Monday, August 28, 2017
By MonaElisaPhotography
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Guest Interview with Shauna Weir on rescuing victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia

When I first started dreaming about the relaunch of Mona Elisa Fine Art Photography this year, my hope was not only to provide beautiful botanical inspired fine art, or to build an online community focused on appreciating and marvelling at the beauty of nature, but it was also essential to me that it would somehow be a conduit for good in this world.

 

As I contemplated on how that would look like in the beginning stages of the relaunch, I pinpointed the causes that touched my heart: wildlife and habitat conservation, and PEOPLE! Specifically, rescuing children from sex trafficking.

 

As I researched different NGOs and organizations, it was vital for me that the organization in question had a) principles I could stand behind, b) received a high charity rating, c) had a good reputation, and d) transparency. In my research, I bumped into Agape International Missions (AIM) and was blown away by the work that they do in Cambodia. Their mission is to prevent, rescue, restore, and reintegrate survivors of sex trafficking. One aspect that highly impressed me was that they work in conjunction with the Cambodian government and local officials to conduct investigations, perform raids, make arrests and rescue victims of sex trafficking. In 2016 alone, the AIM SWAT team successfully performed 40 raids on local brothels and rescued more than 600 people, 100 of which were children! 

Image courtesy of agapewebsite.com

 

Once rescued, these children are sent to Restoration Homes (under 18) or Transitional Homes (18+) where they can be safe and where they are prepared for successful reintegration into society. How do they do this? By meeting their physical, psychosocial, educational, vocational and spiritual needs. A totally holistic approach. An approach that some believe, "should be scaled and replicated on a global level." (Watch Mira Sorvino talk about AIM.)

 

As I looked more into AIM, somehow, I couldn’t shake off this feeling that it sounded familiar. I soon discovered that a friend from high school was working as the principal at one of AIM’s schools in Cambodia! After reconnecting, and hearing about her journey, I was convinced.

 

So, it is with the utmost pleasure, joy, and with the deepest respect that I introduce you to Shauna Weir, who has graciously allowed me to interview her for this post to give us a behind-the-scenes look at what she does within the AIM organization.


Hello Shauna! Thank you so much for joining us here and sharing some of your experiences with us. Tell us a little bit about you and what you do.

 

My name is Shauna Weir, and I’m an 80’s born Canadian (yup, we will leave it at “80’s born”), who grew up in Toronto, Canada but took off to Seoul, Korea after finishing my undergraduate degree. I taught Elementary expat. students at a fabulous International School for 7 years, and during that time began learning about the world wide epidemic of human trafficking. During my time in Korea, God really grabbed ahold of my heart for this cause and began directing my path toward serving in an anti-trafficking ministry. At the same time, He also called me to complete a Masters of Education degree in Administration. I didn’t particularly see the way the two would go hand in hand until I was finishing up my degree and He guided me to apply to serve with Agape International Missions (AIM); an anti-trafficking NGO in Cambodia that needed an Elementary Principal. I have now been serving with AIM for just over a year a few kilometers outside of Phnom Penh.

 

For those who don’t know very much about Agape International Missions (AIM) can you tell us a little bit about the organization, and how you and your team fit within the organization?

 

AIM was founded on the ground in Cambodia in 1988 as a humanitarian aid and church planting organization. Since 2005, our programs have focused on ending the evil of child sexual slavery that is prevalent in Cambodia. AIM takes a holistic approach to fighting trafficking, restoring victims and transforming communities, in order to defeat trafficking. Our projects and programs Prevent, Rescue, Restore, and Reintegrate. One of our main prevention programs is our Elementary School in Svay Pak, a village that was once the worst spot in the entire country for child trafficking but continues to significantly improve. I am the Elementary Principal of this school and we exist to give the kids of Svay Pak the opportunity to receive a well-rounded education and greatly decrease their risk of being trafficked.

 

What do you find the most fulfilling about your life and role there? What have you found to be the most challenging, both personally and as a school?

