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."

Why Photography? And How?

I am the world’s worst photographer. There are scant photos of any events in my adult life. Even now, when we always have cameras with us in our phones, I rarely think to stop what I’m doing and take a picture of it. Even when I think of it, I often pass up opportunities. So when I say that neither Linda nor I are photographers, I don’t merely mean we are not professional photographers:  we aren’t even casual shutterbugs.

Yet, I love photography as a medium. Our house is strewn with books of photography -- Weegie, Joseph Smith, Annie O’Neill (my old neighbor and an amazing photographer). The photography of our great, good friend Sarah Higgins adorns our living room walls (and a few other walls.) 

Photography is so many things. It can chronicle a time. It can capture a place. You can see person at a specific moment in their lives, perhaps all the moments of their lives. It can give you a window into the soul in front of the camera. And sometimes it gives you a view of the soul behind the camera. 

And for those reasons, I'm always engaged by a great photographer.

Also for those reasons, photography seemed to be a perfect fit of a project. We wanted to do something which would engage young people -- give them new skills and confidence. And also, my perspectives are limited -- I can only see Kliptown through my own lens. But I want to know more about it, what it's like there and what it has been like for years.  I need help to see Kliptown as it's residents do.

Professional help was clearly needed to get this project up and running. Who the heck would teach the actual, you know, photography?

After long discussions, we decided to see if Heather Mull might be interested in joining the team. Heather is a fantastic photographer who has been working at her craft for two decades.

Heather and I met many moons ago and she helped me land a writing job at City Paper. Several years after that, we worked on a cover story for CP together. It was then that I got to see her in action. I was impressed by how she talked to people, how she put subjects at ease. I believe her success as a photographer is partially due to her ability to connect with people. That's important to me and I think it is crucial to this particular project. 

She is smart and thoughtful. She’s also easy to hang out with, which is important as we’re going to be spending a ton of time together in the next six months. In short, when Heather said yes, things started coming together.

Heather will oversee the entire project, help design the curriculum, guide us through the ins and outs of photography and so on.

Next up was securing Johannesburg or Soweto based photographers to join the project.

Just a reminder:  Help us bring cameras and other digital equipment in July.