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."

Filtering by Tag: documentary photography

Seeing Kliptown with New Eyes

The informal settlement at Kliptown is a slum. There's really no nice way to put it. Here in Kliptown, there are very sporadic (or no) municipal services. It is a community abandoned by the larger community.

There are spigots for water in the community -- about one spigot per 900 to 1,000 residents. Sometimes the spigots run dry. Sometimes the lines are huge to get the water, which makes having water, for cooking, cleaning and drinking, a constant priority for residents. Living here, you can assume nothing, so being prepared with several back up buckets of water is essential to getting through any given day. 

As there is no refuse pick up, trash is strewn everywhere, often in fields or areas which become sort of de facto dumps, but which are immediately adjacent to homes. Here in the informal settlement, there are anywhere from 45,000 to 55,000 residents (I think an accurate census is particularly tough in this neighborhood) -- 50,000 people create a lot of trash. With nowhere for it to go, you find it everywhere, but most at the edges of town where there are some big fields full of trash. With no pick up, the trash is periodically burned. It is a distinct, acrid smell, the smell of burning trash. 

The residents, all 50,000-ish, use port-a-johns, about 10 families per potty. There are groups of potties lining the streets and alleys. Each group of 10 families chips in to pay for the emptying of the potties. If you think about 10 families and estimate five people per family, that's 50 people per toilet. Even in June and July, in the winter, when the air is dry and cool, those can become quite pungent, too.

When we arrived in the mornings, our host would drop us at the entrance, and we walked probably 500 yards (roughly the same in meters), down one of the main streets. It is rough dirt, although there are chunks of pavement here and there -- it seems like, at some point, there may have been an attempt at having an asphalt road, but it's best days are long behind it. The leftovers of this attempted paving make the footing worse, not better. The road is rutted and rough and there are streams of water running down and around and across the road, most of which stem from the community spigots. You have to constantly be aware of the footing, or you'll twist an ankle or fall on your face into a puddle of dubious origin. 

In rainy season, this road is an impassable mud bog. 

I've painted a pretty grim picture. And I wanted to do that because, although working with the KYP was incredible, there is such a huge need for so many things here in Kliptown. The conditions are desperate. 

All of that said, coming into Kliptown day after day, having it be 'our office', as it were, we got comfortable. We relaxed into it. The more like home it felt, the more I could see it, which is to say, see it more clearly, or see it on a deeper level.

The houses are shacks. Most have corrugated tin roofs. Many are built so that they form a small courtyard with three or four other houses. Some have small yards (no more than say five feet by five feet) and those with yards often have fencing marking off the yard from the common territory. Very often, old bed springs, shorn of any fabric, now rusted, are used as fencing. They are strangely beautiful.

As the week went on, I could see the care people put into maintaining their little space. Every morning, women were out raking or sweeping the dirt which made up their yard or walkway or courtyard space. Sure, the street might be lined with trash, and the fumes from burning garbage might burn your nose, but their yards were immaculate. Sometimes, I'd dart out of the classroom and just take a wee stroll around, trying to just open my eyes to really see. What I saw were men and women clustered in those courtyards, or sitting together in yards, or sitting alone, washing clothes (and often shoes) in buckets of soapy water. Clean laundry hung on every available space.

The more I walked, the more I saw, the more I exchanged pleasantries with everybody I passed, the more it became clear that, in many respects, Kliptown is a town like many other towns. And, in fact, it's a lot like the little mill town where I grew up. Most of the people work. There are hard-working people here, and probably a few lazy ones, too. There are families of all kinds of shapes and sizes -- aunts, uncles, grandparents living with nuclear families. There are kindly neighbors and some annoying ones, no doubt; there are lots of kids, a few bodegas, butchers and a makeshift barber shop under an overpass. Like many neighborhoods, there are some characters to be avoided, but by and large, this is a very tight-knit community. 

It was a gift to be able to immerse ourselves in Kliptown. It afforded us the ability to see this place through a new lens. Our ability to see was bent and re-cast, refracted, hammered into slightly new shapes; it was polished and worn until we could see things which had previously been invisible to us before. Time provided us that gift, but so did our students, who shared their photos of the place, but who also told us a bit more about themselves, their lives and their families with every passing day. 

Linda and I dreamed up this project to help our students see. We wanted to 'break their eyes open,' which is to say, make them see themselves and their world anew. I hope we did that. For certain, our week in Kliptown broke our eyes open, too. 

Photo below by course instructor Tila Nomvula Mathizerd.

Photography Workshop -- Day One -- Telling Stories

We've just arrived back at our Soweto home after our first day of the photo workshop. It was an amazing day. We are very much adjusting on the fly -- trying to work around the rhythms of our students and of the Kliptown Youth Program. Although I believe that will always be an on-going process for us, the first day always has the steepest learning curve. 

Even so, it was a fantastic day. We got to know our students and they got to know us. Heather and Julie were great, as I expected. Turns out that Tila, Patrick and Jerry were just as great at connecting with the kids, turning them on to new ideas and new ways of looking at the world. I believe they can be really fantastic teachers. 