 

By far the most fulfilling aspect is the people. The Khmer people are absolutely incredible and awe-inspiring. They are full of life, senses of humor and love; a true illustration of their resiliency since the Khmer Rouge. It has been an absolute honor to build relationships with so many of them this year, and to be able to pour into them the blessings that have been poured out upon me. As a school principal in Svay Pak, I have had the chance to get to know the stories of my teachers, students and the community at large, and their un-relenting attitude to keep going and hold onto hope in adversity is positively compelling. There are many challenges to serving in Cambodia, but they do pale in comparison to the blessings. Personally, the poverty, brokenness, crazy traffic and intense year-round heat tend to be the things that most drain me. It’s also a challenge to keep focused on what I would call, “the one.” That no matter how big the problems at hand may be and how many are affected by them, it's worth helping "the one" and keeping my eyes fixed on that. 

 

 

Images courtesy of Shauna Weir

 

What are your hopes and objectives as a school?

 

Our objective as a school is first and foremost to provide protection and the love of Christ for all of our students. We want to provide our students a quality education with teachers who care about their well-being not only academically, but physically, emotionally and spiritually. We want these kids to experience the freedom to learn and dream without fear. Our hope is that with the education they are receiving, that they will go on to be leaders in Cambodia that stand for things that are just, true, and right.

What do you do in those moments where things don’t make sense – when you see suffering, injustice, heartbreak, and/or cruelty, etc? How do you re-center and pick up the pieces?

 

I’d love to say that I just take it in, swallow it, and move along with joy, but most of the time it looks more like wrestling with God as Jacob did. This past year, I’ve personally realized how crucial preventative health and self-care is in my life for combatting this. If I am not…finding pockets of time to rest and do things that fill my soul back up, those moments I experience suffering, injustice and heartbreak that don’t make sense, can quickly take over. They can create a lot of bitterness, anger, and hopelessness...I have been really blessed to receive regular encouragement from my pastor, a counselor, and some close friends who are very intentional in providing me regular reminders to stop and take care. I can only pour out from an overflow, so it’s crucial to take the time and find rest in Jesus to be filled.

 

This blog shares a lot about appreciating the beauty of nature, conservation, and taking care of our earthly home for ourselves and for future generations. Is there any natural wonder or place that you found that touched you deeply? Perhaps on your travels, or in the many countries where you’ve lived? And how did that natural wonder make you feel?

 

I could probably write pages upon pages for this question, but to keep it short, the Sea of Galilee in Israel is the first natural wonder that popped into my head that deeply touched me in a personal way. I’ve seen countless man-made wonders of the world that left me completely speechless when considering their intricacies and grandiose architecture, but nothing touched my soul like the natural wonder of the Sea of Galilee. When I was there, I was so overcome with how much of Jesus’ ministry occurred there: recruiting apostles, the Sermon on the Mount was given on the hill just overlooking the body of water, miracle upon miracle occurring directly in that sea including Jesus walking on water, calming the storm, and feeding the five thousand close by. Knowing all the powerful work Christ had done there, right by that unassuming and untouched body of water, left me with such a deep sense of peace and assurance.

 

What are the best ways that we can support AIM as an organization, as well as, your school, and you personally?

 

Pray. I know that seems like a buzzword or very cliché, but we thrive on the prayers and encouragement of friends, supporters, and churches. Also, I am personally so encouraged by letters or notes that are sent to me, as they show me that people are intentionally going out of their way to try and communicate with me and let me know that I’m not forgotten. Sometimes life in Cambodia can feel a bit lonely and isolating, and it’s such a gift to feel remembered and loved from afar. If you feel led, you can financially support our AIM programs by making a donation on our website. Your donations and generosity are what allow all of our programs to run and are so crucial to the ground work that is done here.


As I read Shauna’s words and the impact that she is making in Cambodia it reminds me again about how important it is for me to leave the space in which I inhabit on this earth (hopefully) better than the way I leave it. And how I want it to be a part of my business model, without question.

 

When you invest in a piece of fine art with us or any product you purchase in our online shop, a percentage of all proceeds will be donated to one of three organizations whose sole mission is: wildlife and habitat conservation, offering medical care to displaced persons in war torn countries, or rescuing children of sex trafficking. One of which is AIM and the incredible work that they do in Cambodia. You can choose who you wish the proceeds to go to at the checkout. 

I encourage you to visit their website and get more acquainted with their programs, their mission, and the work they do. You can also follow them on Instagram where you can see updates and amazing rescue stories.

