BRAMPTON, Ontario — Participatory photography is collaborative photography where a group of people come together to learn about and support one another by taking pictures of their lives and sharing the photos. Participatory photography empowers people no matter their age or gender. It allows them to share stories uncensored and they are in control of what and how they want to capture a particular place, person or moment.
Andrea Rees took participatory photography to the next level. A 2012 trip to South Africa started the gears rolling in her head and prompted her to start The heART of a Woman Project. She was inspired.
Rees made rounds at the eKhaya eKasi Art & Education Center in Khayelitsha, one of South Africa’s poorest communities. She also got to know the Women’s Skills Development (WSD) program that helps women practice crafting skills such as T-shirt printing and beading. Through selling these crafts at the local art boutique, the women generate a small income to help support their children.
Using the arts to educate and empower people is both easy and inspiring. Rees realized that mobile photography especially granted this ease since smart phones allow quick and uncomplicated photo taking, processing, and sharing. Moreover, with rapid updates in technology, phones are discarded and replaced quickly in first world countries. Mobile photography also gives reason to be eco-friendly by recycling and donating old phones. E-waste is an accelerating health problem in developing nations such as Ghana.
Between sponsorship from MobiTog and crowd funding on Indigogo, Rees was able to launch The heART of a Woman Project. She raked in 11 donated used iPhones and ran an 11-day workshop with nine women at the eKhaya eKasi Art & Education Centre. After learning basic skills and how to use an iPhone, Rees took her class around Cape Town, Khayelitsha and Table Mountain to scope out varying backdrops and lighting to allow the women to practice. In all, 3,000 were taken and one picture taken by each woman was selected to be processed for 200 postcards to be sold at eKhaya eKasi’s on-site boutique or to be shipped to other tourism based gift shops. The low cost photo processing allowed the postcards to be sold for less than $5.
Crowd funding has also provided the women internet and social media access. With this access, they are able to promote, share and keep in contact with each other. Funds also provide transportation and start up costs for printing materials. Rees launched phase two of her project in the Spring of 2014. This phase aims to hold more workshops and to help the women participate in October’s Month of Photography.
Rees’ project is one example of the growing popularity of participatory photography. There are many projects that use participatory photography to empower and inform. Jen Gurecki’s HerStory project allows women to be storytellers. Gurecki gives these women in Kenya and Nicaragua cameras and allows them to photograph their lives and then captioning the pictures. Jen wanted to help women break free from the oppression they face by voicing what they want to do for themselves and their families. Instead of being told what to do, these women are allowed to be the ones doing the telling, in this case, telling their story. Gurecki celebrates the depth and complexity of these stories, as they are far more colorful and impressionable than a statistic.
For children, artistic expression has the power to lift self-esteem and fuel imagination. Art is spiritually fulfilling. Kids with Cameras is a project based in Calcutta worked with children in the red-light district. In Rwanda, Through the Eyes of Children is a project utilizing disposable cameras. Likewise, people in impoverished regions in India and South Africa living with HIV/AIDS find artistic voice with the Through Positive Eyes project.
What makes Rees’ project unique is her incorporation of artistic expression in making a sustainable living. She provides women with a voice and an opportunity to exercise independence and leadership while making an income. Moreover, in choosing photography as the tool to empower, Rees helps women see the beauty of their home. Her project is a positive one because women are working alongside the tourism industry and so they are promoting the beauty in the truth. The women embrace and conquer. They choose to capture whichever moments touch them and then share those fragments in time with others.
– Carmen Tu