Teens focus on 'My World'

2010-04-01 00:00

THE photograph depicts a group of boys smiling at the camera but it’s the image’s title that really intrigues — My Brother’s Unforgettable Childhood. Where did that come from? “Those are my brother’s friends,” says photographer Nomcebo Mdlangathi, “and he can’t stop talking about them! So that’s ‘my brother’s unforgettable childhood’.”

Mdlangathi is one of 10 teenage photographers whose work forms part of the Umhlaba Wami (My World) Photography Project co-ordinated by the Thandanani Children’s Foundation. An exhibition of their photographs runs at the Natal Museum until the end of April.

Umhlaba Wami came about thanks to Brittan Smith, a volunteer worker with the local Thandanani Children’s Foundation.

Smith, who is from from Chino, California, in the United States, graduated from Harvard University with a degree in sociology last year. With her studies over she knew she wanted to visit South Africa and work with children affected by the HIV/Aids ­epidemic. A fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation funded the trip and she found herself working as a volunteer with Thandanani.

When the initial project she was working on came to an end she pondered what to do next. “I thought: I like photography. I like children. I like education. How could I combine these? Then I remembered this project back in the States where they gave cameras to children and I thought that would work here.”

And so the Umhlaba Wami (My World) Photography Project was born. While one aim of the project is to teach children how to take ­photographs its also about empowering them, building confidence, self-esteem and hope.

Once the concept had been adopted by Thandanani the next step was to select participants. “They were identified by the principal at ­Ingqwanele High School in Sinathing,” says Smith.

”There were 10 in all,” says Smith. “And they were selected because it was felt they would benefit from the programme and also stay with it until the end.” The programme ran from the beginning of February to the end of March and involved two one-and-a-half hour lessons twice a week.

“The lessons were also designed to help boost their English language skills and teach life skills,” says Smith. “We would talk about setting life goals as well as creating a timeline for the things they wanted to accomplish.”

At the first lesson the pupils were told “you are going to use the art of photography to express yourself.” Then the 10 disposable cameras were handed out and they were given their first photographic assignment: Show me your life.

At the next lesson the cameras were returned and Smith had the film developed and the photographs transferred to compact disc. “The second assignment was centred around culture and community,” says Smith. “While the third was half scavenger — take photographs of whatever you see — and half — take what you want. These are teenagers so you have to accept that about half the photos are going to be of their friends.”

Chatting to the photographers at the opening of the exhibition it was clear the project has fulfilled its objectives and those who took part will be given a portfolio of their work as encouragement to keep on taking photographs. And now Smith hopes to attract funding to set up further projects with different schools and different children. Everyone should have unforgettable childhoods.

• To find out more and get ­involved visit the website www.umhlabawami.webs.com

THANDANANI CHILDREN’S FOUNDATION

THE Foundation is a registered nonprofit organisation that facilitates community-based care and support for orphans and other vulnerable children in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Its vision is that communities provide safe and nurturing environments for such children (particularly those affected by and infected with HIV/Aids) within their communities of origin. Its mission is to build the capacity of the Pietermaritzburg and Richmond communities to respond to the basic material, physical, cognitive and emotional needs of these children.

Through Brittan Smith’s work with the Foundation the idea for Umhl aba Wami (My World) was created. Thandanani’s staff provide the logistical framework for the project as they identify schools and volunteers in the communities, along with local stakeholders. Proceeds of this project go to Thandanani’s work in the children’s community. Visit http://www.thandanani.org.za/

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