 

Whether you support AIM directly by making a donation at their website or indirectly by purchasing an item from our webstore or both, we hope to inspire you to make a difference in the lives of these children.


And finally, please mark your calendars as we'll be hosting a LOVE SEPTEMBER SALE from September 2 to September 10! Use coupon code LOVESEPTEMBER at the checkout to save 10% off your purchase! 


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Monday, July 24, 2017
By MonaElisaPhotography
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We had the amazing privilege to go Croatia this past May. It’s been on our bucket list the last couple of years after seeing photographs of its breathtaking landscape.

 

It’s funny to see how I’ve changed over the last 10 years. I had always been such a city girl, and my travels had constantly revolved around large cities with their interesting architecture, culture, busyness, and crowds of people, etc. I still have a fascination with culture, and love seeing how people live differently around the world. However, as time passes the appeal of a chaotic, rich and hectic city is lost on me. More and more, my heart feels hungry and thirsty for the beauty and stillness that nature offers, the details found in a natural landscape, and the wild and native flora.  

About 130 km south of Zagreb you find Plitvice Lakes National Park close to the Bosnia and Herzegovina border in a mountainous area known as the Dinaric Alps. This mountain chain spans from Italy over Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Albania. We spent 2 and a half glorious days there. We would arrive just before the park would open at 7AM. If you arrive the moment the park opens you have between 1 to 2 hours before people start trickling into the park. By 10AM the tourists arrive by the busloads. The park boasts 1.2 million visitors per year. 

 

Waking up early was so worth it. We had a solid 2 hours of being completely alone to walk the trails before we would start to see other visitors. They have 7 hiking trails ranging from 18km to 3.5km. It’s a fairytale landscape of waterfalls, cascades, chutes, moss covered stones, rich forests, turquoise lakes, and winding rivers. The birds were our only companions and serenaded us each morning with their perfectly crafted songs during our hikes. Over 120 different bird species inhabit the forests of the park. Within the park, 16 pools constantly overflow one into the other, while a wooden narrow boardwalk twists and turns amidst the magnificent beauty allowing travellers to take it all in. The highest waterfall, Vikeli Slap, towers at 70 meters and is drenched in mist.

 

It reminded me again about the importance of marveling and the constant precious gifts that the earth bestows on us.

 

We also had the chance to visit Krka National Park (another wonderland of waterfalls and cascades), as well as a few cities like Split, Sibenik, and Zadar.

One of our last evenings was watching the sunset in Zadar. Zadar has what’s called a Sea Organ (Click to here to hear it!). Designed by Nikola Bašić, the sea organ is a set of stone stairs that descend into the sea. What looks like ordinary concrete steps is actually a system of pipes and whistles. As the sea pushes air through the pipes sound escapes—it’s melodic, hypnotic and a marriage between the beauty and force of nature and the artistic ingenuity of man. It’s ever changing depending on the force of the water and the direction of the wind. I mention this as I find it such a striking symbol of what man and nature can create together.

 

There is so much more to Croatia. We barely scratched the surface. It is truly a jewel with an incredibly rich history and culture, astonishing landscape, a warm people and some pretty delicious gelato (thanks to their Italian neighbors and Mediterranean influence).   Hvala Croatia for the gift that you are!!! 

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Friday, April 28, 2017
By MonaElisaPhotography
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Almost four years ago when we were faced with the prospect of changing our lives and moving overseas – it was an opportunity at a brand-new start. During this time of transition, I bumped into an amazing book called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” by Marie Kondo. Although it mainly speaks about home organization and decluttering, I realized that many of the principles contained in this small book seemed to apply to other areas of my life. Not only my home, but also my mind, my thoughts and even values. 

 

Clutter lurks everywhere. Traditionally, I had thought it was reserved for my junk drawer (you know, the drawer where you put everything you can’t be bothered to find a place for), or that section in my closet where I kept outfits that I knew I would never wear but felt too guilty to get rid of. I have discovered that clutter can be so much more than just the physical things that pile up in our lives. Negative emotions and thoughts, although invisible just as easily creep in. Even relationships, unrealistic to-do lists and obligations can undoubtedly encumber our lives. We can also have digital clutter – constant notifications from our e-mail or social media. 

