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: heather mull

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.