Washington DC Photo Exhibition Empowers Kenyan Youth

By Paul Ndiho
Founded in Nairobi, Kenya in 1997 by American photographer Lana Wong, the Shootback photography project continues to inspire, empower and motivate hundreds of teens from the Mathare, one of Africa’s largest slums. The youths are taught how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through photography. By Lana Wong
The images have captured single moments in time — of family bonds and friendship, work and community, love and survival. They were taken by young photographers who participated in a special Shootback project. Eight of the original Shootback students are now professional photographers and filmmakers according to Shootback founder Lana Wong.
“The great news is that 18 years on, the project is still ongoing under the auspicious of The Mathare Youth Sports Association. And eight of my original students are now professional photographers and filmmakers.”
The project empowers young people to tell their own stories and express their creative voices through photography, writing, and critical thinking about the world around them and this has culminated in the publication of Shootback.
“Basically this is a 200 page full colored book filled with writing and photographs taken by my students from Mathare-which is one of the biggest slums in Africa. Averaging comes about $1 a day. There are five to ten kids crammed into shanty town shacks with a pretty tough surrounding.”
Ms. Wong says that her initiative continues to train a new generation of young photographers in Mathare. And that amid all that difficulty, there are great stories of happiness and kids being kids.
“So I think the power of this the story storytelling that came out of this project that was not an outsider’s view, but through insider’s perspective on what it’s like to live in the Nairobi slums. Well, each photograph is filled with its own story. That old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words” is certainly appropriate”

Experienced professionals worked closely with the students, providing basic photography training and hands-on instruction, both in and out of the classroom. The students were given cameras and told to photograph the communities they live in through their own experiences.
In Washington, DC, Shootback has collaborated with the local nonprofits Shout Mouse publishing house for Unheard Voices to help bring photography and writing programs to at-risk youth.
“I’m really happy to be a part of an event that is giving voice to a community that is all too rarely valued or given the chance to be heard-so both through writing and through photography.”
Four books have come out of these collaborations. Mark Hecker is the Executive Director of Reach Incorporated, publisher of children’s books. His company has worked closely with Shootback to create a book about Washington.
“We introduce young readers to their ABC’s through pictures of our city. All the photos, with Lana’s support, were taken by the teenagers in our program. The text is written by the teenagers. We not only use these in our program, we also sell them to create funding for our program.”
A book featuring the works of Kenyan Shootback star photographer Julius Mwelu was also on display.
Shootback plans to hold more photography camps throughout the Nairobi’s poor neighborhoods in the coming years.

Paul Ndiho is a Ugandan – American video journalist/ executive producer, Africa Innovations & Technology based in Washington D.C with interests in innovation, technology and entrepreneurship in Africa. He is passionate about mentorship and developing the next generation of Africa’s young leaders. Email:pndiho@gmail.com, Facebook: Paul Ndiho and Twitter: @pndiho

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