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Alison Wright: Her `Faces of Hope' shows the spirit of children facing huge obstacles

When the Dalai Lama was in Boston this month, he was thronged by thousands of devotees. If you looked closely, you could see a petite blond woman in the background -- or foreground, depending on her camera angle. Alison Wright was along as the official photographer on the Tibetan spiritual leader's Boston and New York trip.

"He's wonderful to shoot, and for me to see him again, I really see how open my heart can become," she says of the man who has written the foreword for three of her photography books. She also shot the photos for an anthology of essays about him, "A Simple Monk."

"I've been photographing him for years. I love him, but you have to remember what you're doing," she says. She has

seen other photographers get so star-struck in the Dalai Lama's presence that "they don't get anything." Wright has never had that problem. She always gets something, whether it's shooting the Dalai Lama in Nepal, swimming with beluga whales in the Arctic Ocean, living with Bedouins in the Sinai Desert, or documenting shamans in the Amazon jungle. She calls herself a travel photographer, but she doesn't shoot tourists sipping wine at Parisian cafes. She

shoots endangered people -- and animals -- in remote spots all over the map. She has been arrested in Beirut (for being there illegally), fallen ill in Nepal (with typhoid, malaria, dysentery, hepatitis, and giardia), and nearly been killed in Laos (when her bus was sliced in half by a logging truck). So how did a nice girl from New Jersey find herself up so many proverbial creeks?

When Wright was 10 years old, she got her first camera, a Kodak Instamatic, and her first journal. Now 41, she says she has written in her journal every single day; the journals fill "boxes and boxes and boxes." At Watchung Hills High School, she worked on the yearbook and newspaper, and she went on to Syracuse University, where she studied photojournalism.

Her mother was British, her father Belgian. "We'd be back and forth between Europe, so I had that sense of wanderlust," she says. When she graduated from college, she wanted to go to Tibet because she was drawn to Buddhism. But her father told her that it was too remote, that she should go to Europe instead.

She went to Europe -- and promptly crossed over into North Africa. She wandered across the underdeveloped parts of Morocco. "I wanted to devour it," she says. She ended up hitchhiking across the Middle East, and she was in Israel in 1984 when the US Embassy in Beirut was bombed. She donned fatigues and went. The Israeli army detained her in a camp because she was there illegally.

She returned to Israel, where she worked on a kibbutz, then lived with the Bedouins in the desert. "I was so fascinated by how other people were living," she says. Meanwhile, via travelers she met, she would send postcards home "from Europe"; her parents never knew she was actually elsewhere.

She was 21 years old, backpacking, trying to get together a good travel portfolio. In 1985, she bought a plane ticket to Australia and ended up living there for two years, including a stint in a bar straight out of Indiana Jones, chair-breaking brawls and all. Finally, she moved to California and took a job as a newspaper photographer in San Diego.

But she was restless. "I really wanted to be in Third World countries," she says. One day, she saw "pictures of doe-eyed children" from India in a magazine. She found the photographer, who worked for UNICEF, and arranged to meet him. When she showed him her work, he asked if she wanted an assignment in Nepal. She quit her job and went on a monthlong assignment. She didn't return for four years.

During that time, she shot thousands of pictures of Tibetan refugees in Nepal and India, earning the Dorothea Lange Award in documentary photography for her photos of child labor. She worked alongside Mother Theresa in India, where a starving child died in her arms. She took photographs of starving and sick children. She became ill herself, and spent four months in the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London, where doctors forbade her to return to Nepal for at least a year. Antsy, she wrote to the University of California at Berkeley, asking if she could create a master's program for herself in visual anthropology.

They said yes, and her thesis eventually became a 1998 book, "The Spirit of Tibet." Ten years earlier, she was summoned to meet the Dalai Lama, who had seen her work. Back then, the Buddhist leader was not well known in the West; it was years before he would win the Nobel Peace Prize. When she sent a photo home of her with the Dalai Lama, her mother told her father: "Oh my God, Frank, she's joined a cult!"

After graduate school, Wright spent four months going down the Amazon River with ethnobotanists studying traditional healers and medicinal herbs. She was the only woman; the team slept in hammocks on a boat that had no bathroom. Since 1999, she has led photo tours in Asia for the San Francisco-based outfitter Geographic Expeditions.

She celebrated the new millennium with friends in Laos. Shortly after the new year, she boarded a bus south, headed for a three-week silent-meditation retreat in India. On a narrow, curvy road, a logging truck slammed into the bus, shearing it in half. Wright was sitting just at the point of impact. "My first thought was, `Am I dead?' My second was to grab my film." She broke her back, pelvis, tailbone, and all her left ribs. Her left arm was shredded by glass and gravel, her lungs collapsed, her diaphragm punctured, her spleen ruptured. Many of her organs, including her heart, had been pushed out of place.

In a storage shed "in the middle of a cow pasture," a young guy who had witnessed the wreck sewed her bloody arm up with a needle and thread -- and no painkiller. Today, the network of pale scars on her arm looks like the remnants of a shark attack. "We had to stop the bleeding, but it's amazing I didn't die of infection," says Wright, who lives in San Francisco when she's not traveling. She's convinced that the Buddhist breathing techniques she used helped save her life.

She waited, near death, for eight hours before a British man happened along. She would ride 14 hours over rutted roads, in three different vehicles, before landing in a hospital in Thailand. She was bedridden for more than a year and has undergone 20 surgeries. Her account of the accident in Outside magazine won her the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award.

Nearly two years after the accident, for her 40th birthday, she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. She sat at the top and contemplated what she really wanted to do with the life she had nearly lost. The result is her new book, "Faces of Hope: Children of a Changing World." These children are what Wright calls "the forgotten ones." They are the children whose spirit in the face of enormous obstacles inspires much of her photography. Proceeds will go to the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation, specifically to prevent girls from being sold as slave labor.

During breaks from a book tour this fall, Wright is also heading off to Micronesia, then to the Arctic to shoot polar bears. Her next goal? To circumnavigate MountKailash in western Tibet, considered by the Tibetans to be the holiest mountain in the world. She'd like to lead an expedition this summer, to celebrate Buddha's birthday.

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