Empowering Students through Photography

by Semhal Tsegaye


The familiar whistle catches our attention and we begin our usual conglomeration of beats, claps, movements, and sounds that make up our SNAP cheer. This cheer kicks off every SNAP Photography workshop, getting the blood of the learners and volunteers flowing and our energy levels high. After several rounds of the cheer, we laugh at our attempts at synchronization and head inside the classroom to begin the day’s lessons.

SNAP students warm up at the start of the day. (Tsegaye/TYG)

Through a selection procedure conducted by workshop facilitators and founders of SNAP Photography Club Nina Hanedoes and Kim Whitaker, ten learners have been selected from Chris Hani High School for Arts and Culture. Chris Hani High School is nestled in the Makhaza section of Khayelitsha, the second largest township in South Africa. Many of the selected learners come from disadvantaged backgrounds and so have had little to no opportunities for exploring the art of photography.

Khayelitsha is on the peripheries of urban centers, and its inhabitants on the peripheries of a society that has supposedly outgrown apartheid. During apartheid, these were the localities to which non-whites were segregated. Riddled with the typical underdevelopment issues (poor infrastructure, sanitation issues, etc.) this primarily black and colored (the South African term for mixed race) population is further pushed to the outskirts of society by an almost completely negative portrayal of their communities in the media. Theft, murder, and gang activity are considered by many to be synonymous with life in the townships, and they are in fact a reality that residents face. However, past the stereotypes and generalizations are people with a fierce sense of community and loyalty, people who are friendly and welcome American strangers into their homes and lives. During day one of the photography workshop, the learners express frustration with the stigmatization of their communities in the media and voice their desire for a more balanced portrayal.

SNAP Photography Club aims to equip students “from developing communities in South Africa with the skill of photography while promoting artistic self-expression and critical thinking as means for raising social awareness.” Students use photography to take the media coverage of their community into their own hands and document concerns and observations to provide outsiders with a first-hand perspective. Besides this, SNAP Photography Club holds community exhibitions where the community is invited to look at the learners’ pictures and listen to the voices that are embedded in the pictorial content. Through the exhibition, the club helps learners understand the importance of expressing their concerns about the social issues in their community. SNAP also holds different fundraising exhibitions where they display the learners’ works to the media and wider public, providing a more authentic view of the townships. In doing so, the club tries to assert the students’ roles as young photographers by realizing not only the social value of their images, but also the economic value through the sale of their photographs.

This workshop is an intensive one for the learners, clocking in at 24 hours of work over the course of three weeks. A day may consist of a warm-up, a lesson in photography, and a photography walk around the community to document social issues that the learners have bring up. Following that is usually a peer critique of the photos, which assists in choosing pieces for exhibition.

Reviewing photos for exhibition. (Tsegaye/TYG)

Despite their desire to point out the positive qualities about their communities, the learners acknowledge that there are many community issues that need to be addressed. In this session, they chose “Poor Service Delivery” as the theme of their photography project. Essentially this could encompass anything from insufficient books in the public library to a lack of electricity and running water. Through their photography, students are aim to capture what is being poorly delivered, who is being affected, and the consequences thereof.

On the first photography walk, it is evident that while they are eager to learn more about how photography skills can incite social change, there is room for growth. The first round of images naturally lacks a use of perspective, color, framing, and other skills that the workshop will provide, but are relatively good for those who haven’t properly used a camera before. What’s even more striking, though, is the attitude of the learners. While they are quick to bring up the aspects of their communities that need improvement, it becomes evident that even they exhibit some of the same behaviors they condemn. At one point, one of the learners repositions some litter for a picture. Once the picture is taken, the learner drops the garbage back on the ground. When asked why she doesn’t pick it up, she and her fellow learners simply shake their heads and laugh, saying that it is better to just leave it. The other volunteers and I are taken aback by their response. It’s clear that it will take time for them to act upon some of the improvements they hope to see in their surroundings.

As the workshops progress, I’m amazed at the little things that the learners pick up on during the photography walks that go unnoticed by the untrained eye. For example, because it’s difficult to access electricity, residents of Khayelitsha resort to stealing electricity from wherever they can. The learners point out colored wires haphazardly slung over walls and snaking up electricity poles. Open wires dangle over pools of water in areas that children play. Arcade games situated in pubs expose impressionable young boys to drinking and the behaviors that accompany it. A lack of sanitation facilities forces many families to share tiny boxes with holes on top as a “toilet.”

On each successive walk, the learners experiment more and more with angles, lighting, coloring, and other elements of photography, producing a vast improvement in the pictures. Even more moving, though, is how the process of photographing and discussing the issues in their community has translated into action. On the last walk, the learners not only picked up trash, but also acted as ambassadors, telling passer-bys to clean up after themselves as well. The students approached their high school administration about starting a school magazine and were given approval. They have done just what SNAP hopes they will: taken photography and used it as a vehicle for their voices, dreams, and desires. Ultimately, a change of mindset is where the sustainable development of their communities begins, driven by the inspiring and capable students of Chris Hani High School.

Semhal Tsegaye is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at semhal.tsegaye@yale.edu.