Third Eye Workshops. Photography for marginalized kids

Well, If you remember my previous post when I was dreaming about the potential of photography to influence people’s lives and promote social change, and with my annual pilgrimage to Europe imminent, I started working to make it come true.

My focus was on Roma (Gypsy) kids, living in their often isolated, always marginalized communities in the Bulgarian countryside and most of the cities. Even though Bulgaria is now part of the European Union and has long been part of the globalized world, Gypsies have always experienced rejection from the mainstream society. Kids don’t have the social and educational opportunities available to other children and often they don’t even know what life looks like for the rest of their peers. On the other hand, their culture, traditions and point of view is ignored in the rest of the country, making it a cultural enclave, a community within a broader society with very few points of contact and interaction among them. This social problem gave me the inspiration for a workshop that would empower Gypsy kids by giving them the tools and the opportunity of self expression and the joy of being heard by others.

I organized and led two photography workshops for kids and teenagers in marginalized Roma communities in the towns of Shumen (Northeastern Bulgaria) and Kyustendil (Southwest). I called them “Third Eye” to honor the concept of the third eye as a symbol of enlightenment in the Indian tradition, where Gypsies come from, and to remind us all of the power of photography to capture the elusive.

The workshops happened through the enthusiastic support of many people who donated cameras, contributed ideas and smiles and generally helped put this collective creative engine into action. Many people got interested in the workshops and I’d love to thank them all for everything. I myself was surprised and excited by the great pictures kids produced. Our work ended with an exhibit in Sofia and we plan do it again next year, bigger and better organized and to maybe publish a book with the kids’ photography.

Here is a sample (see all photos on the project’s website, Treto Oko):

I chose this picture as the exhibit’s opening image because it’s symbolic while simple and beautiful at the same time. The photographer is Orhan (12 years old) and the model is Tony, who just finished 6th grade with excellent grades. Tony, or it could be any boy from his neighborhood in Shumen, is facing a closed door; behind that door there is everything we expect from the future, but we don’t really know what it is. We just need to open the door. Tony is looking down, but it’s not because of despair or hopelessness. He is just thinking about how to open it. That’s his interpretation.

While we were exploring the graffitti of this abandoned building in search of a photo idea, this lady came to ask us what we were up to. After we assured her we were not planning to destroy the building any firther, she allowed us to photograph her. I love the fireplace to her right. It gives the eerie sense of home in an abandoned, semi-destroyed place. I also like the warmth in her gaze, in contrast with the destruction, and the way the colors of her dress echo the graffitti.

This picture was conceived, planned and executed in a team. Galia (the model, but otherwise a smart and responsible girl) just graduated from high school and has great plans for the future. So the steps up this new low-level house (caught in mid-jump) are symbolic. What is especially attractive here is the vertical division of fields and of course, the complementary colors. And Galia’s smile…

I have to say that while we were picture hunting together, the kids’ photos were often better than mine. Forget f stops and manual controls, expensive cameras and lenses. I was the adult in the group as well as the outsider, so the neighborhood residents addressed me primarily to find out what we were up to and why are we taking pictures. People didn’t bother the kids with questions, so they were free to take any picture they wanted from the angle they wanted. This is one example in which they were able to take the better shot, from the side, and capture the colors of this snack seller on the street. The colors (of her clothes repeated in the plastic bags of candy she is selling) are captivating. Indeed, these pictures were made to be color, as it’s an essential part of the neighborhood. It’s a colorful world.

This is one of my favorite pictures of the workshop. While we were walking past a bunch of tubes piled on the side of the street, Galia got the idea to do something creative with them. Botzi is the willing model here. His interpretation: there’s always light at the end of the tunnel along with a Botzi who’d irradiates it. This picture has everything it needs: interesting lines, a nice perspective, colors and contrast, and a great idea behind it.

After the workshop ended, I noticed a repetitive theme we unconsciously had all along. It’s about the space we are in and our relationships in it and with it. Do we step into new territories or are we trying to break out of vicious circles? Are we going up or do we stay at the bottom of a low angle? Photography provides so many metaphors for life in general… In this sense, I like the result of the workshop in which most pictures are environmental portraits, portraits in a space full of optimism and symbols.

Did these pictures and the workshop make the world a better place? This is something too grand to say. I just hope that with time kids will gain more confidence that their voice is being heard and their perspective known, along with an instrument in their hands to do just that. They were very enthusiastic and proud of the idea that their photos would be shown in an exhibit in the capital.

If you are interested in the workshop, would like to contribute or to know more, please drop me a line. Here are some additional resources:

Wendy Ewald, a photographer, educator and the creative director of Literacy through Photography, a program at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Her book, I Wanna Take Me a Picture, is a great starting resource for setting up a photography program in a school or in a community.

The first program of this kind, in which photography was used as a tool for change in a person’s life, is Rehabilitation through Photography in New York City. It first started as a program helping returning veterans from WWII to be reintegrated in society. Today it helps healing body and spirit of people in different situations, disabilities and walks of life.

Photo Voice is a community of photographers and educators who have established or participated in similar workshops around the world.

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