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James Purdy: Photography Teaching Project in South Africa

I have chosen to take part in this photography project in South Africa to further understand and expose myself to parts of the world that I have not had the opportunity to visit, as well as put myself into new cultures in which I can affect change. And here I am! 

I have finally arrived in Port Elizabeth, South Africa! I am preparing to meet the volunteer group I will be working with, as well as a professional London based photographer who is the program director. His name is Remy Whiting and he is a professional photographer who has partnered with Changing Worlds in order to create the photography program that I will be volunteering with! The goal of this program is to teach young South African children how to use film and digital cameras. By using photography as a forum, our hopes are to mentor these children in their lives, while also giving them the skills to photograph and document their lives. As I am set to begin this incredible project, I can only hope that my work will affect someone in a positive way. I would hope to leave a lasting impact on a least one persons life, yet any change that I can make is what I have come here to do. Here is new opportunities and to a new world!

A few days in... 

The Photography Project has begun and I cannot begin to explain how incredible this first day has been. By teaching photography to impoverished South African children, our goal is to give these children something to smile about, look forward too, and a possible career path outside of their townships. We have comprised five lesson plans, one for each week, and we will be visiting over 10 schools each week and conducting these lesson plans with the 6th and 7th grade students.

Today we taught at two different schools in the townships surrounding Port Elizabeth and the experience so far has simply been eye opening. It’s incredible to give a child something that we take for granted, a camera, and see the joy in their eyes when they get an opportunity to take a picture for the first time. Some of these kids have never even seem themselves in a photograph before, and we are giving them a chance to do this! From what I have witnessed thus far, these are the happiest children I have had the opportunity to meet.

I just cannot express how amazing an opportunity this has been and I have only been here less than one week! 

Week 2 of the photography teaching project...

We have finally completed our 1st week of volunteering and what an incredible experience it has been so far. I really just cannot express how unique some of these children are. After working with them for almost two weeks, I think it is becoming more and more obvious just how special this is to the 20 children we see at each school. While the photography skills we are teaching could help lead to a possible career for these children, the reality is that many of them will not become photographers which leaves me questioning the true meaning of this project. What I have come to understand is that the simple joy that these children get from this project is what matters. For many of the students, this is the most enjoyable part of their morning, day, or even week. For many of us, this can be hard to comprehend. The idea that an hour and half with a camera could be the highlight of our week. However, after seeing the living conditions, the schools, and the people that many of these children interact with on a day-to-day basis, it becomes easier to understand how something so simple, can create such happiness.

Since I have arrived in South Africa, I have been shocked and saddened by many things. The lack of proper organization throughout the countries systems is one of the many causes for such poverty and poor living conditions. There are countless homes in which the contractors began to build the home and simply left. There are teachers who will leave classes to have a smoke break, or dismiss a classroom so that they can leave early. I have even witnessed Headmasters (Principals) using sticks to beat children. I am just so saddened by some of these sights that I have seen since arriving in South Afric, yet for many of these children, it is so incredibly difficult to leave their poor townships. Unfortunately for most children, they will live within miles of the township that they were born in. My only hope is that I can make a lasting impact on a handful of these wonderful children and allow them to create a life better than the one that they have grown up in. I think that this is the meaning of our project in Port Elizabeth, and as each day passes, our time here will become more and more meaningful for both the volunteers, and most importantly the children.

A few weeks into the project...

In just the past couple days, I have been asking myself this question. “What is the purpose of my volunteer work, and does it really matter?”. The reason that I bring this up is because of what I perceive as purpose. Everyone in this world has a purpose; a reason for being, a task they must solve, a problem they must fix. I was at one of our schools last Monday and I met these three boys.

Now let me first say that this honestly had nothing to do with the photography project I was teaching at the time. As I was working with two of my students, these three boys came over and asked for a photo (a quite common occurrence when your camera is out), yet something struck me about these three boys. As soon as the shutter clicked they ran over to see the photo and seemed jubilant at the sight of their own faces on the camera screen. It was then that I realized what my purpose is in South Africa. I am here to teach, to coach, to mentor, but more importantly I am here to help create memories, just like the one in this photo.

I remember speaking with a personal mentor of mine about this in August before leaving for South Africa, and we discussed how I can use this opportunity to explain to children how photography can help document their lives. Thoughts of baby books, family photos, and vacation photos ran through my mind also understanding that many of these primary school students do not have this to recall memories.

You know, it is quite amazing when you walk into a school sit down waiting for the students to arrive, and upon their arrival they immediately come to you and say “Hi James!”. When an eleven year old child remembers the name of a volunteer they have only known for two or three weeks one cannot help but smile and feel that you are making some sort of impact on their lives. It is their way of making memories about their experience, just as I use photos to create my own memories about my experience.

Final thoughts...

I came to South Africa to teach photography. The reality of this program is that a good portion of the children may not have cared about photography when coming into the program, or even known what it was. And to be honest, my goal was never to come to South Africa to teach JUST photography. My goal was to come here to be a mentor, a friend, and a teacher. Not just a photography teacher, a math teacher, or a coach, but a life teacher. 

Just a few days ago when we had to say bye to the children we had taught, they put on a show for us. They spent time with their teachers to organize different acts and had us all come to their school on the last Friday to watch them perform. There was singing, dancing, speeches, thank you’s, hugs, laughs, all of it. But what I remember most fondly about this whole process was the smile on the children’s faces after they had finished and we clapped and clapped for them.

To read more about James' photography project in South Africa, then check out his full travel blog at the following link: http://jpurdymedia.com

If you like the sound of James Purdy's photography teaching project in South Africa then click here.

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