We all know photographs can be transformative - they're moving, provocative and inspirational. In the right hands, a camera can open up whole worlds we didn't know existed. But what about the act of photography itself? Is it just a means to an end? Or can the process sometimes be as important as the output?
PhotoOp recently met with Angela Francine Popplewell - the Co-Founder and Chief Story Teller for the non-profit 100cameras.org. She took us through the story of how 100Cameras is using photography to enable underprivileged children all round the world to bring legitimate change to both themselves, and their surroundings...
PhotoOp: How did 100cameras begin?
Angela Francine Popplewell: It started in 2008 with an idea shared by a few friends in New York - we wanted to explore how we could empower underprivileged kids worldwide to create change in their own communities. One of the founders was a photographer, and she was telling us that whenever she traveled and took photographs, it felt like she was documenting from the outside looking in.
Even if you live within a community and become accepted like family, you’re still a foreigner in some sense. We wondered if we could flip that and give the local kids the opportunity to tell their own stories in a very raw, untainted, and no-agenda filled way.
From there, we sought to build a model that could challenge western aid ideas about empowerment. We hoped to help reverse the concept of a solely based aid-dependent model. As opposed to simply receiving a gift from a foreign body, we wanted to teach people how to create work that sells - and to experience the empowerment and ownership that can come from that sale going towards their own medical or educational supplies.
For me personally, this has been a journey that continues to challenge and inspire. What attracted me most to joining the founding team was the community development empowerment piece and the opportunity to teach the importance of storytelling.
PO: Did you have a clear vision for what you wanted to achieve?
AFP: The vision started off quite simple: let's teach photography basics to kids worldwide and sell their images to fund important needs in their community. It has stayed quite trues to that concept, although it has become so much more robust as we've learned from our experiences. We've tweaked how we identify and work with our partner organizations and built a photojournalism curriculum that meets educational standards. It teaches not only the basics of photography and how to tell a story through images, but provides interactive exercise and writing to explore their past, present and most importantly, their future.
PO: What did you do before 100cameras?
AFP: Prior to starting this model, I worked in the community development sector in a few countries. There I witnessed the great hope that comes when an individual is able to create something that provides impact for themselves and others. Furthermore, I had experienced over and over again how most anyone I met just wanted to tell me their story — to share their narratives about their families, their long days of work or why they couldn’t get work, their likes and dislikes, where they’ve been and where they want to go. Every story was important and it felt as though they were sharing it with me in hopes I would share it with someone else.
It gripped me to realize that those living within a community we would often label “marginalized” or as “living in poverty” have always had these stories to tell and they have always had voices to share them, they just haven't had the platform to be heard outside of their concentric circles to participate in the global narrative. And this forever changed me. To be a part of teaching young kids that they can provide their community with essential supplies by sharing their stories through photography will always be one of the greatest honors of my life.
PO: What does empowerment mean to these students?
AFP: It was important to us that people feel that they can create the change themselves. They can then become leaders in their community: farmers or teachers or even the local mayor. Learning young means they can be part of a self-sufficient model. So as their economy develops - for which outside aid is still needed - these people are empowered with a mindset of ownership to continue the growth themselves.
PO: Aside from a photographer being one of the founders, was there any reason for photography being the vehicle for creating this empowerment?
AFP: Photography found us, in a way.I think we were each drawn to it because photography is something that can be taught across all languages and any barriers. There’s a cliche that “a picture speaks a thousand words” for a reason. It can document a very true version of what is going-on without having to risk bringing a foreigner mindset into the equation. Photography is a true medium for telling a story, and we felt it was a powerful way for these young people to share and express how their lives matter.
Early on, we would say that we’re helping to give a voice to the voiceless; however, I soon realized that’s so wrong - because the kids already have voices. Beautiful voices, powerful voices. They just perhaps haven't been heard yet.
PO: The whole concept is pretty interesting: getting access to very basic human needs - water, shelter, food, medical supplies - through a medium that isn’t even remotely important in day-to-day survival…
AFP: Yes and no.
Yes, self-expression is a bit of a luxury, especially with a medium like photography. And yet it helps the kids open up. The camera in its very nature exposes a vulnerability, and the children find so much validation in being able to document things the way they see it. It’s a tangible voice that can empower expression and change from within.
PO: So how did you get started with the concept? How did 100cameras roll out?
AFP: Our first project was in South Sudan. It was very bare-bones and was really a test for us to see if the idea even worked. We were testing everything, even down to the most basic question of the model.
Would kids in a foreign country respond well or even be interested in the concept of using cameras in a foreign country? Could this model work with partner organizations, in spite of cultural and language barriers?
The answer was an emphatic yes - the kids responded well from the beginning, and their images were really powerful. Afterwards, as our founding team was sitting around the table looking at the photographs, we realized we couldn’t not do something with these pictures. They were so evocative. They were so spirited. It was then that we officially decided how and when to coordinate our first event. We hosted the first ever 100cameras exhibition at one of our apartment’s - we shoved all the furniture into bedrooms, installed a complete gallery of framed photographs on one of the walls, and invited everyone we knew in New York to come and check it out.
