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Relecting on the photo exhibition - Jo Coffey
Karunai Illam Trust
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Relecting on the photo exhibition - Jo Coffey

The exhibition is the story of two Kiwi storytellers - Jean Watson and Mo Greig. Jean wrote stories and Mo tells stories via pictures. Both were inspired by the children of the Illam. Jean and Mo never met, but Jean would have loved Mo for her gift with words and images, her compassion, her insightfulness and her sense of social justice. Both women had a career change in their fifties; Mo taking up photography full time and Jean setting up and overseeing the running of the Dhan Karunai Illam children's home in Southern India.

Like Jean did in the 1980s, Mo travelled to India late 2016 as she wished to undertake a photographic project with the children at the Illam. Armed with a bunch of cameras, Mo taught the children the skills to use the cameras but more importantly composition. The children captured their view of life at the Illam through the camera lens.

The broader story behind the exhibition is one of chance and chance meetings. In 1984 Jean was invited to travel to India as Joy Cowley’s companion. After Joy returned to New Zealand, Jean travelled south to Kanyakumari where the three seas meet. There Jean met Subbiah, a man collecting money for a children’s home. Within the next few years Jean and Subbiah had set up a children’s home in his home town of Nilakottai and Jean had sold her home in the Aro Valley to buy the Illam’s first piece of land.

Mo’s story started in a chocolate shop where she purchased treats to take to friends in the Wairarapa. At a dinner there she met with mutual friends and the following week she returned to the chocolate shop to ask about the film Aunty &the Star People, a documentary by Gerard Smyth, about Jean Watson. Mo talked about how she would like to do a photographic project overseas and if it would be possible to go to the Illam. The seed was sown. After various discussions with the Karanui Illam Trust trustees, Mo undertook the journey to India. Since then, between her other projects, Mo has exhibited hers and the children’s photos in London.

This exhibit represents a unique view into the lives of the children of the Illam. The exhibition at the Mahara Gallery, opened on the 5th August for 6 weeks, shows the childrens’ and some of Mo's work. It is a testament to the vision and work undertaken by Jean Watson. 

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