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."

Photography Workshop -- Day Two -- Using Light

We didn't know what we could reasonably expect. We really didn't. How could we? We were traveling to an informal settlement to teach students ages 14-17 who we didn't know at all. We were working with one very seasoned photographer who had no experience teaching. And three other photographers who we only knew through their work and email. All four photographers are wonderful. We loved their work. And I had worked with Heather, so I'd seen her connect with people. I think it's really a strength -- just set her loose in a place and let her talk and connect and use her camera. 

But honestly, when I think about it, what were we thinking?

Fortunately for us, our instructors are incredible, intuitive teachers -- I think because they really love photography. It is evident how much joy they get from using a camera, problem solving, figuring out different ways to connect with a subject or shoot an object, how to use the light and any other material they have at hand. That passion is infectious and it turns out they are all natural born teachers. 

We let our students take their cameras home last night. The instructors gave them an assignment:  simply take photographs of some people close to you and then show us your three favorite photos. This afternoon the instructors got to look at our students work. As we were working in the KYP computer lab, we broke into groups -- three students and one instructor. I floated around, checking in on some of the work. The kids did great. Each one had at least one really good photo. Many of them had more than that. 

And to think, I was worried that we wouldn't have enough good stuff for an exhibition.

Our kids are also amazing at taking in all kinds of technical information. I think I might have been inclined to dumb things down, or, at the very least, keep it very, very simple. Fortunately, I don't get to make those kinds of decisions. The instructors decided to throw a master class at the kids this morning, as a way to illustrate how a camera works the way that your eye works, which is to say, the interpretive engine of light.

Heather explained how a camera shutter works like your eye, opening in dark settings to let in more light, and closing in brighter settings to limit the light. And how a camera is just like that. She taught them how to make a make-shift reflector with cardboard and foil, so that they can reflect natural light onto a subject (could be human or inanimate) in a dim setting. 

Patrick taught the kids how to use light on a subject -- front light, side light, and back light. I should add here, that while each instructor may take the lead for a short moment, the class is very interactive. All the instructors explain things, feeding off of each other, expanding on one thought or another. 

They even taught the kids about the principles of photography -- ISO, aperture, shutter speed, film speed, etc. It was a master class and I have to admit, the kids were really keeping up with the ideas. In fact, during the classroom work, we thought we should give them a five minute break, just to stretch their legs and blow off some steam, but most of them stayed in the classroom, talking to Tila, Patrick, Jerry and Heather. 

Admittedly, it's just fun to shoot pictures, but they're taking to all of it -- the theory behind it, understanding light and how they can use it, thinking about depth of field and framing (but we'll get to more of that tomorrow), and how photographers tell stories. 

As Patrick told the students, "The writer uses pen and paper; but as photographers, we write with light."

Below, Heather talks about how a camera is like your eye.