Rose Charities is an international organization dedicated to nourishing the youth of physically and ideologically stunted communities. Local volunteers and an active Board of Directors within the New York chapter set out to "improve quality of life" via creative means. Noot Seear, chairman of the Board since 2005, has recruited artistic minds including Hunter Barnes, Jason Rosenstock, Mazdack Rassi, and Annie Henley, among others, to level the playing field for impoverished or exploited communities. Their current focus is a workshop held in the Lapwai Valley, Idaho, where the indigenous Ne Mee Poo of the Nez Perce reservation reside. This project, aimed at the youth of the tribe, makes knowledge of photography and video accessible. Last night Milk Gallery hosted a photo auction that directed profits to Rose Charities’ Our Voices. I spoke with Noot and Hunter about their engagement with the enriching charity, the photo auction, and the children of the Nez Perce reservation.
Milk Made: Rose Charities takes responsibility for a number of projects to help underprivileged children and those that are victims of disaster and poverty. What brought you to participate in the organization?
Noot Seear: My father and my uncle are pediatricians and, for my whole life, they were very much involved with disaster-stricken areas. They would go and provide aid while my mom worked to help fund the projects. I remember after the tsunami [in Sri Lanka, 2004], my whole family got together and my dad got on the first plane out there. It’s just something that I’ve grown up with, and have always wanted to do. We started off doing these silly events called BeBare NY, where we’d get designers to donate clothes that were bid on at a runway show. Then the girls would take their clothes off on the runway and it would turn into an underwear show. They were always fun, and we did a dozen of them. When I went out to Cambodia and Vietnam [in 2009], I saw the difference Rose Charities was making. Meeting the kids that we’ve performed surgery on, that had cleft lip palate surgery or restorative eye surgery, and meeting the doctors, seeing the people out there…it became very real to me. That’s what got me.
Hunter Barnes: We did that first fundraiser and I remember you said, ‘hey, we should send Hunter over there.’ They shipped me to Sri Lanka [in 2004] and I documented all the effects from the tsunami and the civil war in the villages, showing battle and the conditions people had to live in. The civil war broke out the day after I flew in. It was a side people didn’t see, and was more about the people than anything else. We ended up doing a show at Milk Gallery and built a well for the Tamil villages with part of the proceeds. Clean water was a big problem after the tsunami polluted all the water and wells. It wasn’t just a quick fix but rather an ongoing supply that everyone could use. It wasn’t just for one side or one group of people, it was for everybody.
NS: Rose Charities has always been involved with youth culture, especially the New York chapter. We’ve always done shows that are affordable with lots of young artists donating work. Everyone on our board, especially when we started, has been quite young. It’s a bit of a movement. It’s important to allow young people to buy art as well as give back, even if it is a small amount. You don’t have to buy a huge table for our events…
MM: That’s refreshing!
HB: It’s very grassroots.
MM: Hunter, you’ve been working with the kids at the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho. Tell us a bit about your experience.
HB: We’re basically providing a medium for the kids to express themselves and show what’s going on in their lives, the conditions in which they’re living. A lot of times they really don’t have access to bring things in or get their traditional ways back out into the world. It’s not easily approachable. A great friend of mine, who is an artist and elder [of the Nez Perce tribe] in the Wallowa Valley, introduced me. After I spent weeks camping out with this guy he invited me to the community in Idaho. I spent four years on and off living with the Ne Mee Poo. Rassi donated a bunch of computers and technical hardware. Without a doubt, none of this could have been possible without him. Jason [Rosenstock] does the film and digital media side of it while I do more traditional black and white photography. I remember seeing the kids and remembering my interest in the camera when I was a little kid. I saw their eyes light up. The kid’s perspective of where they live and grew up, what they see, is innocent, even pure; it’s like the real side of life. We set up projects that highlight their own meaning of life and allow them to share it with other people. We leave all the equipment, though, and use fundraisers like this to fund those purchases. We train the kids to use it but pull the older kids aside for their own thing and really train them so they can keep teaching the next generation. They’re also in communication with us so if they have other questions or want to do something, show something, or learn something else we can help. We want to teach and allow them to grow.
NS: I thought it was important to do a project in America since we are the only U.S. chapter of Rose Charities. After Hunter’s connection in Oregon, I realized how difficult life was for the Nez Perce people. It made sense to do a project with them.
MM: So it’s almost more of a mentorship than a workshop.
HB: Yeah definitely. The way that these people took me in was really beautiful. It’s been 100 years since they did it with somebody else, and this is my way of giving back. It’s kind of isolated, and there are a lot of other influences coming into the reservation that might not be the best thing for a kid to be doing after school.
MM: Insulated communities tend to breed at least a few mentions of revolting behavior, but this is a great way to provide a creative outlet that is more engaging than any other adolescent hijinks. Any conflicts between the traditional and modern in your experiences?
HB: Not really. They’ve been really accepting, they embrace it. We did a show on the reservation and all the families and parents came out and were really happy about it. The whole community is behind it.
NS: The movies these kids produce with FlipCams are beautiful. They get the elders involved and some of them explained their history and heritage and what it is today. I learned so much from it.
HB: The kids were learning about photography and the art-form but they were really learning more about their own culture from these elders that were taking them on walks and explaining things about roots and berries, and how it was back when the reservation was formed. It was just like hanging out with your grandpa for the weekend. A lot of Native American cultures relay knowledge verbally but things get lost, languages get lost. They’re just now starting to rewrite a lot of that so an actual record can be passed down from the people rather than someone on the outside.
MM: Are any other artists helping out on the teaching front?
NS: It’s very grassroots and we are very small. We basically run off love. Jason and Hunter went there on their own and donated two months of their time. We’re not paying them to go down there. These events are also pure donations, from the photography being auctioned off to people’s time and even the liquor. It’s really impressive. Right now we have such a great group. If anyone wanted to contribute time to travel down there, we’d be open to their involvement.
MM: Do you have any other ambitions for the NY chapter??
HB: This is only the second year we’re going to Idaho, and I’m pretty happy with what we’re doing as of now. It’s important to solidify the program for those kids. We have the blessing of the tribe, which is the most important thing. If they feel good about it we do too.
NS: We have the ball rolling on this and it went really well the first year. I would love to do more video with the children. Even though tonight’s show is just photography, it’d be amazing to have an area for video in the next one.
HB: I’d also love to let the kids vote on a representative of their class so we could actually bring a kid over from Idaho to see the show. Eventually it’d be great to have it be less about artists auctioning work to help these kids out and, in exchange, have a stronger presence of the kids’ work, with films and everything.
MM: Speaking of moving above and beyond, are there any success stories you’d care to share?
HB: Definitely. Some of them are still checking the cameras out and using them. Ironically there was a black and white photo lab at this college 20 miles away. We opened an account so if they want to keep shooting black and white film they can go there, process their film, and have access to the equipment. We just want to keep moving with it so they can show the younger kids when we’re not there.
NS: The videos were very free-form, and one of the kid’s videos portrayed these swings oscillating at different times and it was so different and so moving. Some of the movies aren’t even about history or lifestyle, but more about expressing themselves and their point of view.
Photos by: Mike Bogart