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."

Creating Pathways for Connection

Why go to South Africa to run a photography workshop? Why put in so much work to make that happen in such a far-flung location? These are things I ask myself, and often these days. I was writing to a good friend of mine about about how and why we connect with other cultures. And how real connection may be found through the miasma of surface level differences, as well as substantive ones. All of which made me see the forest for the trees, as it were, in terms of this project. 

Our experiences may not be the same, but you can almost guarantee that we can relate to some of the feelings or responses to those experiences. Most of us have had our hearts broken. Most have lost a loved one. Most have been disappointed at some point. Most of us have tried something and failed. Some of us have felt the exhilaration of success, whether on a grand scale or a small one. 

Artists are always making connections, or rather, creating pathways on which the rest of us may travel in order to connect. 

This is why fiction writers can create whole worlds. While John Steinbeck wasn't a migrant farmer, he put his feelings into Ma and Tom Joad when writing 'The Grapes of Wrath.' And though I am not an Ethiopian man, as a reader I could connect to Issac's sense of loneliness and reserve in Dinaw Mengestu's brilliant novel, 'All Our Names.' 

Art, music, architecture, food:  these are all things which help us connect and relate to other, very different people. 

Tell me a story so I can learn about your world.

Play me some music so I can know who you are. 

Feed me your food, so I can understand your family. 

Show me some artwork, and I can feel some experiences. 

Which is really the point of the Kliptown Photo Project. 

The idea is that we can help the kids tell their own stories through photography. Let me give you a camera and show you how to use it. Now, here's the moment of true transcendent beauty -- now you show me what you want me to know about your life, your family, your country, your neighborhood. 

We've been so busy setting up the nuts and bolts of this project, planning curriculum, managing the indiegogo campaign, raising money, skype-ing with some of our connections in Soweto that it's easy to lose site of the larger purpose of this project. Why go to South Africa to run a photography workshop? Why put in all this work?  I, for one, can get very lost in the weeds. Then I realized that, in less than two months, we'll be on the ground, story-telling and story-listening, with a group of high school students in Kliptown. The possibilities for connection and collectivity are endless. 

Ulwimi ululodwa alonelanga, Zulu for 'one language is never enough.'