A Brief History of the Tilestons and the MY STORY photo project or how we ended up in a warm place for winter


Nathaniel Tileston,  born in Deerfield, MA, raised in Chicago, educated at Lawrence University, Wisconsin, and the Art Institute of Chicago.  Worked in New York City as a dance and theatre photographer in the 70s and 80s, currently has work on view at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in NYC.  He and his wife, Susan, left NYC in 1982 and moved to Nova Scotia, Canada,  where they put food on the table by:

working as free-lance photographers and writers

running The Moorings Bed & Breakfast for 16 years

Susan Tileston,  born in Washington D.C, raised in Argentina and Cuba (hence her love of warm climes), educated at Smith College, MA, and Barnard College, NYC. Worked in NY as a Montessori teacher, a loan officer for Citibank, and after 6 months in Japan where she bought a camera, she returned to NYC and worked for Nat as a darkroom assistant and subsequently as  a photography teacher at Trinity School.

Shortly after moving to NS, she and Nat became involved in the Annapolis Region Community Arts Council, where Susan served as Executive Director for 13 years.

When she retired in 2000, she got her TEFL certificate and informed Nat that she was not going to spend another cold damp winter in NS.  She ended up in Mae Sot, Thailand, on the Thai/Burma border, teaching English to Karen refugees.  When one of the Karen community organizers heard that she was a photographer, he suggested that she might like to run a photo workshop for some of the many young Karen who, because they had no papers, were unable to work in Thailand safely, and had a lot of time on their hands.

Who are the MY STORY photographers?

And so in 2006, the MY STORY photo project was born.  ‘That first year, we had 5 students, and 3 months.  We met 2 or 3 times a week at the Karen Youth Organization outside of Mae Sot, and Sally Wah, Noman, Der Lweh Htoo, Kyaw Kyaw Oo, and Heller Htoo took hundreds of pictures which we critiqued as a group.  At the end of the 3 months, they edited their work into an exhibition at Borderline Gallery, in Mae Sot, a venue for exiled Burmese artists,’ says Susan.  ‘We had the pictures matted and framed professionally, with proper labels and artist statements…it looked very professional, and the students and viewers were thrilled,’ adds Nat.


Since then, the project has trained over 300 students in Thailand, Burma, Mexico, India, and Nova Scotia.  MY STORY photo project exhibitions have been held in Seattle, Vancouver, Quebec, P.E.I, New York City, Belfast, N. Ireland, Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Students range in age from 9 to 62.  The youngest were street kids in a small fishing village on the west coast of Mexico.  Like all kids, their attention spans were short so we   gave them shooting assignments that included a photo scavenger hunt, a mystery photo assignment, and a story telling shoot.  We then discovered that these assignments  worked wth our other students too!  An Eureka moment…

Many participants belong to ethnic groups that have lived on both sides of the very mountainous Thai/Burma border for hundreds of years.   The imaginary line separating the two countries means little to the Karen, Kachin , Lisu, Pa-O, or Shan people.  Some of them have been burned out of their villages by the tatmadaw (Burmese army), some have fled Burma because they were on a blacklist for political activity, and some are economic refugees.  What they share is love of their land and a dignity and generosity that humbles us.

At the TOP of the hill leading to Pa-O Women's Union

At the TOP of the hill leading to Pa-O Women’s Union

Many of the social services in Burma are provided by the church, whether it be Buddhist, Baptist, Catholic, or Anglican, so we often work with community church groups to organize project workshops.  Other community based organizations we have worked with include an environmental group in Sri Lanka, a Tibetan transit school in India, a vocational training school in Mae Sot, a women’s group in Mae Hong Song, a group of young exiled Burmese artists in Mae Sot, a group of university students in Mandalay, a group of Lisu pastors documenting their rural communities, and back-pack medics, who travel to communities of internally displaced people inside Burma dispensing primary health care.


How does the project work:

The MY STORY photo project is about learning to ‘see’ as a photographer.  It’s also about gaining the confidence to make images that tell the photographer’s stories.

Workshops usually run for 24 hours, spread over 6 to 10 days.  Students are given entry level digital cameras (usually one camera shared by 2 people) and basic photo instruction on focusing, lighting, and composition.  Then they are given shooting assignments which are downloaded and critiqued as a group.  At the end of the workshop, the students must create a group photo story: they decide on the idea, what images they will need, and who will shoot them, after which they present the story to the teachers.  Along the way there is tons of laughter as well as hundreds and hundreds of images.  On the last day, students present an exhibition of images they have selected from these hundreds.  Not an easy task!

Yawla Maran, Kachin photo teacher:  My students are like monkeys!  They are never still, but they take many, many pictures.

Aye Lwin,Karen student:  The world is always changing, but the photo stays the same.


Tai Mawm, Kachin teacher:  I want my photographs to show my people


Jampa, Tibetan refugee:  I came to India in 2010 by foot across the Himalayas.  I am a student at Sherab Gyatsel Lobling school.  Now I am a political refugee in here.  Think about it and try to do something.


How the project continues:


In 2009 the Tilestons were asked to give a photo workshop to a group of migrant school principals on the border.  The idea was that they would then pass their skills on to other teachers.  A teacher training manual was developed and translated into Burmese, and a two week workshop followed.  This idea worked so well that the Tilestons now regularly train former students to run the workshops.  They are still In touch with several of the original 9 trainees who continue to teach photography on the border and in Burma.


