Kliptown Photography Project: Growing Quickly

Thursday, 10 July 2014 11:07 AM Written by  Jody DiPerna

This is the final post from the Kliptown Photography Project, a week-long teen documentary project led by Pittsburghers Linda Dukess, Jody DiPerna and photographer Heather Mull in South Africa, which just ended July 4. Zanele Mashumi, South African gallery owner and curator will exhibiting photographs from the workshop opening on July 25 at Mashumi Art Projects, her gallery in Soweto. 

Soweto woman

One does not pick up a camera, take a five day workshop and, on the sixth day, wake up being Teenie Harris or Dorothea Lange. That kind of skill is earned over many hours, many years behind the camera.

That said, our kids are seeing the camera, and the world around them, differently in a very, very short time. Whatever we're doing, we're doing something right.

At the beginning of this week, late Monday afternoon, when we gave the kids their cameras, our students started mugging and cheesing it up for the camera. It was fun for them, but they are very unnatural photographs.

Just a few days later, the kids are taking photos of different things, trying to capture different kinds of moments. Sure, some posed photos and selfies still show up -- after all, these are teenagers we're talking about. But their growth in a short, short time is amazing to witness.

Last night, we gave the kids an assignment to take two portraits -- one of a person they know (could be a family member, a friend, a close neighbor); and the second of a portrait of somebody they didn't know. They know their environment well enough to know who to steer clear of, but still, we wanted to give them a very professional photography assignment, the kind somebody like Heather would get. She told them that there are lots of ways to approach it, but being honest (explain that it's a school assignment -- it's not going to be in a newspaper or anything) is a good start. And that offering to show them the photo is a good way to gain trust, too. As with many things in life, being complimentary helps; simply telling somebody, "you have a great look" or "you have great style" is a good way to get a person to agree to let you photograph them.

This morning, the kids came back with great stuff. Some of them really got people to open up, connect with them. Which, although they didn't know it, was the point of the exercise. And they all really captured the person they know. Some took photos of cousins or siblings or grandparents. They were overall really wonderful shots.

Soweto portrait

Which is really a tremendous thing for us -- the entire team -- but particularly for me and Linda. I loved the idea of the project, but there were multiple points at which I wondered how effective the project would be? How much would we accomplish?

A month or so ago, I heard a TED Talk by Ernesto Sirolli, about the power of listening when going into a foreign location with the intention of helping. He started by telling a very funny story about when he worked for an Italian NGO in the late 1970's. They went to Zambia to teach the Zambians about agriculture. Being Italians, they arrived with tomato and zucchini seeds. (Sounds a lot like my family.) And they planted in beautiful soil and felt very good about the fact that they were there to help these Zambians who clearly didn't understand growing things. The tomatoes grew and ripened and just when they were ready to harvest, a herd of 200 hippos came through and ate them all.

The Italians said to the Zambians, "The hippos! Why didn't you tell us about the hippos!" To which the Zambians replied, "You didn't ask." Sirolli went on to say that he felt awful about the Italian folly in Zambia, until he learned of the follies of the Americans and the Brits and the French. At least the Italians, he thought, fed the hippos.

There were times when I thought to myself, "Well, we are giving our kids breakfast and a snack every day, so we may end up like the Italians -- at least we fed somebody for a week!" That was my baseline, the worst that I could expect from the week. Although I didn't really think that would happen. What I really thought would happen was that we could connect with one kid, maybe two.

I think we've connected with more than that. They are all very proud of their new knowledge and, though we've really just scratched the surface with them, I feel like a few of them may make photography a life-long pursuit (either as a vocation or an avocation). But for entire class, I believe we've planted a couple of seeds, cultivated an interest in looking at the world in new ways. For me, that's what education is all about. It's also what art is all about.

There are twelve students -- 14 to 16 years old, plus three members of the staff, all in their very early 20s. And I think we've really hooked many of them, at least two-thirds of our students. Maybe more.

Several of the kids, our high school students, show up early. After one day of seeing how we wanted the classroom set up, they set the classroom up. They tidy up. They help us get breakfast ready. As we're showing slides in a room without blinds, we have to block the light with cardboard. The kids set that up, too. When we give them breaks, at least five or six of them hang out in the classroom, talking to our instructors. One of our students even got work photographing this weekend -- she has been asked to take photos at a birthday party. She will be paid very modestly, but it is paid photography work. And she's also been asked to take photographs for her church, for which she will also be compensated.

Bear in mind, none of these kids had taken any serious photos. Some of them had not been behind a camera ever. It is an astonishing amount of growth in just four days. I am, quite frankly, blown away.

Is it possible we've been able to teach some young people to see and tell new stories? Have they learned that it's okay to take a step back (or a step forward) and open their minds to a new way of seeing?

And even though I had made my peace with the idea that we might just end up feeding the hippos, I think we may be able to do more than that.

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