Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Sticks, Bricks and Education

Classrooms separated only by a reed screen.
Lessons in the village school.
           Giggling and shouting filled the air, the volume growing to match the rumbling and banging of the approaching pickup truck, tenderized by the harsh village roads of central Uganda. As we crested the hill, the school of bricks and sticks came that into view, the school yard alive with playing children.
          Our second stop on the day's phtographic agenda, the need for better facilities was immediately evident as David, the director of Bega Kwa Bega (Shoulder To Shoulder) and approached the scene.

          While part of the school is made up of a more solid, brick and mortar structure, the dirt floor and basic surfaces are beaten down from heavy use. The majority of the students at this village school, actually attend class in the adjacent wooden-planked building in classrooms barely separated by paper-thin, reed walls.

An independent school in Kampala, children receive instruction in a
well-constructed environment, using more varied educational tools
than are sometimes available in schools with fewer resources.
          Breached in many places, the walls provide minimal separation for wandering eyes and diverted focus from adjacent classrooms. It’s a testament to the will of the children to learn, that they filter out sights and sounds spilling through the holes to neighboring classrooms to absorb the lessons of the teacher in their own classroom.

           The village school was quite a contrast to the school in the capital, Kampala, where we started the day. Built with finished floors and walls, well-furnished with child-size chairs, bright educational materials and a small library the school appeared closer to it's overseas cousins than it did to the schools only a few kilometers away in rural villages. Our mission on this day to simply document the variety of conditions in the area where Bega Kwa Bega, supports children by covering school fees and other costs, and provides ongoing teacher training, knocking down barriers to attending school.

Deteriorating screens of reeds are the only thing
separating classrooms in a village school.
          Although public school in Uganda is technically free for primary schools, families have to buy uniforms, shoes, lunches, notebooks and other supplies that often take schools out of financial reach. When they are attending class, students are frequently sardined in with as many as 100 children in a single class. A number of other systemic problems (A 2012 study found that two in 10 seventh-graders couldn't read at a second grade level) drive parents to try and get their children into one of the many independent schools for a decent education. Also, when children fail to learn, parents begin keeping their children home, not seeing the value of going to school.

          BKB allows parents to chose where their supported children go to school and will try to get them into the private and better schools whenever possible, not only for quality instruction but often for more convenient location. Even in that context, private schools sometimes started by village and religious leaders for their own children, struggle for resources and teacher training to educate their kids as best as their resources will allow.

          As those resources flow or trickle in, school operators make progress, purchasing more educational and construction materials, improving conditions incrementally while moving education forward,  conducting classes in partially finished structures, until more resources allow completion.

Children work on a lesson while facing their teacher, as other kids face the opposite
direction to participate in lessons provided by the teacher on the
opposite side of unfinished brick room.
          At a third village school on our two-day agenda, children attended class in small brick classrooms, the walls unplastered, the tin roof not completed. A chorus of voices work a recited lesson while others sit facing the opposite wall and a second blackboard as a second teacher conducts a different lesson: two classes in the same tiny building with nothing but focused attention to the lesson forming a barrier between the two.

          On my many assignments in other countries I always seem to learn something or see something I've never seen before that either startles me or simply gives me hope for the future of the people I'm photographing. This one was no different. The meager dividers and the complete lack of dividers between classes was a new one for me, but I think it also tells me that the world of development is an always changing always improving world, always with the goal of trying to bring forward a better world.

School lunch program
Storytime over, lets put away the chairs.
Vocabulary and reading flashcards.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

No Faces, only challenges

Erica Garcia feeds toddlers at meal time.
Playtime with dedicated volunteers like Kathy Brady.
          You can come make photographs, but you can't show the kids faces.


          Okay, usually the best thing about photos involving kids, are the expressions on their faces, especially when you're shooting for a parenting magazine. Yes, photograph a news story but don't show what happened. Ouch!
          Photographing a people-based story, which is to say photographing most stories, means telling peoples stories and showing their faces. It is a counter-intuitive challenge that is a little like telling me not to breathe.

          That said, in this case it was necessary. Child Crisis Arizona is a shelter for children with families in crisis. Hiding their identities is a necessity.