It’s important to create and cultivate a safe and sacred place where we can be ourselves, unwind, and find refuge from all that clutter and noise that demands our attention. To cultivate a place where we can take a break, regroup, find inspiration, encounter rest, nourish our spirits and from that place of rest reprioritize and move forward with purpose.

 

Here are some ideas for creating your own sacred space:

 

1)    Reduce the Clutter

 

I learned how clutter affects me first hand when we moved to the Netherlands. Everything we owned was either sold or given away, and we arrived with four suitcases, and my sewing machine. For the first 5 months, we had no furniture apart from a bed, and a few items we were able to borrow from family. At first, it was challenging as it didn’t feel like our home was complete, but as time passed, the peace that came with not owning so many things and not feeling the constant need to “manage” all the things in my life was so freeing.

 

I learned to become a minimalist (and am still learning).  Moving taught me so much about the significance of things and how we impose so much value on items that don’t have an impact on the quality of our life. I must confess, we strive to be minimalists in most things except two: food and our love of plants. :)

 

The Princeton University Neoroscience Institute conducted a study that found that if your environment is cluttered, it inhibits your brain’s ability to process information. Clutter becomes a source of constant distraction as it competes for your attention. I can completely verify that this is and was true in my own life. Decluttering gives the gift of focus in an environment where there is so much competition for our attention. 

2) Does it Spark Joy?

 

I take this directly from Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” This is her criteria for decluttering her life, and I love it. So often I keep things because I feel guilty or if it ceases to be functional (i.e. the item in question is broken). She writes that the, “best way to figuring out what has most value to us is to ask: Does this spark joy?”

 

Her reason? I’ll let her tell you in her own words: “After all, what is the point in tidying? If it’s not so that our space and the things in it can bring us happiness, then I think there is no point at all. Therefore, the best criterion for choosing what to keep and what to discard is whether keeping it will make you happy, whether it will bring you joy. Are you happy wearing clothes that don’t give pleasure? Do you feel joy when surrounded by piles of unread books that don’t touch your heart? The answer to these questions should be no. Now imagine yourself living in a space that contains only things that spark joy. Isn’t this the lifestyle you dream of? Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.”

 

I love this philosophy and feel like it can apply to so many aspects of our lives. When have negative thoughts about ourselves or others ever brought us joy, or filled us with love? When have hurtful relationships in our lives ever brought us pleasure?

 

Let’s choose joy.

 

3) Engage your Senses

 

We are multi-faceted beings and are equipped with a myriad of senses to discover and process the world around us.  I believe that activating those very same senses that we have used during the day to deal with our environment can also be used to help us find rest and respite from it. Our sacred space can involve all our senses and helps us find inspiration and rest. Whatever that looks like, it’s creating a space where you engage with what refuels you. Diffusing essential oils, looking at art that inspires you, listening to music that you enjoy, reading, getting outside and feeling the elements—the sunshine against your back, or the breeze against your skin, hanging out with your own tribe, movement whether that be dance, yoga or sport, expressing your creativity, working with your hands, preparing a culinary feast of tastes and flavors, etc.  This obviously will look and feel different for everyone.

 

 

4) Take the Time to Rest and Marvel

 

This is so important and something I am constantly learning. I have to learn to stop and rest. So often, I have an unending list of things to do and tasks I am anxious to complete. I mean, I get a thrill adding something on my list that I’ve already done, just so that I can cross it out. Please, someone tell me I’m not the only who does this!!!!

 

My husband has been instrumental in teaching me how to rest. We’ve made a gallery wall in our living room with some of our favorite images from the Into the Tropics Collection.  Most evenings, while I get my foot massage (it’s the only moment in the day where my husband can get me to sit still, LOL) I gaze at those images and marvel. I marvel at the beauty of nature, at the different tones of greens, textures, patterns, and we chat. I’ve found that looking at those photographs, and taking the time to enjoy nature truly refuels me.

 

Certainly, there such a different sensorial experience when I’m walking through the forest, and my senses engage with all the sounds, scents, sensations, and textures that nature provides versus gazing at my gallery wall. But life and time doesn’t always allow for forest escapes, or getaways. So, we have to cultivate our own sacred spaces that reconnect us with some of those experiences that give us peace and cause us to marvel (Read more on the importance of marvelling). 

