Teaching documentary photography to the youth of Kliptown, South Africa

The Kliptown Photo Project is dedicated to creating opportunities for the high school students of Kliptown, South Africa, one of the oldest informal settlements in Soweto, where residents live with up to four generations of their families in one or two room shacks without electricity, running water or public services.

In July 2014 we went to Kliptown and worked with one American photographer and three young African photographers to run a week long photo workshop for 15 students. We believe that learning photography is a way to foster creativity and connection. We wanted our students to show us the world through their eyes and gain skills, confidence, and agency through the process.

We provided digital cameras for each student and worked with them in the classroom, the community, and the computer lab, teaching them everything from lighting and composition to how to photograph strangers and upload their photos to facebook. The students were hard working, enthused, and hungry for knowledge; it was an exciting and powerful week for all participants.

An exhibition of the photographs taken by the students and their teachers took place a month after the workshop at Mashumi Art Projects in Soweto and was a great critical success. The students were able to see their work in the gallery, which was an empowering and thrilling experience for them. Photos are also available for sale on this website.  Proceeds from the exhibition and sale of photographs will go to the Kliptown Youth Program to further their educational and arts programs in the community.

Browse through our store -- you can purchase photos taken by our students and instructors to help sustain the project or you can simply make a donation to sustain the project. 

Ulwimi ululodwa alonelanga, which is a Zulu phrase meaning, "One language is never enough."

The Origins of the Kliptown Photography Project

In August of 2013, Linda and I traveled to South Africa. On our last day in country, we toured Soweto with community activist, Mandy Mankazana who also runs Imbizo Tours. She took us to Kliptown, a shanty-town in Soweto.

I have seen poverty up close and personal here at home in the United States and also in my travels, but I had never been any place like Kliptown. There are a few community spigots with water. There is no electricity. There are no other municipal services. There are port-a-johns throughout, each shared by about 10 families per. The residents take turns cleaning them.

The residents live in one and two room shacks, and the rooms are not the size of an average American room:  two rooms would easily fit into one American living room. Needless to say, these shacks are not heated. 

Some great things are happening in Kliptown, too. The Kliptown Youth Program provides meals, computers (powered with solar panels), tutoring and a garden. 

A nineteen year old resident, Thole, took us around and showed us her home, a two-room shack where she lived with her grandparents, parents, siblings and her two-year old daughter, nine people in all. Her home, it must be said, was immaculately clean. In our very limited time in Kliptown, we met proud, smart, hard-working people, living amidst some of the harshest conditions I've ever seen.

Some things change you forever. Just a short time in Kliptown changed us. 

We left South Africa that night, knowing we wanted to do something. 

We knew we wanted to do more than send money. We wanted to collaborate. We wanted to teach something. We wanted to build something that would last. We wanted to crack open the door of opportunity for young residents of Kliptown. 

Call it a moment of lightning in a bottle, a sharp strike of inspiration, a stroke of genius.

The really rough idea is to teach photography to a group of high school aged residents of Kliptown for a week. We are supplying the cameras (which will be left behind for the kids to continue pursuing photography, photojournalism, sharing their work on-line, and documenting the world as they see it.) We want to see the world through their eyes. We want to see their home through their eyes. We want to give them skills and agency. After that, an exhibition of their work will be mounted. 

We hope to leave behind a teaching program which can be sustained. Our greatest hope is that we inspire these kids, that what we leave behind is greater than a camera or an art show. We hope to change some lives for the better. 

We have put the basics in place and will be back in South Africa in early July, 2014. We're going to need a lot of help, advice, expertise, kindness, luck and funding along the way, but I feel like this is the beginning of a beautiful venture. 

I'll be updating this blog from time to time to share the process of getting an international project up and running. Sometimes it's mundane. Sometimes it's frustrating (website building, for instance.) And sometimes it is completely thrilling. 

Want to help? Donate to the Kliptown Photo Project.