Monday, November 20, 2006

Teaching Photography to Refugees in Uganda

I’m in the car, on the four-hour drive back to
Kampala. It’s rainy season but for the first time in
11 days, it hasn’t rained. As far as the eye can see
the landscape is lush, tropical and stunningly
beautiful. Everywhere you look your eye takes in a
rich, intense hue of green.

We’re in southwestern Uganda, in a refugee settlement
near the border with Congo where IMC is conducting a
photo camp/art therapy project with National
Geographic and some of the best photographers in the
world - who also happen to be hilarious and absolute

The goal of the project is essentially two-fold: teach
a group of 60 kids, ages 12-20, a new skill; and use
their photos as a therapeutic tool for them to tell
their stories that we can then pass onto the rest of
the world.

Today was difficult for me: joyous to watch the kids
“graduate’ from the workshop, but heart-wrenching to
say goodbye and know that their struggles will
continue long after I leave.

These refugees of war – some orphans - have come here
primarily from Congo and Rwanda. For many, this is
just the most recent stop after years of forced
migration from one camp to another, one country to
another. I met children – now young adults – who have
been here since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Camp
life is all they’ve ever really known. But whether
they're recent or long-term refugees, the refrain is
the same: they miss their real homes and lives before
arriving here and hold tight to the hope that someday
they will return.

Chris Rainier, who photographed IMC programs in
Bosnia, Somalia and Indonesia, said to me that as a
photojournalist, he often goes into a disaster zone
and sees doctors, nurses and supplies brought in, “but
we tend to forget the emotional stability of the
people who’ve been affected. So this program is
focusing on bringing some joy and happiness and the
ability for people to talk about the experiences of
coming from a war or famine zone. Photography is the
perfect catalyst for that.”

For the kids taking part in our photo camp, their
situation is particularly burdensome. For myriad
reasons, none of them is in school – although they all
desperately want to be, and they see their futures as
bleak. One 12-year-old girl dropped out after her
teachers caned her – she was too poor to buy soap to
stay clean, or to buy the proper clothes. She now
cares for her ill grandmother.

Many of the kids said they don’t attend school because
they must care for siblings or a sick relative, or are
responsible for tending the home, which usually
involves walking long distances to fetch firewood and
water, or cultivating their families’ gardens (when
asked why they’re not in school, they frequently say
simply, “because I dig.”)

We heard stories of young girls who had been raped.
There are girls in the settlement who said they sold
their bodies for clothes or transportation. For this
very reason IMC began working here, under the auspices
of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, three
years ago, educating men, women and young people on
HIV/AIDS and sexual and gender-based violence.

All of the children spoke to us about the horrible
conditions in which they live: mud-dirty drinking
water; families of ten cramped into one-room homes;
and a subsistence diet of rice, beans, cassava (a bit
like a potato) and rarely any meat.

As one 16-year-old Congolese boy who came here almost
a year ago, told me: “It’s not right, living like
this. You should see it. When you come to my house you
see how my mother looks. It was not like this in
Congo. It is hard here.”

This was reflected repeatedly in their photos.
Powerful photos.

We all were astounded that children, most of whom had
never held a camera, could absorb instruction so
quickly, then go out and produce such compelling and
technically proficient shots of their lives and the
people and things that matter to them: smiling
sisters, despondent brothers, plates of food, a field
of corn, a child’s hand.

When we arrived on the first morning of photo camp,
the children were gathered at the community center,
quiet, unsure of why they were there, polite, timid.
It proved a stark contrast to their reaction once we
began explaining the workshop, shooting photos of
them, and then handing them each an Olympus E-330
digital camera that they would be borrowing. Their
eyes lit up. They handled the cameras gingerly at
first. Then as they became comfortable, they began
exploring their surroundings, snapping everything,
snapping each other, searching for the new,
interesting angle. They relished taking a photo and
then examining it, perfecting it, showing it to anyone
nearby. My heart burst to see the huge smiles on their

On the following day, we sat with the children to
discuss and “critique” their work. When we heard the
narratives behind these photos, they immediately took
on added power. One 14-year-old student took a
phenomenal shot of a baby in his mother’s lap, her
hands gently resting over his loins. We viewed it as
symbolic of love. But he told us the mother had
covered up her baby, ashamed that she was too poor to
clothe him and thus wanting to hide his sex.

Another 17-year-old girl took a fantastic photo of two
little boys sleeping side-by-side amid some sticks. We
thought it was sweet; she said it reminded her of how
children hid during the genocide in Rwanda.

We all felt a heavy burden to hear out these stories
and help these kids. Lynne Jones, IMC’s mental health
technical advisor, worked closely with the
photographers, community educators and translators (in
Swahili and Buganda) as they talked through the
painful events these children had witnessed and
experienced – and continue to experience.

Lynne says she’s found that what makes photography
such an effective tool is it’s often easier for a
child to talk about a picture than answer a
straightforward question. “They have much more to say.
The picture shows things that they might have found
hard to articulate. Plus, for these children who are
not in school and don’t necessarily have a skill, they
are mastering something and showing that their lives
have meaning. That’s very important.”

In all, we pored over approximately 24,000 photos
taken over the past week.

Today, we returned to the community center and held a
ceremony for the 60 kids and their friends and family.
On display were 8x10 glossies of two photos each
student chose as his or her favorite. They also each
received a few other smaller prints, a CD of all the
photos they shot, and a certificate of achievement.

When they were in the audience and were shown a sample
packet of what they would be receiving, they broke
into cheers. Later, they proudly held up their packets
and “diplomas” (they loved that word) for our cameras.

It all was fabulous. But it’s not nearly enough. Every
single child, in addition to their deep desire to go
back to school, has now caught the photography bug and
wants to continue taking photos, honing their craft.
They want to keep learning, perhaps become
professional photographers. One boy had offers from
people in his village to take pictures for money. As
the staffs at IMC and National Geographic watched this
program unfold, we became keenly aware that we must –
must - implement a permanent, sustainable art therapy
program here and in future locations. You cannot teach
these children to fish and then take away the fishing
pole. There is simply too much creative brilliance,
livelihood potential, and psychological relief not to
leverage the opportunity.

Photographer Ed Kashi told me: “I feel a tremendous
responsibility to leave a lasting impression here and
in other photo camps we do around the world so that,
for those who have the desire and the talent, they can
continue and become photographers.”

I adore every one of these kids and hated saying
goodbye. I will never forget Theo’s contemplative,
downcast face, which would transform into a huge grin
when you’d compliment one of his many beautiful
photos. Or Joyce, with the angelic singing voice,
radiant smile and great eye for detail. I have
promised to write both of them and I will keep that
promise. It is one of many I made here that I am
determined to keep.

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