PO: Very start-up! What was the reaction?
AFP: Everyone had the same thoughts: these images are so gripping and powerful because they show us the hope and joy of kids. You can see in the photographs that their circumstances might perhaps not be that way - children still have to walk hours to get water or they’re playing soccer with duct-taped trash - but they’re still hopeful and they're still joyful.
This triggered something within people, and they weren't responding out of pity, but out of excitement. They were asking themselves “What can I do to help keep that kid happy?” So we sold those images, with the money going back to our partner organization in Sudan.
And that's when we realized we were really onto an empowerment model for the communities, partner organizations, the students, and the viewers across the world that would become supporters and customers. That’s when we saw how everything could come full circle.
The next project was held here in New York City, and we continued building from there. Now we have a fully-written curriculum: it’s 15 classes long and we’ve completed projects all over the world.
PO: What do you teach the children?
AFP: Now that we’ve fully developed our curriculum, all the kids are learning the same thing, no matter where they are around the world. They learn all about tech side of photography -aperture, shutter speed, leading-lines, vanishing points, the rule of thirds - things that will equip the kids to have fun when composing their stories. We explore activities where they can practice what they learned in class. We go for walks around their premises or set up photo treasure hunts where they are given a list of adjectives and they have to try to shoot them. To capture “happy” or “calm”, for example.
Storytelling is a key piece of the curriculum as well. We want the children to explore their own story from past, present and future perspectives. So another large chunk of the curriculum consists of activities that utilize photographs, writing, or discussions to generate conversation around all the student has been through and overcame, who they are now because of it, and most importantly, where they are headed! They also learn that their images will be seen and sold worldwide to help fund their own medicine, lifeline, or educational needs. This is just as vital to the curriculum as the photography toolbelt - it’s the unique combination of both elements that truly brings the empowering element to the model and ultimately to each student’s experience in the course.
PO: Do the students take the cameras home?
AFP: Ideally yes, but this depends on the safety for the kids. We ask our partner organization their thoughts ahead of time to determine if we will be able to give the students cameras to take home after every class. If they are not able to take the cameras home, then we set up as many field-trips as we can together.
It’s about getting the kids in their element as much as possible.
PO: Where do you get the equipment for the projects?
AFP: For our first few projects, we just used second hand cameras that had been donated by supporters. As our curriculum got more in-depth, however, we realized how important it was to have every kid using the same camera during class.
When working in so many regions, there are already language and cultural barriers, and we are teaching them quite complicated technical and robust concepts, often through a translator! As you can imagine, it’s extremely helpful if there is one button in the same place for all fifteen kids.
One of Leica's ambassador photographers joined us for our India project, so they sponsored us with cameras for that trip. It was a real game changer for both the kids and for the teachers. We’ve been using those cameras in every project since.
PO: Do you leave the cameras with the kids once the course if over?
AFP: We would love to leave the cameras the kids use in the field, but as of now, that hasn’t been a budgetary option. We received a donation of about 500 new Kodak cameras a couple of years ago, and while they’re a lot more basic than the Leica’s, it is a functional camera that we are indeed able to give them to keep. Ideally we’d love a sponsorship with a Canon, Leica or Nikon so we could give them the same camera that they were taught with.
PO: And how do the kids process the photos? Do they have access to the necessary software and hardware?
AFP: It somewhat depends on the country. In some countries, the students have access to computers and a stable enough electricity supply to review their; in other countries, we don’t have that option.
We upload and then delete images from each student’s camera at the beginning of every class to ensure they have enough space on their memory cards. We then keep a master copy of all images the student takes throughout the course for the purposes of our library. This allows us to showcase and sell their images, and make a digital copy for the student to keep their full collection. In the early projects, we were only able to send physical printed photographs.
It is part of our vision that one day, students could process, edit, and curate their own portfolios.
PO: Can you expand on the partners. Who are they?
AFP: After we have identified a community we’d like to go to, we then partner with established, local organizations that are already committed to serving local needs and have relationships with all the layers of the community. Our partner organizations are the ones who directly supply the medical, educational, or emergency lifeline supplies needed once purchased with our students’ photography sales.
PO: Do the partner organizations help choose the right children?
AFP: Yes, most definitely. They are much more familiar with the communities and the kids, and so they can tell us which of the students would benefit most from the opportunity, who would most likely honor the commitment to attend class and complete assignments, and also who may have an inclination or artistic talent that might translate well into learning and loving photography.
PO: How do you choose the partner organizations?
AFP: Based upon our early experiences in building the model, we created a partner organization application process. Through this vetting process, they explain what their future development plans are, they show what specific work they do in the community, and they share their financials. It’s important to us that everything be pretty transparent from the start. We also ask them what they would do with the photography sales money and how it would serve the kids and their communities directly.
