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Spokane photographer Suwanee Lennon holds her dog Nova in her living room, framed by some of her images. (Christopher Anderson)
Spokane photographer Suwanee Lennon holds her dog Nova in her living room, framed by some of her images. (Christopher Anderson)

Some people are born wanderers. They travel through life, living a few years here, another couple of years there, pulling chapter after chapter of an incredible life story behind them hitched together like a string of railroad cars.

Such a person is Suwanee Lennon.

She was born in Thailand to a mother who couldn’t quite take care of her. At a young age Lennon went to live with her aunt and uncle. That’s a fairly common arrangement, but it was a bit unusual that her aunt and uncle lived in a government-run leprosy colony.

“As a kid, I didn’t think much of leprosy, it was just what it was,” said Lennon, who’s a commercial and travel photographer living in north Spokane. “Thailand is Buddhist, and Buddhists believe that if you have leprosy it’s because you did something bad in a past life.”

There are more than a dozen leprosy colonies in Thailand, Lennon said, and it’s quite common that family members who don’t have the disease live there, too, to take care of the person who has leprosy.

“When I was 11 I met an American woman who worked at the colony,” said Lennon. “We kept in touch after she left, and when I was 13 years old, I went to live with her in Wisconsin.”

That was in 1991 and Lennon was in sixth grade.

“I knew the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and sometimes I didn’t even use those two words right,” Lennon said, smiling. “It was a big change. Everything was different: the food, the people, school, and it was my first time without my family around me.”

She kept in touch with her family in Thailand but quickly adapted to life in the United States. She went on to Winona State University, where she studied communication and advertising.

“I always wanted to do something international,” said Lennon.

Toward the end of her time in college, she began missing her roots. She was forgetting her native language and she missed her family.

“I went back to see my family in 1996, and the last year of college I studied abroad in Thailand,” said Lennon. “I relearned the language. I reconnected with where I’m from. Now I go back twice a year.”

It was in college that Lennon first picked up a camera.

She took two years of photography classes, and when she left for Thailand her camera became a steady companion.

“I love to travel and I love to take pictures when I travel,” said Lennon, who had a photo show during a First Friday this winter. “For a time I was a graphic designer for a travel magazine in Japan and I worked with pictures all day. I looked at them and thought, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ ”

It was a two-and-a-half-month backpacking trip through Asia that got her published.

“The magazine I had worked for picked up a few shots and that was it,” said Lennon.

Travel photography is her first love, but today she also shoots weddings, portraits and senior photos.

She uses all natural light and has a unique eye for people’s faces and smiles.

The photos at the First Friday show were from Burma, and some of them can be found on her website.

Lennon has lived in Spokane for three years – after spending a year in Germany and a total of four years in Japan – and she moved here with her husband Mark Lennon, who’s stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base.

She loves being a photographer and she continues to travel all over the world.

Together with friends, she’s launching A Heart For Thailand, a ministry that will provide help and support in leprosy colonies all over Thailand.

“There is just such a huge need,” she said, “a need for meals, for visiting patients, for nursing programs and vocational training.”

The ministry work keeps her connected to her home country, but today after so many years of traveling there’s no doubt where she really belongs.

“America is my home now,” said Lennon. “Thailand is another home I go and visit.”

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