SXSW Smiles and Photo Dreams: What's Yours?

BlogHer Original Post

As a photographer and an adult with a cleft lip and palate who had a transformative
experience shooting
an Operation Smile dental mission in Vietnam a year
ago this week, I was thrilled to see the SXSW Smiles project at the huge SXSW Interactive conference  in the oh-so-awesome Austin.

Well, I didn't actually see it. I almost missed it entirely. I walked out of my last panel on the last day smack into a table that had piles of Operation Smile stickers and buttons on it (I was tired, and it turns out when you buy an iPhone you can spend a lot of stupid time looking at the ground.) It kind of hurt my knee, but it got my attention. And after a little bit of research into the project that brought a nonprofit organization like this one to a huge tech conference, I kicked myself harder than usual for not paying attention before.

There's a lot to pay attention to at this conference, but this is one more thing that given my love for this organization's mission of providing surgical repair for facial differences - primarily cleft lips and/or palates - around the world, I feel like the universe should have put in my scattered, hurried path. (And the universe is like, "Hi, pay attention to the important stuff, thanks.") So I am now, and I hope you will too.

Renee Alexander Hamilton, Operation Smile's Social Media Strategist who represented the project at SXSW Interactive, tells the story on her blog, SXSW Smiles Journal

-I told her about my new role and how now I am trying to do the same
thing we do in Donor Relations online and in person at events. I
explained that while in the past social networking tools like chat
rooms were thought to divide people and keep them at home in a dark
corner having "virtual relationships'. Now with Facebook and Twitter,
these interactions are actually driving in-person meet-ups and beyond
that they are inspiring ACTION.

So I guess you could say I'm in Austin for a little Smile Action! 

SXSW Smiles set up shop outside the very cool Beacon Lounge for nonprofits and social change organizations in the Austin Convention Center, with the goal of enough donations for 10 new "smiles" - repair surgeries for kids with cleft lips and/or palates- each estimated at $240.

Directions were simple. First, pick up or download a "Make Me Smile" sign, and write whatever makes you smile on it. Upload a photo of yourself with the sign to Flickr with the "sxswsmiles" tag. Donate by texting "smile" to 90999, or dropping it off in the Beacon Lounge.

Check out the Operation Smile SXSW Flickr set here, hosted on Alexander aka Entropy Art's photostream. The answers are fun to read - "Bhangra," "our absurdly clingy dog", "hot salsa"- and you'll also get a peek at some of the folks roaming the halls of SXSW, if that's a draw. I would include them for you here, but "all rights reserved" is what it is.

The SXSWSmiles project is part of a larger $240 Smile Challenge March (aka Smile Month.) The cause's Facebook page says that $4203 has been donated so far and $3710 is still needed to reach their goal of providing 20 repair surgeries to children. Check it out.

While this is so much on my mind, Lenovo Microsoft is asking people to "Name Your Dream Assignment," asking "Where will your lens take you?" on a photo project for which they will give a prize of $50,000, a video camera, a blog and a computer to record it all. I haven't entered, but mine? To go on a mission - a surgical one this time, and to shoot it. I don't know when or how this will happen, but I believe that it will, and just as I felt in Vietnam, I think it'll be one of the most important things I ever witness.

And why? I'm as idealistic as I am hardcore about photography, and that's a lot. Photos can change lives, I will boldly, idealistically, perhaps overdramatically say - whether they're photos of people talking about what makes them smile or, maybe more importantly, photos taken before and after cleft lip and/or palate repair. They can inform and change perceptions and raise awareness just like, and sometimes even more than, words can. It can be difficult to see if you're unaccustomed, but just like with many things that present challenges that can't be easily solved, or aren't so pretty, or disturb on some level, they don't go away just because we don't pay attention.

When its in a picture in front of your face, it's hard to ignore, so may there always be pictures of important things in front of our faces. 

Me with the very important kids at Hanoi Medical University, March, 2008. Many had just received their first dental exam. Photo kindly taken by their teacher. 

And I can easily say that Operation Smile is my favorite new Twitter contact from SXSW Interactive.

Other photo dreamers for this and other causes:

Joanne Bamberger/PunditMom's dream assignment is to tell the stories of moms keeping their families afloat in tough economic times.

Katie Ring's Photography and Life blog with footage of Operation Smile patients in India and her photos of a mission there.

Audra, an American expat writing at Nicaragua: The Obandos accompanied her students from the American Nicaraguan School on an Operation Smile mission

Beth Kanter was a fixture in the Beacon Lounge and wrote prolifically about the nonprofit presence at SXSW and in social media communities. Her post on the Social Media Nonprofit ROI Poetry Slam is a good place to start, but scroll around for lots more.

Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites.

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