          Full disclosure, several years ago, the Virginia Piper Foundation selected me to photograph what was then known as the Child Crisis Center to provide them with professional-quality images without having to hire someone out of their own budget. It was part of the Picturing Maricopa project that matched 15 photographers with 15 Maricopa County organizations. It was a challenge that I spent parts of five days working through. It worked out with a significant amount of experimentation, searching for interesting compositions that also told us stories without visually disclosing the identities of children who lived at the shelter. 

          Given enough time and situations, it's doable and, in reality, is a great exercise in pushing outside your own creative boundaries to pull it all together.

RAK Article online

Long-time volunteer Chris Paulley gets into Play-Doh action with a little one.

Monday, March 6, 2017

No Flinching: Grinding out the shot, and the art of not turning away

          Brumble, brumble, pop, brumble, pop, pop, brumble, whoosh, it sounded like medal against a grinding wheel, but felt more like a passing top-fuel dragster.

Levy makes the turn at the top of the ramp.
          As the 10-year-old skateboarder passed within inches of my head, and then pivoted at the top of the ramp and passed again, I flinched and missed the peak moment of the shot. Twice.

         I thought of the bizarre sensation accompanying the covering of drag races, years ago, and the counter-intuitive mindset needed to figure out my timing for the image.

          If you're not familiar with live drag racing, imagine standing next to the track, as the engines fire up. Imagine the air molecules around you begin vibrating at high speed against your skin, gaining in violent intensity as the car approaches. It's a bizarre sensation that forces you to reflexively and simultaneously turn away and duck as the car approaches.

          In order to make photographs, I had to struggle against the base-level reflex to turn away as the car passed. Of course, if I turned away, I would miss the image.

          Over the course of this shoot I developed a great deal of confidence in these young ladies I was photographing. I had already witnessed Mia's and Levy's skill as we created several options for the Raising Arizona Kids Magazine cover story. They flew through the air over five-step staircases and ground out a slide maneuver along a metal railings in this indoor skatepark.

     They knew exactly what they were doing.

Mia on the cover of RAK
Skate with your own personality
          I love to cover programs that not only teach fun things but also try to make a difference in their little corner of the world.  When it comes to giving girls the same opportunities as boys, it's how it should be. The fact that in the past, and, too frequently even today, there exists this strange division on these things is absurd to me. If someone, regardless of gender, likes flying on a skateboard off stairs and over railings, or loves science or fixing cars, who is anyone to stand in that person's way? In breaking down these barriers, we only help our whole society to benefit from the best of 100% percent of the population.

          On this recent Saturday this took the form of making sure the young ladies had the space and instruction to pursue a hobby that is not only just a lot of fun, but is a great confidence-building exercise as the skaters build their skills. A skate clinic for girls.

          Surrounded by great moments, finding images was simple, getting to them safely, a little more daunting.

Taking instruction

          Navigating traffic as skaters as little as 4 years-old made moving about the indoor park proved as tricky as crossing rush-hour traffic. Once finding a small island of safety I kept my head on a swivel, emerging with no more than a minor bruise on my shin from an errant board as a result. 

          By the time we completed some of the options for the magazine cover, Mia, 9, and Levy, 10, demonstrated just how skilled they are as I photographed them sticking their landings like Olympic ski jumpers (ever see Eddie the Eagle?).

          Impressed enough that when my art director Michelle and I wondered about me lying at the base of a tall ramp to shoot up at the skaters as they passed and made 180 degree turns above me, I thought it was worth considering for something a little different.

          So we conferenced with the final authority on the matter, Mia and Levy, describing the idea and letting them decide whether they felt safe and comfortable with the plan.

          "No problem," they said with confidence and in unison.

        With a bit of lighting adjustment for the odd-ball angle, and a few trial skate passes,  it was time to bring out the drag-race technique, no flinching.

(Raising Arizona Kids Magazine is a regular client that assembles one of the better magazines of its type in the country, telling great stories and discussing tools, events, trends and philosophies for parents to consider in their mission to raise great kids. Click for a subscription.)
Learning to make a turn
Mia working her skill
Waiting for traffic to clear
Taking Turns
The Punisher