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."

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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.