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Where it all started - Part One

It's been 28 years since I decided to pursue photography as a career. In the spring of 1991 I returned from a trip to Thailand after spending 4 months teaching english and photographing in Cambodian refugee camps for the American Refugee Committee in my spare time. I had already spent a year in Thailand in 1988 studying the language and teaching english with the plan of becoming an academic, but 1991 was the point where I decided to change tracks, and try to become a photographer. I returned to Chicago, where my brother lived, and with little idea of how to do that, so enrolled in classes at Columbia College, then a small liberal arts college downtown with a strong and respected photo program. Those few classes and a couple of inspirational teachers quickly lead to their MFA program which I finished in 1994. I returned to Thailand that year to teach English and start a career.

In between, of course, I had to learn how to be a photographer. I came from a family of hobbyists but no professionals to speak of. The first project I worked on was in a small Thai buddhist temple outside Chicago but I soon discovered a neighborhood Cambodian temple 5 minutes walk from my apartment. It was a first generation temple, filled with Khmer refugees, that welcomed visitors. Luckily many spoke Thai after years living in Thai refugee camps, so I was welcomed quickly.

From the temple, I was invited to people's homes for meals, informal English lessons, help with paperwork or schools, and to photograph. The images here represent the first part of what became a three year project. I worked at the intersections of Glenwood and Argyle streets on Chicago's north side non-stop, developing film in a small closet darkroom in my flat or at Columbia in the shared darkrooms the school offered. Entirely self-funded, the images were brought to school, pinned up, shown and critiqued, sometimes harshly. I returned and worked more.

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