Pittsburgh to Soweto: the power of documentary photography

Thursday, 03 July 2014 02:58 PM Written by 


 heather in the classroom final

As the region’s arts council, a membership organization comprised of many non-profits and artists, we receive calls and requests of all kinds, all in the name of helping our region’s arts community thrive. This spring, after having run into fellow photographer Heather Mull and hearing about her plans to go to South Africa, I received an email from Linda Dukess, Heather’s colleague, asking to talk about their wild idea to teach documentary photography in South Africa. Having taught media in the field in Northern Ireland, Jamaica, the Navajo Nation, and Alabama, my interest was piqued.

There is nothing quite like looking through the lens of a camera, in the field and working with young people, if you want to instantly cause intercultural learning, global awareness and serious reflection about one's place in this world. The photographs are usually good, even for a short term, immersive project, but the profound takeaways – compassion, humility, gratitude, and self-determination – are better than good. People think cameras are about the gear. Think, again - cameras are literally about seeing, teaching a person to observe, consider, and reflect.

Linda and I met, and she shared her passion project, the Kliptown Photography Project, involving herself, her partner Jody DiPerna, Heather, and their friend Juliana Kreinik. Moved to do something to help the situation in a South African shantytown, their plan is to work with South African photographers Jerry Obakeng Gaegane, Patrick Selemani and Tila Nomvula Mathizerd with South African curator Zanele Mashumi and let the power of the documentary image take hold. Together, they would enact a week-long photography program for teens in Kliptown, one of the most impoverished townships in South Africa. In the mix is the Kliptown Youth Program, helping the photography project work with teens in the area and providing a space for the project within the township.

Linda and her colleagues are in Kliptown, now, and I asked them to share their stories with The Arts Blog readers to raise awareness of their efforts to make a difference, and to broaden our understanding of how the arts function within a set of larger community concerns, such as poverty and racism. Find out more about the project, here, and we will post three blog posts from their adventures, today and into early next week. 

Jen Saffron, Director of Communications at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council



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