Heroes among us: Sue Carpenter (writer, photographer, and charity worker)

We live in a society obsessed with celebrities and often don’t notice incredible people around us.

I read Sue Carpenter’s profile in a recent issue of ‘You’ magazine and just knew that I had to meet her. I contacted the charity for which she works, Asha Nepal, and my details were passed on to Sue, who kindly agreed to be interviewed by a rookie.

When I arrived at Royal College of Art for the photo exhibition ‘My world, my view ‘, I was met by Sue who is tall, blonde and has incredibly kind blue eyes. She was there as a proud mentor of the girls of SOS (for Save Our Sisters) Bahini in Nepal.

The pictures that I saw took my breath away-some were the portraits of the girls, their friends or family, landscapes, temples or festivities and many of them had luminosity and vibrancy that one rarely sees in real life. Ten percent of royalties from the photo sales goes directly into girls’ savings accounts while the rest will go towards future SOS Bahini projects.

Sue Carpenter spent her childhood in Salisbury. Her parents were very traditional and hardly travelled, so the first time Sue went abroad (she was eight), she caught a ‘travel bug’. Sue did well in her A-levels, particularly enjoying history of arts, and in her early 20s she took a year out to travel to Asia and India with her school friend. Sue’s mother wanted her daughter to do a secretarial course, which Sue duly did (she didn’t like it but it was worthwhile as it taught her touch typing, which she thinks is ‘fantastic’) and later, when she was 27, she also did a diploma in History of Art at an independent college in London.

Sue’s first job was as a secretary to the editor of a big publishing house ‘Thames and Hudson’, but a year and a half later she became an assistant to features editor of ‘the most glamorous and intellectual’ magazine ‘Harpers and Queen’. That job lasted four years and Sue did a lot of research and writing, while meeting lots of ‘colourful people with wild ideas’.

Sue says that she likes being part of the team but prefers to work on her own. In 1986 she worked together with Patrick Lichfield and his team and wrote a book ‘The best things in the world’.

In the 1980 and early 90s she worked at Daily Mail (‘easy to read and good about structuring things’) and in Sunday Express (‘taught me nothing, but paid well’). Sue says that she was ‘shaped’ professionally by a combination of her work at Daily Mail and Harpers & Queen.

Sue also enjoyed photography and her initial interest was inspired by Cartier Bresson and other great photographers. She started taking pictures during her travels and later, when she became more skilful, she started combining writing and photography. Sue says that ‘she never really learnt things conventionally and isn’t very clever about the technical side, which some male photographers … like to sneer at.’

In 1994 Sue travelled to Jaisalmer, a fairytale fortress city close to the Pakistan border, where she met a conservation architect, who was frustrated with lack of funding. Sue interviewed him for ‘New Scientist’ and soon they set up a charity ‘Jaisalmer in Jeopardy’ with which Sue was actively involved from 1996 to 2004.

Sue continued freelancing for various publications, including ‘You’ magazine and in 1997 she was sent to write an article on the orphanage in Kathmandu, Nepal.

In 1998 Peter Bashford read Sue’s article and decided to set up a charity Asha Nepal (‘Asha’ meaning hope in Nepali) with the main aim of bringing help to women and children, many of whom are trafficked into sexual slavery in brothels in India and private homes in the Middle East. Sue resigned as a chairman of ‘Jaisalmer in Jeopardy’ and became a founding trustee of Asha Nepal.

In October 2000 Sue went to Nepal to check on the progress that Asha Nepal was making and during a visit to one of the homes she got to cuddle a baby girl with amazingly soulful brown eyes. Sue was quite upset by the way the woman at the orphanage made the baby cry intentionally and when she returned home she kept thinking of Simi and her beautiful eyes. The adoption process took a year and a half, and Simi was just under three when she came to London with her new mum. Sue said that initially her friends and family were worried but ‘when people met Simi they couldn’t fail being engaged by her.’

Within a short period of time Simi went from understanding Nepali to learning English and now ‘she seems to be a bit of a spectator’ back in Nepal. She is very sociable and funny and has a voracious appetite, as ‘no Nepali child would be fussy about food, which is normally scarce’.

Just over a year ago Sue decided to undertake a very personal project which had a double aim-she wanted Simi to get to know her culture better and at the same time teach photography to the girls of SOS Bahini. Sue was inspired by the documentary that she saw, called ‘Born into brothels’, and wanted to give the girls at SOS Bahini a chance to improve their lives and learn a new skill. Through generous donations of friends and colleagues Sue raised the necessary funds and mother and daughter arrived in Nepal in September 2006.

The first few months were a big shock: ‘it wasn’t easy making friends, social life was non-existent and some of charity workers were far from welcoming.’ Initially Sue and Simi lived with the girls at the orphanage, which Sue said was ‘full on and frustrating’ mainly because of the language barrier. Later mother and daughter moved into a hotel where a month’s rent, including some meals, was 8000 rupees a month, an equivalent of £60.

Currently there are 18 to 22 girls aged six to sixteen living at SOS Bahini. There are three homes (one has been set up since Sue left) and each houses six girls and one house mother, who can be a widow or destitute, so it’s a good place for her too. There is also a small health centre and a little farm, where maze and mushrooms are grown by the girls. It costs £2300 a year to feed, educate and support six girls and their house mother-that statistic made me speechless, thinking that in our consumption orientated society a designer bag can easily cost more than that, which really puts things into perspective. In Nepali society women and girls are treated as second class citizens, they are taught to be submissive and often don’t know how to express their emotions. Looking at the pictures of the smiling girls it’s hard to imagine how resilient they must be to have survived abuse, cruelty and living in the streets.

Sue’s mentoring and loving attention (which Simi at times wasn’t happy to share with the other girls) changed the girls, inspired their creativity and yielded many stalls, which Sue needed to edit for the exhibition ‘My world, my view’, which was shown in Nepal first and in London in October of this year.

I asked Sue if she gets immune to pain and suffering in Nepal. She said some things rattle her less, like children ‘gangs’ who tap on your car windows- in some ways you know they are not alone and stick for each other, but then there are other instances, like when Sue saw a woman beggar in the street with a tiny baby. Sue’s eyes started to well up with tears as she could easily imagine the baby being abandoned or orphaned, like Simi was.

I asked Sue about her future plans and she said that first of all she needs to a have a break. Later she might write a book about the trip to Nepal or do a documentary about SOS Bahini in order to raise more funds for the girls. For now she is very proud of what the girls have achieved and their letters make her face light up.

Before I left, I bought the book ‘My world, my view’ which was published by Sue and which contains girl’s photographs and some of their stories. I also buy four photographs, one of which ‘Rice paddies’ by Sunita N, I plan to give to my brother as the lush greenery of the photo is serene and calming.

I drive home in total silence, thinking of what I learned and of an incredible woman whose life’s journey has already touched and improved so many lives. I wish our society was inspired by that….

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