‘One World’ Saratoga Library photo exhibit displays joyous moments

December 10, 2018 — by Anna Novoselov and Emilie Zhou

With her camera strapped around her neck, Elley Ho — a special education teacher with a passion for photography —quickly glanced down at the picture she had just taken: a little girl crouched down over a piece of paper, focused on copying the information Ho had written on the board of a classroom in a village school in rural Nepal. When Ho had glanced over, she noticed that she couldn’t even see the pencil in the child’s hand; it was so short and worn out, just like all the other tiny pencils in the girl’s pencil case.

“When I touched [the pencils] they had this texture I’ve never experienced,” Ho said. “They were so smooth and overused that they were polished in a very natural way.”

With a flash of her camera, Ho had captured the moment and the girl’s love for her pencils from behind the girl’s back.

That afternoon, knowing that the children needed new pencils, Ho asked a few locals to walk to the closest store two hours away. The next day, Ho used gestures to explain to the girl that she wanted to trade a brand new, long pencil for her stubby one.

“I pretended I really liked it and asked if I could keep it because I thought it was such a neat look of a pencil, so overused, Ho said with a laugh. “She just wouldn’t give it to me.”

The photo, “Little Pencils,” is on display at the Saratoga Library as part of Ho’s “One World” photo exhibit, which showcases the daily life of children in native towns from various countries including China, Nepal, India, Peru, Cuba and several East African countries. The 33 photos in the exhibit were taken approximately 7 to 10 years ago when Ho had time in the summer to travel, and will remain at the library until Dec. 31.

For Ho’s first few trips, she worked with organizations and nonprofits. Later, she used connections she had formed to plan her own experiences.

In her exhibit, Ho hoped to display the intrinsic joy of children in their homes and illustrate that despite their different backgrounds, “they’re all in one world” and are inherently similar.

“They are connected as I have reached out to every single one of them, in all those seemingly random occurrences in my journey,” Ho wrote in her exhibition statement. “My dream is to see them all join hands in one place despite their distance apart.”

Ho, who has been working in special education for 20 years at the Santa Clara County Office for Education, discovered her passion for photography when parents of children with autism pointed out how well she was able to photograph their children, a task that can sometimes be quite challenging. Encouraged by these responses, Ho decided to find ways to combine her love for photography and her background in teaching to fulfill her longing to help children.

“My personal desire is to be able to reach out to kids that have special needs around the world and offer myself as a teacher and a photographer,” Ho said.  

Ho’s background in special education also proved beneficial in helping her develop patience and learn how to communicate and “really connect with [the children].”

Although Ho grew up in Hong Kong and has lived in the Silicon Valley for 24 years, she sees herself as a global citizen, not exclusively Chinese or American.

Ho prefers to visit native communities and live with them rather than stay at hotels in popular tourist locations. She usually spent a month in each village fully immersing herself into a community to best capture the special moments and little joys of their daily lives.

For instance, a series of three vertical photos behind the checkout counter in the library features three children on their way to school in Peru. One child is holding an old radio; another, a handful of wood chips; and the third child sits on a swing, taking a break from the two-hour hike to the classrooms.

While some of the photos displayed at the library are candid shots, others were taken when Ho asked the children to pose in a certain way or place. Despite the language barrier Ho faced, she learned words that entertained the children, such as “laugh,” and as a result, the kids would giggle when she said the word in their native language before taking a photo.

Although the children usually acted silly in front of the lens at first, crawling over Elley attempting to view photos as soon as they were taken, they eventually became more comfortable and grew used to being photographed.

“It’s a long process where you have to wait until they feel like you’re part of them and almost invisible,” Ho said.

When Ho’s friend, Lorraine, recommended that she showcase her photographs on the art wall at the Saratoga library, where two artists display their work each month, Ho filled out the application. She intended to showcase the photographs of the children who had crossed her path.

Library assistant Betsy White said that local artists 18 years of age or older submit five examples of their work, which are then evaluated by an official committee composed of community members.

Because of the large demand, artists usually wait two years after filling out the application before their art is put up, even though they are usually accepted two months after submitting the application.

“The work usually speaks for itself,” White said. “There are many photography submissions but composition and subject matter make some rise above others. In Elley's case, the portraits are so immediately engaging and sympathetic and joyful.”

Initially, another artist was supposed to have their artwork displayed alongside Ho’s, but she/he moved away so Ho has the entire wall to herself.

Ho said that she has received numerous emails from people wishing to know the story between specific photos. She said that she loves receiving feedback and being surprised by nice comments.

All proceeds from the sales of her photos from Nepal and Kenya will be donated to the Nepal Education Initiative Organization and Asante Africa Foundation: two San Francisco-based-nonprofits that work to increase educational opportunities for children in Nepal and Africa, respectively.

Now, Ho works for various schools in the Santa Clara County and helps train other teachers. She has taken a break from traveling to fulfill family commitments and focus on her new job, but hopes to travel and continue using her skills to help children around the world. For now, she has been focusing more on the commercial aspect of her career by working as a photographer for family portraits and weddings.

Ho said that she took a risk by following her desire to pursue photography and travel and has enriched her life as a result.

“To me, opportunities are always there, it’s a matter of whether you respond,” Ho said. “Of course there will be closed doors as well, but I almost always respond to opportunities and they almost always turn out to be open doors for me.”

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