When Kick Start Art, a small community based organization in Mae Sot that brings art classes to several migrant schools in the area, asked us to train eight of their young artists we were thrilled.   They were already working artists so this would add another tool to their palette.  After the workshop, they took the cameras to the migrant schools and now photography is part of the art curriculum.




The cameras are entry-level and don’t last forever; but then, neither will we!  We have a very generous camera dealer in Mae Sot who gives us a good price and great service and we have been able to raise enough $$$ to buy between 20 – 30 cameras each year.  In 2010 we added a teacher-training program so the workshops could be run in Burmese or Karen.  Now in 2013, we have six teachers!


This where you come in:  all donations go to project expenses only, e.g: cameras, workshop and exhibition supplies, stipends for workshop teachers, as well as some student travel and food.


Traveling with the Tilestons:


It’s a very long flight from Canada to Bangkok, but you can generally count on arriving more or less on time, and more or less intact.  This is not always the case when traveling in the back country of Thailand or Burma.


While bus and air travel is relatively inexpensive, it’s not always according to Western time.  The bus trip I remember took us from Yangon to Cheng Dau, Burma.  We arrived at the bus station at 6 am for a 7 am departure.  There was no assigned seating as people, bags of rice, crates of soft drinks, and luggage were squeezed into every available space, including the aisle.   Plastic bags were handed out in case of car sickness and we set off at 9:30 am for the 4 hour ride to the coast.  Stops were frequent; vendors sold snacks through the windows, and  gasoline was poured into the tank by gerry can and funnel.  At one point a companion pointed out the tires: frayed and bulging!


The buses from Bangkok to Mae Sot, VIP class, are comfortable with reclining seats and air con.  But while the temperature outside may be 30C, inside it can be 12C.  Hence blankets are handed out and we have learned to bring hats and socks!  Usually we take the night bus which leaves Bangkok at 10 pm, arriving in Mae Sot at 5 am.  This means we can sleep and not worry about the hairpin turns and breakneck speed the driver uses to get us up and over the mountains that separate Mae Sot from the rest of the country.

Mo Chit Northern Bus Terminal, Bangkok

Mo Chit Northern Bus Terminal, Bangkok

Air travel inside Burma is of two kinds: international and domestic.  The Yangon international airport is sleek, modern, and well-lit.  People politely line up at ticket counters to check in… In contrast,  The domestic terminal next door is dark, dusty, and chaotic.  Young men pluck at your luggage and try to take your ticket (no e-tickets here),  crowds push and shove at the ticket counter, where harried airline staff try to sort things out.  After you check in , watching your bag being hand carried out to the tarmac, and go through the ancient looking security gate, you sit in a large waiting room…and wait for your flight.  And wait…and wait.  Eventually you do get there; we have learned the art of deep breathing on these waits.


Flying to Sri Lanka and India involved another kind of stress.  Flights from Bangkok to Colombo and Delhi leave mostly late at night, arriving at 1 or 2 am.  This is to avoid the impenetrable day time traffic in those cities.  This means you had better have a place booked to rest your head when you arrive.  In Colombo, our host had arranged for someone to pick us up.  We arrived at 2 am, to a busy airport that over the next hour became gradually quieter as our driver failed to appear.  With no usable cell phone, we were wondering what to do when a Sri Lankan woman approached and offered us her cell phone.  We called our host who, after calling the driver, said the security guards wouldn’t let him into the airport building, would we please come outside and look to our left.  After thanking our rescuer, who turned out to be a tour guide, we exited and found the driver and van.  He then drove through the mostly deserted streets of Colombo to our host’s home, where we woke everyone up to get the gate unlocked and fell into bed.


Colombo Sri Lanka tuk tuk: we're still smiling

Colombo Sri Lanka tuk tuk: we’re still smiling

The hotel in Delhi was supposed to send a taxi for us but again, there was no sign of anyone with a sign saying’Nat and Susan’ at midnight.  Repeated calls to the hotel yielded the information that the driver was there.  But where?  We realized that drivers had to stay just outside the airport building so Nat kept going outside to check until the guard said, ‘you can go out one more time only!’  At last, at last, driver guy showed up and said ‘Follow me,’  which we proceeded to do for what felt like miles.  The drive to the hotel also seemed endless, and altho it was by now 1:20 am, the streets were full of people, markets, motorcycles, carts, bikes, life!  The hotel was, however, near none of this.  Built on a highway that appeared to be under construction, it rose in solitary splendor, amongst concrete barriers and piles of rubble.  On entering it looked totally abandonded; no lobby, just a cubicle, and to one side a large empty hall.  Two young men materialized and asked us to fill out a registration form that was 2 sides of a sheet of A4 paper.  Who was my grandfather?  Did they really need to know?  At last we were ushered to our room: large, windowless, and pretty grimy.  All we wanted was some food and the internet.  Ah, the internet.  Yes, there was wi-fi and the password was ‘Mr. Dimpy’.  Young man # 1 offered to get us some dal and rice and I attempted to go on line.  After numerous stabs at Mr. Dimpy and all the combinations I could think of, I asked young man #2 if Mr. Dimpy was indeed the password.  Yes, yes, was the answer.  It then dawned on us that neither young man spoke English, other than Mr. Dimpy and yes!  Young man # 2 then called someone who spoke English and we finally sorted it all out.  The rice and dal arrived, and the day finally came to a close.


We’ve had lots of other travel adventures, from hiking through the jungle, to hair-raising car rides in vehicles whose bodies were so rusted they looked like lace, toflat bottomed boats up the Moei River, hoping the cameras stayed dry, to bike rides up and down mountains.  And we wouldn’t trade a minute of it!