PO: It all sounds very labor-intensive!
AFP: Yes, particularly since we are all volunteers! However, we are in the process of launching the Snapshot Project platform - which will give us the opportunity to scale and work with more organizations since we are currently limited to the number of projects we can do from a bandwidth perspective. The Snapshot Project Platform is basically a franchise model where we package what we do in the field to equip someone to create their own version of a 100cameras project, while remaining under our non-profit umbrella. It means we could enable photographers to work independently with an organization or cause they are passionate about - something that is very dear to our hearts and vision for this mission! We have some beta tests running in Nepal, Thailand, Turkey and Los Angeles which are all very exciting. And once we’re done testing and tweaking it, we will launch late 2016.
PO: It sounds like something that perhaps a brand might sponsor might be interested in, like National Geographic, or Canon?
AFP: Absolutely! It would be a great CSR opportunity for a variety of brands. We would love to speak to any brand that would like to discuss it further.
PO: How do the children react to knowing their imagery will be sold for supplies to their community? What’s their concept of charity?
AFP: Well, it really depends on where the project is taking place. In Sudan, there was no concept of what charity was in the sense of the word as we know and understand it. The kids just knew that sometimes there was a surplus of food and resources provided through friends of the orphanage, and sometimes there wasn’t. However, in New York City, we worked with some kids in the Lower East Side, and they were very conscious of the westernized concept of charity.
Surrounded by advertisements and billboards everyday, they were aware of what they didn’t have. Poverty in developed countries is very different to poverty in undeveloped countries - in developed countries the kids are surrounded by things they don’t have access to - which can create a wall of “I don’t need it, I don’t trust it, I don’t want it”.
However, in either circumstance, once the kids grasped that their images would be seen and purchased by others around the world - once they realized that their perspectives mattered and that their voices would be heard - it was game changing for them in the both the course and their outlook.
PO: Have any of the students gone on to become professional photographers?
AFP: Not yet. We have had one photographer in New York City go on to teach at the same community center in the after-school program. She was so inspired during the course that she realized she wanted to give back some day. When you look at places like Cuba or South Sudan, it would be an amazing dream to make a living as a photographer. And it’s not that it’s impossible, it would be just very hard. Most of the students will be supporting their families - if they still have family members living or in close contact - or they have chores until dusk every evening. Some will get a further education, but many will learn a trade.
Teaching photography is more about teaching the power of self-expression and the empowerment that their perspectives matter.
PO: That makes sense - do I learn how to be a professional photographer, or do I learn how to dig a ditch to irrigate a field properly?
AFP: Perhaps in more urban situations, like our project in New York City, it’s not such an unattainable idea. They’ll still need a little help and support, but it’s much more doable than say a remote village in India. We would never discourage the idea, but it’s not one of our primary goals It’s more about how our society has embraced photography as an everyday medium to share our stories (think Instagram feeds, facebook posts, shared photo albums, etc.) with others in a way to express our passions, priorities, dreams and frustrations. That is the beauty of what photography has opened for all of us! And that is what we focus on teaching in the field.
PO: A lot of what we’re hearing is how integral assisting is in helping educate professional photographers. From the best way to light a set, to how to run a small business. It could be interesting for professional photographers in cities like New York to take on a 100Cameras student as a third assistant? A nice way to give back through the photographic community…
AFP: We love that idea! An apprenticeship could be a great way for them to get closer to being a professional photographer, while juggling whatever else they have to do to “survive”. It would be an important and valuable mentorship opportunity for the student to learn more about the tool, the trade, but also interact and learn from someone senior who is doing what they love and doing it well.
PO: What’s the future for 100cameras?
AFP: Our end-goal is to scale the Snapshot program so there are over 100 programs all round the world every year. The reach and impact to serve more communities and students worldwide would be incredible. It would also open up our model to serve others who are passionate and committed to a community they care about by leading their own 100cameras project.
PO: Given that you are entirely run by volunteers, how could readers help you?
AFP: Our two biggest needs are funding and awareness. I’d love for people to check out the kids photos online (Click here to see gallery) and ideally buy a photo. This will bring much-needed supplies to that kid’s community in the most grass roots way possible. People can also share the photos on the site with friends, or even host fundraising dinners.
PO: What have you learned from what you’re building with 100cameras?
AFP: What we’ve realized as we built 100cameras is that giving someone the opportunity to creatively express their viewpoint is one of the greatest gifts you can give - in terms of empowerment, ownership and validation. No one can (or should be able to) argue the perspective of a photo narrative. Let alone, a photograph taken by a kid.
They don’t have an agenda, it’s a true caption of reality as they see it.
If you are interested in helping Angela - from helping to raise donations, to pitching a Snapshot idea or taking a 100Cameras student on as an apprentice - please reach out to Angela at email@example.com.