Photovoice project with Vumundzuku-bya Vana: Our Children's Future

Zonkizizwe, GT
South Africa

Annie Melcher, RCAH '13, spent the summer of 2012 in South Africa interning at an orphan care center. While living in Zonkizizwe, Annie started a photography group with some of the older children at the center and shared the following reflection with us about the group's work:

"This summer, I have had the opportunity to intern at Vumundzuku-bya Vana: Our Children's Future (VVOCF), an after school, drop-in care center for orphans and youth made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS in Zonkizizwe, South Africa. I first learned about VVOCF in 2009, when I attended a GYEC fundraiser sponsored by the on-campus organization MRULE (the Multi-Racial Unity Living Experience). Upon hearing a past intern speak about his experiences, I pursued the opportunity to visit VVOCF, and thus attended the 2011 Race Relations Study Abroad led by Dr. Jeanne Gazel (VVOCF co-founder). The photography group I initiated through my internship this summer represents a culmination of many personal collegiate and life experiences, and I am grateful to present its results to you.

I began to study South African photography in 2010 through my participation in RCAH 290, taught by Candace Keller. Through a comparison of pre and post apartheid camerawork, I gained a solid understanding of a complex history, and was able to build upon this knowledge base in the summer of 2011, when I first visited VVOCF. In the last of the three weeks spent at the care center, the Study Abroad students held a Winter Camp for VVOCF youth. I led a station with older youth on the basics of photography and immediately witnessed their enjoyment upon taking meaningful photographs, as well as their innate, photographic capabilities. 

Preceding my arrival this summer, I resisted over-planning ideas for fear of personal assumptions. Upon my arrival, I began by observing day-to-day life in the environments of Zonkizizwe and VVOCF. As my first few days turned into weeks, I recognized the viable potential of a photography group to engage older youth, to provide them with an outlet for self-expression and to nurture their natural eyes and passion for photography.

With a group of 10 interested, older youth, I created a photography group. We began discussing basic photographic concepts such as compositional rules, basic lighting strategies, and the differences between snapshots and deliberate photographs. I started assigning a different prompt each week, while also providing youth with the option to construct their own prompt, and they were given a week to respond through their photography. We continued to meet weekly, examining their pictures, discussing what could be improved upon as well as the strengths of each photographer.  Additionally, our discussions surrounded the content of their photography in light of the photographic principles discussed in the beginning.

The group came to a lull during a three-week winter break. When the youth returned to school, I decided to examine the work of various South African photographers as it was used throughout apartheid and in the aftermath of the resistance. We read a short biography of Earnest Cole, one of the first black freelance South African photographers; we examined photographs from Peter Magubane, the photographer hired by Nelson Mandela to document his release from prison through the first democratic election in South Africa. I assigned the youth names of prominent female South African photographers to research, including Mabel Cetu, Zanele Muholi and Zubeida Vallie. Our current project involves the process of captioning photographs, and the general incorporation of writing with photography.

I am especially impressed by the growth of the youth. While at first hesitant to vocalize their opinions, they are now able to dissect various images through a discussion of photographic principles and image content. They have gained the confidence to articulate what they like about the photography of their peers, and they are able to offer suggestions for improvement. I have witnessed their support for one other, their internal drive, and their willingness to push themselves through the learning process. Their images have progressed from snapshots to deliberate, meaningful images that convey a deeper message. The end products of this project are a reflection of the innate abilities of the photographers. With camera in hand and quite little direction, they were able to produce expressive art. The capabilities of all the children and youth at VVOCF are extensive. Through the development of outlets dedicated to channeling those capabilities in an otherwise unsupportive environment, VVOCF has created a beacon of light and hope in the township of Zonkizizwe. I am excited to continue the development of my relationship with VVOCF and all of the children it serves. I hope you can enjoy this collection of photographs and feel as honored as I do to gain a glimpse into the lives of these incredible youth."

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