In the middle of Central America’s largest and most dangerous landfill site, surrounded by 40 acres of toxic garbage, isn’t exactly where most people gain inspiration. However, for ex-Reuters photojournalist Nancy McGirr the smell of burning plastic, combined with the sight of cardboard houses and gardens of sewage, is where Fotokids first began.
Originally called ‘Out of the Dump’, this unique project was founded in 1991 with the aim of using photography to break the cycle of poverty, and this year the NGO celebrates its 20th anniversary.
‘I first went to the dump to photograph a story for an Australian magazine,’ says McGirr. ‘There were 3,500 people living, working and scavenging for food – and 1,500 of them were kids who followed me, wanting to see through my camera lens. The thought occurred to me: if they had the camera, what would they see through that lens?’
Armed with three cheap, plastic cameras, the first group of six students aged 5 to 12 began their enrolment process: taking photos of everything and censuring nothing. The students, who all lived in Guatemala City’s sprawling garbage dump, took pictures of whatever fell beneath their lens: drugs, violence, death.
Nancy soon realized their photographs could be used as a teaching tool: showing them they didn’t have to be a part of a gang to be in a group, and that cameras are a more effective weapon against poverty than guns.
By taking snapshots of their everyday lives, children from some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city began to express themselves. Children who at the age of seven had been exposed to more pain and suffering than anyone should witness in a lifetime, could start to dream.
‘I originally thought the project would last six months to a year, but it just took off,’ admits McGirr. ‘We started in July and by September had already appeared in the Washington Post.’
A couple of months later, Konika Japan sent supplies and asked them to exhibit in Tokyo; they were the cover story of various magazines and even had a film crew from London come out to record two TV episodes for a children’s arts show.
From the initial six students who entered the after-school programme, hundreds have since passed through it. Each receiving a camera, food, photography classes and educational scholarships – while having their work displayed in exotic locations around the world in the process. From meeting the Dalai Lama, to working on the set of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and exhibiting alongside Brazilian photographer Sebastian Salgado, Fotokids has created a future for many underprivileged children: a tool with which they can escape their lives of perpetual poverty, drugs and gang violence.
A British NGO invited Fotokids to photograph people in displacement camps in Uganda. Pupils say the experience has changed their lives.
‘I never imagined going on a plane,’ says Evelyn Mansilla, who first started with Fotokids 18 years ago. ‘But at 15 I went to Spain, then to Australia and San Francisco.’
Evelyn, who grew up near the garbage dump, now works as the Administrative Director of the project and believes the experience changed her life: ‘Without it I’d never have finished school, gone to university or been able to give back to my community.’
Giving back is an integral part of Fotokids’ philosophy. Many of the students soon become the teachers and work in the school or in outreach programmes. Often they go back to their own communities, mentoring children and showing them what can be achieved if they work hard at school and stay in the programme.
‘We all want to branch out and take the project to more places in the city. There are so many children of all ages here that need our help,’ says Mansilla. ‘Around seven years old is a good time to start – that’s when gangs start recruiting.’
As well as dealing with the threat of gangs, one of the main challenges Fotokids faces is convincing parents to let their children stay in the programme. Parents often fail to see the long-term benefits of keeping children in education beyond sixth grade and would rather they start contributing to the family income.
To tackle this problem, teachers have started working directly with communities; going into some of the most dangerous barrios in Guatemala City and giving classes to children while building relationships with their families.
‘Of course they don’t all go on to become photographers,’ states McGirr. ‘Photography just gives them a face and a platform’ – for other opportunities they would otherwise never have had.
All photos: copyright Fotokids