 

5) It’s a Process.

 

My friend and I have an inside joke around the word “process”. Whenever we’re sharing about life, our perspectives, frustrations, etc. and feeling impatient at the speed in which things are moving along we remind each other, “IT’S AAAAA PROOOOOOCEEEEEEEESS”. It’s in this process what we discover and rediscover who we are and what are the things that are truly important to us.

 

Discovering what brings us peace and relief and incorporating that in our sacred space can take time as we learn who we are outside of what we think we “should” be or outside of the definitions others have imposed on us.

 

What is most important is making that decision to create and cultivate a space for your own enrichment, where you nourish yourself with what sparks joy in you, engages your senses, and gives you the space to rest and marvel.

 

What’s in your sacred space?

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Wednesday, April 05, 2017
By MonaElisaPhotography
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There’s a little unsightly nook in our apartment just between the couch and my favourite Calathea. And regardless of what I do, it is always a mess of jumbled white wires, plugs, and chargers. Sometimes it reminds me of the scene in Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones is dropped into the Well of Souls where he comes face to face with a slithering tangled mess of pythons. I exaggerate… but between the wires for the mobile phones, tablets, laptops, e-reader, camera equipment, modem, and our lamp; it gets overwhelming.

 

We live in a digital age of touchscreens where we can have anything we want at a swipe or a tap. It’s amazing but I’ve realized it comes at a price. 

 

When I was studying for my Montessori certification years ago, one thing that made such an impression on me was when we discussed sensorial learning and its importance in child development. See, everything that is not digital but tangible  engages ALL our senses and gives our minds and bodies feedback. This feedback is what allows us to learn and experience the world with all of our faculties.  

 

There’s a huge difference between reading your favorite novel in a paperback or limited edition or on an e-reader. The e-reader is fantastic, you can carry an entire library in your bag and even read it in the dark (no flashlight required!!). Practical and extremely convenient. However, your experience dramatically changes when you pick up a physical book. The weight of the book in your hands, the act of opening the book and turning a page, the minute breeze you feel against your face when you turn a page, the texture of the paper against your fingertips, or even the fragrance that the page wafts to your nose. It’s not just about the words on the page.

And over time, the experience changes. You can always tell which book has become a favorite; the fingerprint marks on the pages, the creases in the spine, the dog-eared corners, or the underlined passages that are adored. All of this tells a story. It’s a story of experience, enjoyment (or lack of) and value.

 

I have no qualms with my Ipad or my other digital devices. They are so unbelievably practical. But to me that’s all they are: practical. On their own, they tell no story, but must be turned on and used as a vehicle to get me where I need to go (digitally). But we forget. I forget! What began as a tool to get me somewhere or something can itself become the SOMETHING that I strive for.

 

When I started this journey on rediscovering how to marvel and relaunch monaelisaphoto, I debated whether to create digital products or physical art. I’m embarrassed to say that the last time I printed a photograph must have been at least 4 years ago and I was still doing portraiture at the time! A photographer who doesn’t print their own photographs? Insane!

 

While in the testing phase over the last year we printed many samples on so many different types of papers with diverse finishes, textures, weights – and it was GLORIOUS. The photographs and images became so much more alive than what I could have hoped for or even imagined. There’s such a difference in seeing your art for REAL, as opposed to on a digital screen. It’s mind blowing.

And the story these pieces tell changes every day and throughout the day—and that’s all thanks to the light or lack thereof where they decorate our walls.  

 

A little background on our printing process…

 

We’ve found a phenomenal laboratory in Germany that utilizes excellent archival inks with an exceptional color gamut. With much testing, we decided on a bright white torchon archival paper (285gsm) as our medium. Torchon comes from the French word that means “course structure”. It has the same texture as watercolor paper and it’s simply sublime. The details that you see in the highlights and shadows are beautiful, and gives the image a sense of three dimensionality that other paper simply cannot.

 

It was almost a pity to frame these pieces as it felt like it took away from the sensorial experience of the paper, and how the light influences what you see as it hits it or is reflected from it. And yes, the texture of the paper on your fingertips even feels lovely (although I don’t recommend ‘feeling up’ your prints).

