Two decades of tackling poverty with photography (The Guardian)

In 1991, photojournalist Nancy McGirr hit upon the idea of inviting children living and working in the slums of Guatemala City to photograph their experiences. Twenty years later, Fotokids is still going strong. Founded by former war photographer Nancy McGirr in Guatemala City’s 40-acre rubbish dump in 1991, Fotokids is an NGO that uses photography to help break the cycle of poverty. The organisation celebrates its 20th anniversary this month.‘I first went to the dump to photograph a story for a magazine,’ says McGirr. ‘There were 3,500 people living, working and scavenging for food – and 1,500 of them were kids who followed me about wanting to see through my camera lens. The thought occurred to me: if they had the camera, what would they see through that lens?The project, originally called Out of the Dump, began with a group of six children. Armed with three cheap, plastic cameras, the students – aged between five and 12 – took photos of everything that came their way. Black and white photography was the central focus. Drugs, violence and death featured prominently.McGirr soon realised that the photographs could be used as a teaching tool, demonstrating to the children that they didn’t have to belong to a gang to be part of a group, and that cameras are a more effective weapon against poverty than guns.The project quickly expanded. By taking snapshots of their everyday lives, children from some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city began to express themselves and gain an identity.I originally thought the project would last six months to a year, but it just took off,’ says McGirr. ‘We started in July and by September had already appeared in the Washington Post.’ By 1995, the project had entered the digital age, with manual photography supplemented by the acquisition of a computer and photo-editing software.’As news of the project spread, Konika Japan sent supplies and asked Fotokids to exhibit in Tokyo. The organisation was the cover story of various magazines and a film crew from London visited Guatemala to record episodes for a children’s television arts show.Hundreds of underprivileged Guatemalan children have graduated from the organisation’s after-school programme, which offers its students regular meals, photography classes and educational scholarships. The project now covers six distinct communities.From meeting the Dalai Lama to working on the set of Star Wars and exhibiting alongside Sebastian Salgado, the work of Fotokids has been displayed in locations all around the world.The NGO World Emergency Relief UK invited Fotokids students to photograph people in displacement camps in Uganda. Pupils say the experience has changed their lives.Many students have become teachers, working in some of Guatemala City’s most dangerous neighbourhoods. They mentor youngsters, many of whom are vulnerable to gang recruitment, showing them what can be achieved by working hard at school.

Apart from 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 the sixth year and would rather they started contributing to the family income.

To tackle this problem, teachers have started working directly with communities. They go into some of the most dangerous barrios in Guatemala City and give classes to children, while attempting to establish a relationship with their families.

‘Of course they don’t all go on to become photographers,’ says McGirr. ‘Photography just gives them a face and a platform’.

Read more about Fotokids:


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