarding project was taking photographs for the 2007 public education calendar, Dispelling the Myths, that shows the strength of newcomers and the contributions they make.
In 1991, the Bouphaphanh family was part of the Ewert family’s support network when Wally died unexpectedly from a heart attack. “They (Bouphaphanh family) received support when they needed it and over the years they have supported us in ways we would not have imagined,” said Claire Ewert Fisher.
“Such a strong bond of friendship develops between people who care about each other that you indeed become one family. We have felt that kind of support from them and they continue to treat us like family.”