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Asia, Europe, North America
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Adoption, Russia, USA, Texas, Orphanage, Orphan, Children
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A photographic documentary of the adoption and transition of Vladimir Lankenau from an orphanage in Russia to a home in Texas.
Tom Mason

2001 — student winner

The outlook for orphaned children in developing countries rarely looks promising. The prospect of being adopted by a family is often the only hope for survival. Yet driven by a demand for healthy, white, American infants, American adoption agencies often overlook these, the most desperate of children. For the last 24 years, Maine Adoption Placement Service (MAPS) has been placing children from the harshest of global circumstances into homes in the state of Maine. This photographic documentary story will follow one of the MAPS adoption processes from start to finish; beginning in the orphanage and culminating with the child's transition into life in the state of Maine.

The children that MAPS places defy the old notion of the "desirable" child in nearly every way. Aside from their (non-American) geographic origins, many of these children have special needs, or have aged well past infancy. Yet the agency continues to be successful in finding parents for these children, and has expanded its international scope to include offices in Russia, Khazakstan, Guatemala, Sierra Leone, and Vietnam, among others.

Because of its proximity to Europe (featuring inexpensive, readily available transportation to the States) the programs in Russia and the former Soviet republics are the most viable for this proposal. The agency has agreed to assist me by offering contacts in international orphanages, and access to the private life of a consenting family who would be receiving the child I choose to follow.

In doing this story, I hope to force Americans into a different global perspective. To a Russian child, the difference between is life in an impoverished orphanage and a life with a middle-class family in Maine is comparable to any of us stepping into a time machine which drops us thirty years into the future. Video games, computers, and the abundance of food and clothing will be entirely new to this child. By telling the story of its transition into a new life, cultural differences will be illuminated, helping to promote cultural understanding.

This is the age-old story of Alexia de Tocqueville; a foreign observer coming to America and viewing the country as only a foreigner could; for all that it is, both wonderful and backwards. But beyond that, this story is unique in that it will be told through the eyes of a child, revealing experiences from which adults have long since been removed.

At its core, this story is turning a mirror on America. It is a departure from the American-centered viewpoint which prevails in most media, allowing Americans to remain entrenched in their own perspective. Showing the trials and tribulations of a young foreign protagonist will allow us to view ourselves and our place in the world with new perspective.

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Debra Lankenau (left) and translator Alyona measure Vladimir on an early visit to the orphanage. Deprived of a balanced diet in the orphanage, he measured 78.5 cm, placing him in the lowest height percentile for 25-month-old boys. He was beneath the lowest registers of the medical charts. Tom Mason/Alexia Foundation
Vladimir's group watches cartoons after naptime in their playroom in the orphanage. During the winter months, the childrens' only link with the outside world is through the television. Tom Mason/Alexia Foundation
Naptime for Vladimir's group in the orphanage. With only two adults to watch over the group of 15 and in the absence of parents, children have learned to tuck themselves in and rock themselves to sleep. Tom Mason/Alexia Foundation
Vladimir and Debra sit in the family's rented apartment in Yekaterinburg. It was here that Vladimir and the Lankenau's spent six days after the adoption to begin adjusting to life with each other and start solidifying their bonds before the 7,000 mile journey home to Texas. Tom Mason/Alexia Foundation
"Mommy, he won't hold my hand!" cries Tatyana as the Lankenau family attempts to say Grace over the first dinner as a family of four. They ate shepherd's pie and drank apple juice. Tom Mason/Alexia Foundation
"Come on Vlady, it's way past your bed time," says Debra as she tries to coax Vladimir our of the tub with his towel. "His first bath in Yekaterinburg, he was pretty scared of the water. Then in Moscow, in the bathtub with Tatyana, she really taught him to enjoy the water. Since then, we can't keep him out of it." Tom Mason/Alexia Foundation
Tatyana and Vladimir play on the top bunk in his room before bedtime. "He's always asking for her and trying to find her," says Debra. "Where's Taty, mommy, 'where's Taty?' he's always asking." Tom Mason/Alexia Foundation
"Look at the ducks coming from over here," says Debra to Tatyana and Vladimir while sitting on the shore of the Farmer's Branch park pond in Dallas' northern suburbs. Tom Mason/Alexia Foundation
Vladimir relaxes on the back dashboard of the family's '57 Lincoln after returning from a playground. "He always loves to climb around the inside of the car," says Tatyana, shaking her head. Tom Mason/Alexia Foundation
Storytime has become a nightly bedtime ritual in the Lankenau household. Here, Debra reads "Polar Bear, Polar Bear, what do you hear?," Vladimir's favorite story at the time. Tom Mason/Alexia Foundation