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South Africa

Developing vision: Young people in South Africa photograph their communities

© UNICEF/2010/Dini
Olwethu Mahina and Patience Ndlovum, Zifuneleni Junior Secondary School students in Soweto, South Africa, practice using their cameras.

By Hong-An Truong

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, 8 June 2010 – Across some of South Africa’s most impoverished neighbourhoods, a youth photography programme is helping students document their lives – while also raising wider awareness of their communities’ struggles.

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The Umuzi Photo Club is run entirely by a volunteer staff of dedicated teachers and organizers. The innovative organization integrates technical and creative skills with organic community development, helping young people see their communities – and find solutions to problems – in new ways.

Learning to see

On a Saturday morning in Soweto, a former apartheid township south of Johannesburg, 15 young members of the Umuzi Photo Club walk together in a group, stopping occasionally to take pictures. They pass a funeral procession, a typical scene in a neighbourhood where daily life is marked by evidence of the HIV and AIDS epidemic, and snap a few photos.

© UNICEF/2010/Dini
Tshepang Mosemola, who is currently in grade 11 at Barnato Park High School in Hillbrow, South Africa, is one of the Umuzi Photo Club's advanced students.

“Saturday is ‘funeral day’ in Soweto,” explained David Dini, founder and director of Umuzi. “Once you enter Soweto, you are smacked in the face with this problem.”

But living shoulder-to-shoulder with tragedy often prevents people from seeing it clearly, Mr. Dini said, adding: “The kids are desensitized to these funerals.”

Umuzi is working to harness the power of photography here in Soweto, where a scene as common as a funeral can go unnoticed by residents and may never be glimpsed by outside eyes. Members of the club meet each weekend at their school to learn photography. They undertake an intensive workshop that includes interactive lessons on aspects of photography, including composition and storytelling. Students also learn about social awareness and activism.

The Umuzi Photo Club was launched in the spring of 2009 with funds raised by Mr. Dini and Andrew Levy, a South African finance professional. It has since conducted 26 workshops with primary and secondary schoolchildren, graduating three separate groups of students.

‘Hard discussions’

Umuzi’s workshops teach students to use photography as a tool for creative expression by grounding their lessons in the very stories of the students’ lives. The young photographers learn to create compelling compositions by building narratives around the issues that they face every day – including HIV and AIDS, teen pregnancy, poverty and the lack of basic services.

© UNICEF/2010/Dini
Students involved in the Umuzi Photo Club in South Africa learn digital photography skills.

“I like to take pictures of buildings and landscapes of where I live, because I want to show people the background of my life,” said Umuzi participant Tshepang Masemola, 16. “In my neighbourhood, there is crime and people living on the streets. In my pictures, I want to show the life I live and all the challenges that I face.”

Students also learn from each other, participating in peer critiques of their work and engaging in critical dialogues about the photography process. The work often sparks conversations about difficult social issues.

“We have a lot of hard discussions,” said Mr. Dini. “Oftentimes we bring in teachers, the principal or other people from the community to help with these conversations.”

Giving back to the schools

A vital aspect of Umuzi’s work is its close partnership with schools in Johannesburg. The programme works in developing communities negatively affected by the legacy of South Africa's former apartheid system. In many of these areas, schools lack basic resources such as running water. Umuzi works with schools that need assistance with creating infrastructure and whose administrators demonstrate a commitment to their students and neighbourhoods.

© UNICEF/2010/Dini
South African students in the Umuzi Photo Club learn how to photograph with an analog camera.

Fundraising for partner schools is accomplished through exhibitions of students’ work, both locally and abroad. Umuzi recently opened two exhibits at the Idea Generation Gallery in London and 44 Stanley Gallery in Johannesburg. Funds from both shows return directly to the young photographers’ schools.

Several projects funded by student exhibits are currently under way in Soweto and neighbouring areas. Soweto’s Karabo Primary School is building a new library. And at the student computer lab in Kwena Molapo High School, students will now have an Internet connection for the first time.

Real-world skills

Besides raising funds and helping young people to better understand their world, the practical skills taught by the photo club are invaluable in a community with high levels of unemployment.

Umuzi has enrolled a small group of students in courses at the Johannesburg College of Digital Photography, where they can deepen their technical expertise. The photo programme covers tuition and transportation costs for each of these students.

Thapelo Matsumi, 18, is one of four young participants who have benefitted from this extended training programme. Thapelo will soon finish school and, like many South Africans his age, faces a difficult job market. But with the skills he learned through Umuzi, he is already getting freelance photography work.

“I am thinking about really making something out of my education and my life,” said Thapelo. “I want to go into graphic design and animation.”




Watch a video slide show featuring photographs by the youth of the Umuzi Photo Club.
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