But we can only be as good as our students, so the really good news for us is that the students -- 12 high school aged kids and three members of the KYP staff -- are so bright and interested and engaged. We did some ice breakers and Julie got the kids thinking about story telling, what kinds of stories they liked, what kinds of stories they liked to tell. Some of our pupils told stories about themselves. Some related a family tale. Some said that they liked to watch 'Mister Bean' with Rowan Atkinson. And a good number of kids cited the Charlie Chaplin film, 'Modern Times.' Frankly, I'm not sure how many American kids know that movie, so it was pretty striking. One of our students, Nyeleti, said that she liked the book, 'Animal Farm,' by George Orwell.

That was how we started our day. Needless to say, we are all very encouraged by that start.

Then we handed out the cameras and Heather took the kids through some of the basics -- how you load the battery, how you load the SD card. Jerry had his old analog camera with him, so he was able to show the kids how photographers used to shoot in the 'olden' days. 

At a certain point, we just let them loose with the cameras, the only limitation being that the remain on the grounds of the KYP. After that and a break for lunch, we got back together to go over any questions they had about the cameras, then Heather asked them to share the kinds of things they were interested in shooting. 

A few of our students wanted to shoot sports. One of our kids said that he was interested in shooting plants. A few others wanted to shoot architecture and buildings. Many expressed an interest in photographing their lives, taking pictures of the people and places and events which make their lives. We had one student who said she didn't know what she wanted to photograph, but she liked art and drawing, so Heather got her thinking about how she could sort of fuse those things, how one skill (photography) could complement her other skill (drawing).

Jerry has done some amazing work photographing undocumented or illegal mining and one of our students asked, to what purpose? What are the images for? Who benefits?

All of which led to a really interesting discussion about photography as a way to tell hard stories (as we had spent the morning talking about sort of funny or charming stories). Tila told the kids about the photographs of Bibi Aisha, the Afghani girl without a nose (who was disfigured by her husband under Taliban rule) and about how those images were used to help her and to change the way people thought about the Taliban.

We talked about the famous photograph by Sam Nzima of Hector Pieterson, who was the first student killed by the police on June 16th, 1976, during the student uprising in Soweto. We told the kids about how that photograph educated a great many people around the world about the Apartheid regime and how that photograph has become the image which defines Apartheid. 

Our new, good friend, Nene, of the KYP staff asked why the photograph is good. On what metric is it judged? In sum, is it a good photograph because of the subject matter? Or is it good photography on a technical or artistic scale? As you can see, our group is so engaged and asking really smart, sophisticated questions. Tomorrow, we will print up a few copies of the Sam Nzima photograph and discuss it as a group. 

The day was thrilling and we are encouraged by the level of discourse and passion. We are so happy to have this group of students and teachers. 

Below is a photograph of one of our students taking a photograph of me, while I take a photograph of him.

The Power of Story-Telling

"You're talking about power, the power to tell your own story; and if you're not used to that power [to tell your own stories] you just give it away." -- Neelika Jayawardane

We were lucky enough to go to a lecture about the sprawling photography exhibit 'The Rise and Fall of Apartheid' at Museum Africa here in Jo'Burg last night. It was really a conversation between David Goldblatt and Neelika Jayawardane and I think I'm paraphrasing a comment she made about the power of story-telling and the power to tell those stories.

There was a spirited (but respectful) dialogue at the talk, as the attendees were encouraged to comment and ask questions, much of which revolved around who was telling the story through this particular exhibition, who had the right to tell those stories and so forth. 

It made me reflect more on the idea that we are all story-tellers, each of us who is here working on this project, whether through teaching, or writing or photography. Julie tells stories when she is teaching the history of photography; Heather tells stories with her camera; I tell stories with words. But when I'm telling those stories, and when Julie is telling those stories, and when Heather is telling those stories, we are mediating between the story and the reader or the viewer of the story. Whose stories are we telling? Why? How much do we enter into those stories as the story-tellers? 

We're here to teach a handful of kids at the Kliptown Youth Program some basics of photograpy and, up to this point, Linda and I have been consumed with all of the practical and administrative details of such a venture. There are the very practical considerations:  buying the cameras (and related tech equipment necessary), making sure we can load the photographs on-line, having a space to do a small amount of classroom work, feeding the kids, etc. Then, of course, were the considerations of teaching the kids the very basics of photography and just letting each of our students get out in the field with one of our photographers, Heather, Jerry, Patrick and Tila. 

Now that we're here in South Africa, and having spent a few days at kicking around Kliptown and getting to know the staff of the KYP, we can start thinking about the loftier ambitions more. Although we've only been here few days, so many of our experiences have just reinforced the basic premise of this Project, which is to give that power, the power of story-telling through photography, to a handful of high school students in Kliptown. I've no idea what kinds of stories the kids will want to tell and that makes this project all the more exciting. 

As Jayawardane so eloquently said, we don't want them to give that power over to anybody else. What we want is for them to own that power, the power of their stories, and to provide them with a means and platform to share those stories. 

Below is Heather Mull's photo of Neelika Jayawardane and David Goldblatt at Museum Africa.

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. 

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.