Photographer turns his lens toward ‘Women Empowered’


It has been 20 years since Phil Borges left his career as an orthodontist behind. Frustrated with what he saw as an American public that was insulated from the plight of less fortunate people in other countries, Borges sold his practice and took up photography, using his camera to photograph developing nations around the world.

Now Borges is bringing the world to La Jolla. He will appear at Hallmark Gallery on Aug. 18 from 6 to 9 p.m. to mark the beginning of his new exhibition, “Women Empowered.”

The exhibition - and Borges’ new book of the same name - features portraits of women from locations including Ethiopia, India, Ecuador, Bangladesh, Ghana and Guatemala. Working in conjunction with CARE, a campaign to empower women around the world, Borges photographs and tells the stories of women who have overcome discrimination and poverty to affect positive change.

“I like to put my projects in a positive light,” Borges said. “I decided to do it by telling hero stories.”

Borges spends as much time interviewing his subjects as he does taking photographs, he said. Among the hero stories in his new exhibition is the story of Abay, a 28-year-old Ethiopian woman who was born into a culture in which girls are circumcised at age 12. Abay refused to take part and fled her village, eventually returning eight years later. Working with CARE, she supervised the opening of a primary school and health clinic and the construction of a well. Years later, she was able to videotape a circumcision ceremony and show it to the village’s male elders, who had never witnessed the ceremony and were horrified. They soon voted to end the practice in the village.

Another portrait features Amena, a 35-year-old woman from Bangladesh who participated in a CARE project that guarantees women a job if they save 20 percent of their income and participate in health, literacy, human rights and business management classes. Amena used the money she saved to purchase a cow, eventually selling it and building a larger herd. Today she owns a home and farms 25 acres of rice.

Though Borges’ new exhibition highlights success stories, it also illustrates how much work is left to be done. His book and exhibition feature startling statistics, including the fact that women produce half the world’s food but own just one percent of its farmland, and that two-thirds of the 867 million illiterate adults in the world are women.

“If you travel anywhere in the developing world, it’s impossible not to notice that women are being actively discriminated against,” Borges said.

CARE’s project is built on ending poverty by empowering women. Much of its program is built on micro-credit, which gives impoverished women small loans, usually less than $100, and the opportunity for increasingly larger loans. Micro-credit has been extremely successful with women because they are likely to invest the money in their families or community.

“It works with women,” Borges said. “It doesn’t work as well with men. When you give women money, it circulates into the community in different ways.”

Borges said the cause of empowering women around the world is important to every person. In addition to the women themselves, he said people as a whole benefit from equality.

“The most basic institution is the family,” he said. “If you have a power structure that’s graded, where men are more powerful than women or even vice-versa, that gradation is a blueprint for every kid who grows up in that family to start ordering human beings on a power level, in some sort of hierarchy.

“That’s a poison,” he said. “You can grade people on all sorts of levels, and we have throughout history, whether it’s race, sex, class.”

The photographs in “Women Empowered” feature the reddish-brown tint that is a trademark of Borges’ work. He said this exhibition, though, would include a full-color portrait, the first he has ever put in a gallery show.

“It’s just me sort of wanting to move on a little bit as an artist, experiment with color,” he said.

Hallmark Gallery is at 1162 Prospect St. Please RSVP for the reception by calling (858) 551-8108.