Only You: Graceland Girls Photography

We’ve been back from Kenya for a little over two weeks and I am still taking in the full impact of our travels.  I have spent countless hours sorting through photographs that I was not able to post in those rare moments I stole at Internet cafes in Chaka and Nyeri.  I had so many of my own photos to share, that I included various slideshows in the posts below.  Please feel free to browse back through and take a look.  I have not yet waded through the cornucopia of video, but am letting the various stories marinate in my mind for now.

The photos the girls at Graceland took over the three weeks we worked together became much more meaningful and expressive as we ventured out onto the grounds together, took field trips to the nearby quarry and walking paths and discussed the photos in class.

I intentionally offered little guidance on how to take what a Westerner might consider a “quality” photograph.  However, in realizing that many of the girls struggled with how to uniquely express themselves, I offered what I feel was a valuable bit of advice, something I was told while in grad school and that made a profound impact: “Take a photo that only you can take.”

Ester, a bright Form 4 girl, was the first I saw embrace the challenge.  That day, instead of taking the same picture of the river that carved through the campus that the others had taken, she threw a large stone in the water and photographed the light reflecting off the ripples.  After discussing the photo in class, many of the girls also tossed stones in the water and photographed it, so the challenge continued for many of them to come up with their own way of making waves.

Although I am not an anthropologist, I feel there are several observations worth noting from the weeks I spent living with and teaching the girls.  First, teenagers are teenagers anywhere in the world.  No matter how they were raised, no matter their heritage or culture, I was interested to see patterns in girl behavior that I have seen in other parts of the world, particularly the United States.  Cliques still form based on social status, girls still tease and taunt those different from themselves; they are concerned about their personal appearance, feel peer pressures as well as pressures to succeed, covet material things, obsess over boys and have big, big dreams.  There is still that strong need for self-representation to validate one’s existence, and many of the girls had Facebook accounts (I Facebook, therefore I am…) that they use when they go home for school break.  Many of the girls used their photo time taking posed pseudo-modeling pictures of each other and then would rush to see their own image in the LCD screen, murmuring awed feedback to each other in hushed Swahili and erupting in giggles.  In addition, there is a desire for self-expression, to project oneself outward; to stand out from the crowd and prove one’s value and self-worth through seeing pieces of themselves reflected in their work.

I suppose it wasn’t just the cameras that showed me that these girls understand and deeply appreciate the gift of their education in Kenya (with one or two exceptions, perhaps), but their everyday actions – their devotions to their studies, their family, their respect for their teachers, and the emphatic tone in their stories about where they come from or where they are going, there is a pride and understanding that in the end puts them all on common ground: We want to be everything we can be.

In a country that is still grasping the modern concept of the importance of educating girls, these students are ahead of their time, are well positioned to be the next generation of leadership in East Africa and will likely perpetuate the trend in future generations, which is a very exciting concept.



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