(This is a guest post from Babita Patel, a humanitarian photographer and founder of the View Finder Workshop, which empowers children in developing countries to tell their stories through photography. The next workshop will be in Kenya this September. All photos © Babita Patel.)
I was walking through Cité Soleil, a slum on the edge of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when I saw children dressed in rags playing a spirited game of soccer. I shot a photograph, and then was surrounded by eager young hands grabbing at my camera to see the image. The children drifted away as the novelty wore off, but one boy remained, diligently pointing at each face on the screen. He stopped at the last one. His own. He let out a burst of pure, innocent laughter and then left. Alone, I started to think about identity and imagery and culture and storytelling. And thus was planted the seed for a photography workshop for vulnerable children. By telling their own stories, children could build their self-confidence and discover who they are.
My idea eventually blossomed into View Finder Workshop. In January, we partnered with Respire Haiti, a school for restaveks (children enslaved as domestic servants) and other children living in extreme poverty. We guided 18 young boys and girls through exercises to familiarize them with the basic technical and artistic features of cameras and then encouraged them to explore different ways of seeing their school, their community and themselves.
Some of the results from the workshop were expected, like the look of awe when a young girl turned on the camera for the first time and the lens zoomed out. Others less so. In the assignment of "Best Part of Me," where students pick their favorite body feature or what makes them physically unique, the younger children started snapping away instantly. The older boys took macho self-portraits. The older girls though would take a photograph, look at it, grimace and instantly delete it. When I asked them why they did that, they shied away, saying the image was ugly. My attempts at telling them I had a different interpretation of their self-portraits were met with waving hands that negated my views. I thought for a society not consumed by Hollywood or photoshopped magazine covers, the young women would have no self-image hang ups; I was wrong.
Through the “Portraits” assignment, the students began to understand how photographs could tell a story. While their community suffers from severe unemployment, several kids consciously photographed the construction workers in the neighborhood to highlight the individuals who have found work. Victor photographed the school’s cleaning lady to show that without her he would not get the education that he does.
11-year-old Lydie was a standout during the week for her sunny personality and the enthusiasm she showed at each session. She really grasped composition and how leaving something out of frame says more than keeping it in. Halfway through the week, 15-year-old Malachie declared he “wanted to do what you do.” He wanted to be a photographer, in addition to his other dreams of being a diplomat and soccer player.
The week ended with a gallery show at the school, bringing together the students, the school and the community. Of the almost 3,000 pictures taken by the kids that week, we displayed 160. The reaction of the kids seeing their images was priceless, everything from surprise to glee to pride. Each child had such a sense of pride and ownership over their images. I admit one of the images was mislabeled with the wrong girl's name. The real photographer of the picture came forward and announced it was her image; all photographers know which images are theirs and which are not. The show remained up for a week so the rest of the school children could see what the workshop participants had accomplished. Afterward, the photographers took their own prints home.
Two local artists, a sculptor and an abstract painter, came to the gallery show and were so inspired by the creativity of the kids that they are creating an after-school arts program. The kids will take on different projects under the guidance of local Haitian artists. That was the most unexpected outcome of the workshop – leaving behind a legacy not of just photography, but of the arts as a whole.
Part of View Finder's mission is to create a sustainable photography program for the schools we partner with. At Respire, we left all the equipment brought down for the workshop – cameras, batteries, memory cards, printer, paper and ink – so the school can maintain a photography club with the students. It is vitally important not to give the kids a "treat" for a week and then snatch it away. We picked two kids from the workshop, Malachie and Lydie, who showed promise not only as photographers but as leaders as well to run and manage the club. A week after we left, the participants organized themselves to photograph a schoolmate's funeral, even printing out the images to give to the child's mother as a remembrance – a remembrance she would not have had if not for the students and the workshop.
After the View Finder staff returned from Haiti, we received heartwarming feedback from a Respire staffer named Rita Noel, feedback that let us know the workshop was worthwhile:
"I have watched some of the kids that were a part of the program and they seem to have an added element of confidence about them that is wonderful to see."