by Semhal Tsegaye
The familiar chatter greets us as we enter the classroom for one of the last times. It’s hard to believe that the Snappers (the students of the SNAP Photography Workshop) met only three weeks ago and are already fast friends, bonded by this unique experience. They greet us with the usual smiles and hugs, but there is a sad twinge to the exchange this time, all of us knowing that this intense and rewarding adventure is coming to a close.
There is an added element of excitement to this final workshop. Brent Stirton, one of the world’s best photographers and a native South African, has come to talk with the kids about their photography project and where photography can take them. A man with quiet confidence and a commanding presence, he has dedicated his life to photojournalism, his work appearing in publications like National Geographic, Newsweek, and The New York Times. As Nina introduces him and notes his achievements, the students begin to realize the gravity of his company. The other volunteers and I watch as they hush each other and grow quiet, listening intently as he begins to go through each one’s best picture and critique them.
Initially, the students talk quietly and avoid eye contact, having been raised in a culture where they are taught to be submissive and respectful to their elders. But Mr. Stirton draws them out of their silence, encouraging them to look at him, sit up straight and speak clearly, emphasizing that confidence is a necessary quality in photojournalism. As they take turns describing the meaning behind their pictures in detail, I can see them carefully considering their words and listening intently to his responses. His insights are thought-provoking and original. He accompanies his advice with anecdotes and pictures from past projects, entrancing all of us with stories of working his way into the world of warlords and gangsters.
One of the things he stresses is that it is a photojournalist’s job to understand the “A to Z” of a story, to make an essay through pictures. He takes each one of their pictures and paints a story with them, formulating a backstory, drawing out characters and speculating their motives, feelings, and thoughts. The kids are captivated. They don’t seem to believe Mr. Stirton when he says that he is learning as much from them as they are from him, but his sincerity and warmth makes them grow more comfortable and begin engaging with him more, asking him well thought-out questions.
After the critiquing session, we take group pictures outside, then the students usher the volunteers back into the classroom, pulling out a row of chairs and telling us to have a seat while they prepare the surprise they have in store. We exchange smiles, feeding off of their positive energy and excitement. What follows is a spectacular performance that combines singing, dancing, and acting in a social commentary of poor service delivery in the townships. We are blown away. It is a skit of the kids using the skills and empowerment they have gained from the SNAP Photography Workshop to demand better service delivery from their government. The skit takes place in the midst of a mayoral race, so the candidates must vie for the residents’ votes, and in the end it is the mayor who tells them how he will improve service delivery that wins. When he delivers on his promises, there are resounding cheers and a town celebration. What the students are depicting is simple, but powerful. It is citizen empowerment, the right to protest and assembly, and politics at its most pure: serving the people.
After the performance is the part that nobody wants to come: good-byes. We hug the students, exchange contact information, and head to the car to go back to town. As I head out the door, I can’t help but think back on everything people told me about the townships. They are riddled with drugs and violence, people waiting to take advantage of you at every corner, devoid of common decency. One of the questions Mr. Stirton answered comes back to me. He was asked what keeps him going when he witnesses the kind of tragedy and destruction that is so emotionally trying it has kept some photographers from continuing their work. His response:
“The continued presence of inspirational people keeps me going. In every place, you meet honorable people.”
Semhal Tsegaye is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.