Ten months ago Vision for Empowerment (before it even had a name) was just an idea and today I am sitting 33,000 miles above the Polar icecaps on my flight to Hong Kong and onward to Kolkata.

I’ve noticed time and time again that I spend a lot of energy doing (and ultimately stressing) and I rarely allow myself to take a step back and look at what was accomplished. This is my opportunity to reflect, to thank all of the supporters and to share the process of turning a small idea into action. It’s for the daydreamers, the go-getters and anyone in between. And perhaps written for another photographer or artist, who thinks raising thousands of dollars for a project is nearly impossible. Because guess what? That was me in May!

When I was 18, I saw the academy award winning film, Born Into Brothels, a brilliant documentary showing the lives of children in Sonagachi, India’s largest red light district. It was my first year in college and I had just returned from living and working in Capetown, South Africa. I had heard of sex trafficking and knew it was prominent in East Asia but I had never heard of Sonagachi. The film follows New York based photographer Zana Briskiwho, who spends years forming relationships with the sex workers and eventually starts teaching their kids film photography. The kids are incredible artists and I remember my eyes full with tears, both in sadness and in joy, recognizing that a 10-year-old living in the slums of Kolkata could produce works of art that many photojournalists at the time could not. The red light district is off-limits for most westerners and it is shaming to take photos of the workers.

The images these kids produced were raw— full of honesty and also resilience for the lives they endure. I knew India was the next place on my list. I was moved by the people, their energy, and the colorful sari’s blowing in the wind, covered in afternoon smoke and dust.

Flash forward six years, a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, my own witness to sex workers in Cambodia and a strong drive to leave the United States and I serendipitously met Sarah Symons. It was November of last year and she had a table at a holiday bizarre selling jewelry for her nonprofit, Made By Survivors. She told me about her girls, who were previously trafficked and now make high enough wages making jewelry to stay out of poverty. I mentioned almost immediately that I wanted to visit India and would take any photographs that she needed. I purchased her book, This is No Ordinary Joy, and started reading it that night.

Weeks passed and in January we had lunch. We chatted for over an hour about photography and what I could offer. How would it benefit the girls? We shot around a few ideas and left with this conclusion: I should teach.

I will never forget the week that followed. It was a creative, zombie-like trance where all I thought about was Kolkata. Could this really work? I started researching other photography workshops that take place in disadvantaged areas of the world. I daydreamed about teaching self-portraiture and helping the girls regain any confidence they have lost through their trauma. Sarah and her husband John loved the ideas of art therapy (and they have done many projects like this in the past) but Sarah kept pressing the idea of making it something more impactful. This is when the idea changed from a short introduction to photography into a 4-week “educationally intensive” training in design, composition, camera functions, portraiture, and basic editing.

The next step, of course, was money. How the heck was I going to raise enough to get myself there and also purchase cameras for each woman? I did something (admittedly) that I hate and sat down and made a budget. This budget changed drastically between May and August. Expenses continued to come up and they will when working with nonprofits in another part of the world. You must factor in equipment but also transportation and translator (s). I was completely new to this type of budget planning and I am extremely thankful for Paul, the program director of Made By Survivor, who helped with this process.

My final budget was set at $8,500. This includes 10 cameras, memory cards, hard drive, cases, a small printer, paper and ink, my accommodation, transportation for the girls, a translator, my plane ticket and perhaps a few bowls of curry.

I started with crowd funding. It’s the easiest way to go—especially for someone who is very active on social media in both personal and business life. My friend Brady, of Noble Light Productions, shot and edited a beautiful video about the workshop and my Go Fund Me went live. After the first week I had $1,500 raised. I was amazed. My clients and the St. Augustine community supported me immediately and I even had donations come from people I had never met. Then, I hit a slump. The money stopped coming in and I realized that I needed sponsors more than anything, people that could provide $500.00 to purchase a camera kit for one of the girls. I put this out on social media and told everyone I ran into about what I was doing. Three months later, I ended up having four sponsors, each writing a $500.00 check.

May crept up and I was halfway to my goal and ready to purchase my ticket in September. I had reached out to many businesses (especially in the wedding industry) and realized that everyone wanted to give something, but not cash. Which makes perfect sense. Now, I have to give some credit to my boyfriend, Kelly, who brought up the idea of a silent auction so that I could use these “goods” that people wanted to give. A week later I was sitting at a French bakery with my friend Cassidie, as she jotted dozens of notes on where to host the auction and who to ask.

I spent the next month passing out donor letters, visiting every business I had a connection with, and coordinating with DOS Coffee & Wine, who agreed to host the event. Out of the 50+ businesses I spoke to, only one ended up not donating. This is how awesome St. Augustine is. This is what you learn while fundraising and perhaps is one of my greatest lessons—people want to support your dreams and people want to help others, even if they are halfway across the world. You just have to be bold and ask.

June 18th we held the silent auction at DOS Coffee & Wine. I had reached out to the St. Augustine Record and a few other media sources and crossed my fingers people would show. I had Cassidie, Sarah, and an amazing group of women help set-up the event and before it was 6pm, people were lining up at the door. Approximately 100 people showed up to bid on over 60 local items and $5,600 was raised. The mayor, Nancy Shafer, said it was one of the best fundraisers she’d ever been to. I have the St. Augustine community to thank for that.

Money still trickled in up until a few days before departure and I reached slightly over my goal, hitting $8,700.

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August was spent designing the curriculum, ice-breakers, photo excursions, and worksheets. I researched art therapy methods and projects. I revisited old Introduction to Photography books. I translated pieces of the worksheets into Bengali. I reached out to other photographers that have been to Kolkata. It’s one thing designing a photography class for women who do not speak English but another to design one without knowing their technological proficiency. The group I am working with is going to be diverse and their skill levels may vary. Luckily photography, in itself, is a visual language and I hope it bridges the language gap and we’re able to all learn from one another.

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I will say this wasn’t easy. There were times of pure exhaustion and confusion but the most unproductive feeling you can have while fundraising is doubt. Doubt creeps in when you’re overworked and when things are out of your control. I wrote in my journal on July 30th, when I was highly anxious, wondering how I was going to translate worksheets into Bengali, connect with the girls and teach in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them.

I wrote: “You will not fail because you’re going. That is the first step because failing would be never trying something. Failing is when you let fear take over. There is a mystery to this trip. There is risk. There is uncertainty. But being able to go and deal with all of these things is going to make you a stronger and wiser human being.”

I know this is true and I’ll leave you with this:

THANK YOU. Thank you all for supporting my dream, Made By Survivors, Women’s Interlink Foundation, and most importantly providing an awesome opportunity to 10 young women in Kolkata. I can’t wait to share their images and stories.

Sarah Annay

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