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No Photos!   3 comments

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Recently I was online viewing the portfolios of legendary photographers Roy DeCarava, W. Eugene Smith and Henri Cartier Bresson. I marveled at their artistic and documentary oriented bodies of work. I’m an independent photojournalist, based in Nairobi, Kenya, and I appreciate the work of photographers who combine documentary with an artistic vision. Seemingly past generations of photographers could document communities, with an eye towards spontaneity and creativity, without the challenges faced by photographers today. Undoubtedly they too had to deal with the occasional citizen who would just as well have tarred and feathered a photographer than be photographed.

Today, disturbingly, such an attitude is embraced by far too many. It’s not so much that photographers are viewed as annoying, there’s a widespread opinion of photographers as security threats. The public, and law enforcement officials, have become increasingly suspicious of our actions. While paranoia rules so too does misunderstanding. No person taking photographs with criminal intent would blatantly lay on their stomach or stand on a bench (photographers are always searching for a good angle) on a public street and spend hours exposing themselves for all to see. A would-be bad guy surveying a building, to commit an act of terrorism, would discreetly do so using a cellphone camera.

No Photos!

Digital camera technology has ushered in an era in which there is an ease to taking quick point and shoot photographs, and many people do so. However for any photographer who works in a documentary style these can be difficult times. Going out to photograph unposed and candid moments invites not just suspicion, but confrontation or even assault.   Recently after spending two weeks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia I decided to return to Nairobi via bus (1081 miles); I even hitchhiked on the back of Kenyan military  vehicle. I made three overnight stays in small towns along the way so it took three days to arrive in Nairobi. No Photos!From the start it was apparent that taking photographs was an invitation for trouble: at an outdoor bus station I was surrounded and confronted by approximately thirteen Ethiopian men (they appeared to be private citizens), who took issue with me photographing the early morning activity of buses and people coming and going. One man shouted in English, “no photos!” The situation felt unnecessarily tense and unsafe but eventually, with assistance from an English and Amharic speaking bystander, I got them to calm down and go away. This set the tone for the entire trip. Consequently, I had to take photographs zone focusing (estimating the distance from my subjects) while shooting from my hip or discreetly from bus windows. Periodically I would ask permission to take photographs but more often than not was refused or money was demanded. Upon my return to Nairobi I exchanged emails with my ex-wife about the experience, and she reminded me about the long history of foreigners painting unfavorable portrayals of Africans. Indeed, peoples of Third World countries are sensitive to outsiders not only telling their stories – from a Western perspective – but profiting as well. Undoubtedly they’re also worried about strangers committing acts of terrorism. All of which I can understand but it was a frustrating and unnecessarily confrontational experience just the same.

No Photos!

It would be easy to dismiss the problems I experienced as symbolic of living in a region where the rights of photojournalist have not long been respected. However photojournalist in the United States, and elsewhere in the Western world, experience similar problems. Security issues have dramatically altered the manner in which people perceive threats. Such is the nature of the world in which we live. It’s a world in which concerns about safety increasingly clash with basic freedoms. “Those who would sacrifice freedom for safety deserve neither,” stated Benjamin Franklin. His words are as apt today as they were during the American revolutionary war.

No Photos!

During my ordeal at the Ethiopian bus station I was told that someone in the crowd suggested I could be a spy. The accuser lacked commonsense. It goes without saying that there are militant groups and unstable individuals who aim to inflict harm upon others. Nevertheless, democratic societies cannot permit themselves to become open-aired prisons in which self-appointed guardians, or law enforcement officials, can prohibit the right of individuals to take photographs, on a public street, be it in Ethiopia, Kenya or the U.S.   The body of work created by photographers of yesteryear provided an important historical, cultural and artistic archive of our collective past. Unhampered access to public places, foreign or otherwise, must remain so for the benefit of future generations.

No Photos!

No Photos!

 

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Early Childhood Education – Nairobi   6 comments

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The streets leading to Shalom High Places Pre-School (a private school) are unpaved and lined with poorly constructed buildings in the Eastlands section of Nairobi, Kenya. The pre-school is housed on the ground floor of a three-story apartment building. It has no lights and consists of three small classrooms: a baby class (2-3 year olds), nursery (4 year olds) and pre-unit (5-6 year olds).

Every morning 70 students attend classes where they are taught, according to teacher Nancy Vivian Obanda, 30, the national curriculum (the same syllabus as  government schools). However, she’s quick to add that “as a private early childhood development school our quality of education is superior to the government schools.” Consequently, she explains, “we need to expand the school because of parental demand. Many parents don’t believe the government can provide the same level of attention we give their children.”

The students at Shalom High Places are like children most anywhere: enthusiastic, eager to learn and playful. Their high pitched and melodic voices are incorporated into the learning experience as they regularly cheer one another after answering a question: “Well done, well done, try again another day, keep up a very good girl (boy).” As this is sung the child being cheered will place her/his hands on their hips and rock both head and hips to the chorus. “It helps make learning fun for them. They’re very young so you can’t teach them like the bigger kids. Singing helps them to stay interested in the syllabus,” said Obanda.

Shalom High Places is an informal school that offers tremendous potential in the way of education, giving the children a solid foundation to move on to secondary school.

In Kenya, school enrollment levels drop dramatically after the primary level (eighth grade). Since 2003 primary level education has been free and compulsory in Kenya (at government schools). This has greatly increased school enrollment and raised the literacy rate with it. Though stricken with poverty and hardships the people of Kenya are generally literate. Sadly many families can’t afford secondary school because tuitions must be paid. At Shalom High Places parents pay 450 shillings (approximately $5.40 US) per month for tuition.

Although primary school education is compulsory there are few public schools in Nairobi’s overflowing slums. Consequently thousands of children are squeezed out of the formal education system. Non-formal schools have sprung up to fill the gap. Unfortunately many of these are underfunded and understaffed. At Shalom High Places their concerns center around the need for computers, books and play materials, according to teacher Obanda.

Just before nap-time the nursery class is given small amounts of play dough to occupy themselves as their teacher, Cecilia Muringi, test students three at a time. “I can’t test the entire class at once because they would just play with and tear or stain the paperwork.” The youngsters are quick to take advantage of their teacher’s preoccupation with testing. However she’s up to the multitasking challenge, issuing warnings and an occasional slap on the wrist. She has a firm yet playful manner with the students.

Despite the occasional problems that arise during the school day the atmosphere at the pre-school is supportive, energetic and stimulating. The children eagerly participate and crave the opportunity to step to the front of the class to be cheered by their classmates: “Well done, well done…”

 

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Posted August 12, 2012 by documentedAwareness in Education, Features

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