 

Our paper is museum grade which has 82 years’ longevity if displayed framed under glass or 132 years if displayed framed with a UV filter. (I’d like to see a tablet survive that long. And absolutely no charging required ;)

 

I’m so very proud of our final product. I wish there was a way that I could have each of you over so that you could see with your own eyes the difference between seeing our work in person versus on a digital screen (preferably with a glass of wine, and your favourite song playing in the background).

 

In an age where we tend to value things on the cheap because they are fast, convenient and fulfill our immediate desires, we often forget the beauty that comes with craftsmanship, quality and longevity. It’s difficult to remember amongst the clutter, the noise and all the various things that vie for our attention what it is that truly speaks to us, restores us from our weariness and makes us marvel again. In a digital age, something real is so worth the investment.

What experiences do you miss the most in this digital age?

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Friday, March 24, 2017
By MonaElisaPhotography
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Dirk and I always enjoy during our downtime, curling up on the couch, sharing a glass of whiskey and watching nature documentaries. I confess that I always get squeamish during those hunting montages, so with my trusty pillow by my side I’m always ready to do a full-face plant when anyone is getting eaten. 

 

Recently, we bumped into Planet Earth II and I was blown away by one of their segments on the Chinstrap Penguin Colony. These little guys live on Zavodovski Island (just north of Antarctica) on an active volcano. Not only is the island volcanic, and surrounded by treacherous cliffs but it lies in one of the stormiest seas.

Photo credit: taken from http://www.bbc.co.uk/

 

Every January, the island explodes with newly hatched chicks. Hungry and vulnerable, they depend on one parent to protect them while, the other goes on a 2-mile hike to the ocean to feed. Once at the coast, they have to time their jump into the ocean with absolute precision in order to catch a wave that will pull them into the freezing water otherwise they fall against the cliff’s rocky edges. They must feed, avoid predators, and swim back to the island, and again find the perfect wave to propel them back onto the cliffs to return to their starving chicks. Many arrive back bloodied, bruised, and/or with broken limbs, while others simply don’t make it. And let’s not forget, that after this ordeal they still need to hike back 2 miles and find their nest amongst 1.5 million other penguins!

 

I was deeply moved watching this. Are these penguins extreme thrill seekers? Is it instinct? Are they just bat crazy? What possesses them to do this EVERY OTHER DAY? Unfortunately, I can’t answer these questions. I’m not a penguin, and I’m so grateful I’m not. But the single motivation that I can observe is that they are consumed with an absolute desire to feed their chicks and give them a chance at survival. It’s beautiful, heartbreaking, awesome, incredibly vulnerable and frightening. These penguins have only one single focus and that is the preservation and protection of the next generation. (You can watch the clip here).

 

It reminds me of a beautiful quotation I ran across on a storefront two years ago:

I marveled at those words the first time I read them. It’s so easy for me to be consumed by my own desires and needs without a second thought to how my choices may affect those around me. Or how I can be blind to the needs of others. When I read those words, it made me pause, and start to question the choices that I make and the way that I live my life.

 

As we get ready to launch our online shop on April 11, one thing that’s become incredibly important to me is the desire to leave the space in which I inhabit on this earth (hopefully) better than the way I leave it, not only for the environment but also for those that will come after me. And I want it to be a part of my business model, without question. 

 

When you invest in a piece of fine art with us or any product you purchase in our online shop, a percentage of all proceeds will be donated to one of three organizations whose sole mission is: wildlife and habitat conservation, offering medical care to displaced persons in war torn countries, or rescuing children from the sex trafficking industry (more details coming soon in a future blog post).

 

Firstly, I’m very excited about this as it allows us to support and empower people to bring about good in this world in the midst of incredible injustice and pain. Secondly, as a customer, you can choose which organization you would like to receive the proceeds. Thus, choosing one that aligns closest to your own passions. We are all so very different and have diverse causes that we care deeply about. 

 

So, whether you are concerned about the environment, or you passionately care for the next generation like the Chinstrap Penguins, please know that when you invite us into your home by purchasing a piece of fine art photography from us, you’re also doing good and partnering with us to leave our temporary earthly home in a better place than it was before.

 

What causes are you most passionate about? 

 

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