The sun balances on a haze so thick you taste it, encapsulated in a swath of life from below. Smoke rises from the earth sending flavors of masala, the previous day’s used and discarded plastic, the sweet smell of sandalwood and the unmistakable aroma of charred flesh to swaddle the ball of heat attempting to cook everything below. In Varanasi, India, the holiest Hindu city along the banks of the Ganga, a cacophony of stimuli envelop every sense a human possesses. The chaotic orchestra of Baba’s chanting mantras from along the Ganga shores, temple bells echoing from every corner of the city, chai wallas and street peddlers shouting their days merchandise options to those resting along the ghats, childrens’ laughter and infant cries penetrate straight to the heart as you inhale the smell of a beedi from the businessman leaning against a wall and spot the thick red splat of betel projecting out the door of a tuktuk as it honks its way through the obstacle course of people, cows, cars, motorbikes and vegetable carts fills an entire soul.
Amidst the potpourri of sensory overload a life altering experience unfolds as Stephanie Lane, a former philanthropy and fundraising student at NYU and half of the inspiring duo from the non-profit Silent Tapes, walks the shores of the holy Ganga. She pauses to take it all in as a dog comes to her feet and starts tugging. As she looks down she sees him digging through the rubble of unidentified ashen mess at a pile of human bones to chew. “I just knew! Wow, this is what we become. For a moment I felt all of my insignificance and that our physical bodies are entirely meaningless in the realm of bigger things,” Stephanie says.
Those bigger things amass to using her newly realized, impermanent vessel of flesh, in partnership with her husband, Francis Lane, as a vehicle to change the world one slum at a time. She brings to the table a solid foundation of truly knowing herself and what her purpose is in life, having trudged her own infinite path to self-discovery, self-realization and self-acceptance. Having a yoga practice made her learn to accept all the parts of her, “mostly the bad things,” she says. “Without the realization of those horrendous truths about myself, it’s possible I would have never embarked on the path I’m on now. The most important thing for any person to do is really embrace and accept their faults. Without that step, there is no way to become the greatness we are meant to be.”
Growing up below the poverty line in America, which she knows from experience is vastly different from other parts of the world, gave her a unique perspective on the choices we make. In a community riddled with the typical challenges of those under dire financial stress, like crime and drugs, she made a conscious choice rooted in her passion in the arts. “Art gave me a safe place, an outlet to express myself about everything that was going on around me. I had a choice to either end up in jail in my teens or dream of sharing my art one day. I chose the latter and not only because I loved art but because I wanted a voice. I wanted to live.”
The seed for Silent Tapes blossomed from that foundation and Stephanie, and Francis, decided to use their combined talents and love of travel, philanthropy and photography to provide the gift of a voice to the children in slums around the world. “Our vision is to have these pockets of empowerment all over the world. I know it’s a big dream to rid the world of poverty, disease, child abuse and so many other things but the least we can do is try. I feel strongly about having a social responsibility and a commitment to helping others,” said Stephanie.
Their philanthropic work originated in Klong Toei, Thailand, at the orphanage Stephanie volunteered at while she and Francis were living there. “Bangkok is very strange in the sense that one of the largest shopping centers in the world, with all the riches you can imagine, is just down the train tracks from 300,000 residents living in a notorious slum. The juxtaposition is really unique and interesting.” Their original efforts were focused on volunteering for an established organization and using funds from their own photography to donate to the local day care, which provided children with a meal plan, basic care supplies and a safe environment to stay while their parents worked.
Their latest project, slated to take place this summer in Fortaleza, Brazil, coincides with the World Cup, where $400 million USD, in Fortaleza alone, has been spent and 200,000 residents displaced for the sake of tourism, in a country with over half a million child prostitutes and 16 million people living on less than $1.30 a day. In Fortaleza they have partnered with a local organization that will help them organize efforts to provide 50 children with a 5-week photography workshop focusing on the basics of photography and how to capture varied emotions. “The aim is to have the children capture their surroundings and also capture how they translate their personal emotions into what they see visually around them. There is so much the heart can feel that the eyes don’t see, so we are hoping that with clear and simple guidance, they will be able to communicate those feelings with their cameras,” Stephanie said. “There are so many things that we would never be able to capture ourselves that are in the hearts and minds of these children and we want to guide them through the process of finding their voice.”
An exhibition in New York City, later this year, will showcase some of the selected photographs from the project and books of the children’s work will be published and distributed to selected school libraries and community centers in the twinned cities.
Want to help with their efforts? I know you bunches of supporting and loving people do! Stephanie and Francis are currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds necessary to run the project and the mobile photography community has already come out in droves to support them. “So far the response from Instagram has been mind-boggling. We really had no idea everyone would be so supportive and are running out of ways to say thank you! It’s been really surreal.” The campaign has 2 days remaining and while their original goal has been shattered, they are in the process of working on a stretch goal that will allow them to work with an outside group and film maker to produce a documentary and provide a platform for wider distribution.
“I am very blessed to have the basic things I have. I don’t need anything else. I guess what I am trying to say is to love selflessly, live fearlessly and spend time contributing to this beautiful world we are all born to share.”
From Jessii: It’s with immense gratitude and appreciation that I thank Stephanie for taking the time, during this very busy period, to have such an open heart and speak so candidly with me. It’s been a wonderful few weeks getting to know her and I’m overjoyed to see what sort of success and changes she and Francis will bring to the world and those we all share it with. Please take a moment to view the video below for their Kickstarter campaign, which ends Saturday, May 3 at 10am PST.