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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Light, Life and Charity

Maki Hatae

Jul. 1, 2016

Kenro Izu is a Japanese photographer based in New York who is well-known for his monochrome prints and for his charity work in Asia.

In May, Izu held an exhibition in Tokyo of his monochrome photographs, which depict the darkness and light of life in Asia.

Aside from his photography, Izu is also well-known for his charity work in the region. He received the US World of Children Award in 2014.

Izu's retro-looking camera weighs over 20 kilograms. He specializes in platinum prints, a process discovered in the 19th century that still produces remarkable photos today.

In one image, he has captured the magnificence of light and shadow over Angkor Wat, the famous temple compound in Cambodia. His photos have become highly sought-after by collectors and museums around the world.

"Photographers can go anywhere they want in the world to take photos, and earn a living. It’s such a fortunate profession," Izu says.

But the photographer has another passion -- helping some of Asia's poorest children get access to the highest-quality medical care.

Izu founded an international NGO, Friends Without A Border, that builds hospitals in the poorest nations in Asia.

One hospital in Laos was built by the NGO last year. Many Lao children under the age of 5 die from preventable and treatable diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea. Malnutrition is also common.

The hospital has already treated close to 20,000 patients since the opening.

"I am grateful that my child is being treated free of charge," says the father of one patient.

A one-month-old baby was admitted a few days earlier with heart failure, a symptom of Beriberi. It's a common disease in this region that can be treated simply with a shot of Vitamin B.

"This is something we would never see in Australia," says Dr. Simon Young, executive director at the hospital. "If that same child looking like that came in Melbourne, we’d be thinking of infection, some cardiac problem or something else. Beriberi is No. 110 on the list and you wouldn't get down that far."

Izu developed an interest in providing medical care in Asia 23 years ago, when he first visited war-torn Cambodia. While photographing Angkor Wat, he met some children who would change his life forever.

"They were all so cute, gathering around me while I was taking pictures. But they were missing legs or hands. It was shocking," Izu says.

The children were victims of landmines and unexploded bombs that were still scattered around the countryside. In a local hospital, Izu also witnessed a girl who died in front of him without receiving medical help because her father simply could not afford her treatment.

"There were doctors and nurses but they weren't taking notice of the dying patients. I felt like I was looking at the darkness and light of Angkor Wat,” Izu says. “I've been given a life mission bigger than just expressing myself through art."

Izu established the NGO in 1996, using the money he made selling his photos, along with donations from his fellow artists and the public. He built the Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap 3 years later.

Over the next 17 years, the hospital treated more than 1.5 million patients in Cambodia. More than 400 children visit the hospital daily.

In creating the NGO, affectionately referred to as “Friends,” Izu had one cherished vision.

"Treat every patient as your own child, and get compassionate care. So, of course you give good-quality of care, but care with compassion."

He believes true compassion removes the barriers between the medical staff and the patients, and results in better care. Izu visits the hospital several times a year to convey his belief to the staff.

"I want them to know that the hospitals we build are not regular hospitals with standard medical care. They are places where patients can feel at home, where doctors can look into children’s eyes and hold their hands. I think that’s what true medical care is," Izu says.

Kazumi Akao is a veteran nurse for Friends hospitals and a long-time collaborator of Izu.

They recently visited a remote Laotian village to provide home care. The children there can't visit the hospital often because it is too far. So Akao and her team have been visiting them once a month for check-ups since last year.

In the beginning, 7 of 8 children in this family had malnutrition. They also suffer from severe stunting. Besides performing health checks, Akao always looks at the cleanliness of the home.

"They are keeping it very clean! It was a disaster before," Akao says. "They are getting better. I hope they can sustain this and not revert to their old lifestyle. The important thing is that they recognize that living like this is a good thing.”

On a recent visit to Cambodia, Izu saw his vision being realized after 2 decades.

Samnang Seung lost his parents when he was young and grew up in orphanages with 2 younger brothers. When he first visited the Friends hospital, he tested HIV positive. He had contracted the virus in his mother’s womb.

Seung was treated at the hospital and learned to live with the disease over the years with help from the hospital staff.

"When I was feeling upset, I would ask the teachers. They told me not to be sad, 'try to be strong; another person is just like you; you can make yourself good, strong; you take medication correctly then you will get a good care and long life,'" Seung says.

The compassionate care helped them grow close. Seung began to volunteer for the hospital to work and counsel other HIV-positive children. Eventually, he decided to become a nurse.

Last year, he returned from a nursing school to the Angkor Hospital with aspirations to become a full-time nurse.

"I want to help people when they are poor, and persons like me, to share my experience, to share my idea and my intellect all with them," Seung says.

Izu feels his passion is taking root in hearts of the younger generation.

"I think it's amazing that he believes in compassionate care, and that he's proud to provide it. It's also wonderful that he's working towards making the hospital even better. I hope he will lead the younger generation, and continue to grow,” Izu says.

Friends holds an annual charity event in New York to spread awareness and improve medical care in developing nations.

This year, a charity auction of photographs and art raised $18,000 ― money that will go to the new hospital in Lao.

"One person's dream can grow when many people come together," Izu says. "Even with a small dream of one individual, if many come together, that dream grows larger. Anything can be achieved, if we don’t bind ourselves with borders."

For many of the world’s poorest, shadows may still outweigh the light. After 20 years, Kenro Izu continues to use all his skills to change that balance.