Framing Their Lives

Photographer Susan Gilbert Tileston ’63 is inspiring refugees in Southeast Asia to see themselves in a new light

by Lindsey Rowe Roberts ’06


Buying a quality camera on a trip to Japan in 1975—and then selling her tourist shots to a travel bureau—inspired Susan Gilbert Tileston ’63 to become a professional photographer. Now, after a twenty-year career in New York, she gives cameras to refugees on the Thailand-Burma border, hoping that they’ll envision different futures for themselves as well.


Tileston, after retiring, moved to Nova Scotia, Canada, with her photographer husband, Nathaniel. In 2005 the couple began spending winters in the tropical heat of Southeast Asia, where Tileston began teaching English for the Burma Volunteer Project.


Burma, Tileston found, was a hot spot in more ways than one. Because of postcolonial internal strife, Burma, also known as Myanmar, has endured sporadic civil war since 1948 between the government and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), which claims to represent the local ethnic group Karen. Refugees currently live on both sides of the Thailand-Burma border. “It ebbs and wanes, but Karen villages are still being burned, livestock killed, and women raped by the Burmese army,” Tileston says. That first winter, she discovered that an unexpected, and major, problem in the refugee camps is boredom: “They have nowhere to go, nothing to do.”


When the Tilestons returned to Canada they came up with the idea for the My Story Photo Project, in which she and Nathaniel would teach photography to Karen refugees of all ages along the border. Their students would then use their new cameras to document their lives. “The images they bring back are just astounding,” she said.


In seven years of wintering in Mae Sot, Thailand, the couple has run twenty-six workshops and given out 130 cameras. At the end of each workshop, the students select photos for an exhibit in Thailand and write an artist statement “that tells the viewer a little about the photographer’s life and hopes for his or her future.” On their return to Nova Scotia, the Tilestons take the photos on gallery tours. When pictures sell, half the money goes toward funding the program, and half goes back to the refugees who took the photos.


In one of Tileston’s favorite photos, a young, four-foot-tall woman named Nan Aye is dressed in a traditional sarong and jacket, and holds a digital camera to her eye. On the wall behind her, there’s a drawing that serendipitously looks like wings—a visual metaphor of how the My Story Photo Project can give hope to the hopeless.


“Are we saving lives?” Tileston asks. “No. But it’s a chance for them to have some fun—something in short supply when you are living in a refugee camp.” More importantly, “it also allows them to step back as they document their lives and realize that these lives have value.”