There is something special about seeing a photograph. Even when we know that photography can be as misleading or contrived as any other form of media, we can’t help but feel that, in looking at a photo, we are getting a glimpse into something more real than what lies in our imaginations. I suspect that the force of photography arises not so much in the fact that it is insistently, exclusively visual as in the fact that it plays with time.
A photograph claims to tell us something about a particular when in time, and though we often take them for granted, those momentary when’s in life are intensely personal. Looking through a photograph into a subject’s eyes or following the subject’s gaze to an object in that photographic horizon, we imagine that we are sharing something more than a view with the subject; we are sharing a moment. We sometimes forget, though, that the person with whom we are actually sharing this moment is the photographer.
This year, as we were preparing for our annual trip to East Africa, we decided to try something new. Inspired by other projects of its ilk in other places, we found five refurbished, digital cameras to bring with us. My family and I sat on the living room floor the night before my flight packing each camera in a Ziplock bag that also contained a notebook, pen, spare batteries, spare memory card and card reader. Our very generous coordinators spoke in advance with headmistress, principals or teachers whom they felt would be most sympathetic to the project, and I handed out the cameras to the coordinators in Africa with only one instruction–the photos were to be taken by students themselves.
As I understand it, one of the cameras will be used in conjunction with an art class; one will likely be shared amongst the students in an agricultural program. One, amazingly, has already landed us hundreds of photos and short films. The students from St. Kizito’s School in Central Uganda took possession of their camera, disappeared for a week and brought it back to our coordinator, Sister Salome, the night before she flew out to meet us for our conference. Sister Salome looked through the photos and watched the films for the first time on the tiny screen of the camera as we sat together over lunch in Tanzania. Even in miniature, the pictures took our breath away.
We could see the progression as the girls became more skilled with the camera, mastering the lens and then the video function. We saw personalities and themes emerge as the camera was handed from one student to another. And we saw glimpses of what the girls wanted us to understand about their lives, their friends, their schools and their dreams. We are doing our best to “listen.”
We were able to download the photos and films and return the original memory card to the St. Kizito’s girls with their camera, so I anticipate more striking images out of Uganda over the next year. And, of course, we are waiting with baited breath for whatever the girls choose to send us from Kenya and Tanzania. In the meantime, I offer the photo below–taken during that first moment when the girls received their new camera.