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: tila nomvula mathizerd

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.