Saturday, February 5, 2011

Through the Eyes of Hope Project

On my first trip to the African Bagel Company I noticed several stunning photographic prints hanging on the wall of everyday scenes here in Rwanda. Robin explained that photographs were taken by children and there was a photojournalist, Linda Smith who is living in Kigali who works with disadvantaged kids to tell there stories. Obviously as a photographer, I was hooked - I needed to meet Linda.

Robin invited Linda over for dinner a couple days ago and we began to talk about her journey to Rwanda and the Through the Eyes of Hope Project. The project has two goals – to teach basic photographic principles to extremely disadvantaged children and to educate children who are interested in learning about the children of other cultures. In January 2007, Linda ran a pilot project in Rwanda with eleven orphaned children who ad lost their parents to AIDS. Based on the incredible impact of this first workshop, Linda has continued workshops here in Rwanda as well as the Bronx and Bedford, New York. A key component of the workshops is that each child who enrolls in the program participates in an art exhibition featuring there work. The exhibition serves to affirm the children as creative and intelligent artist. Such an exhibition is scheduled for next month at the African Bagel Company. I asked for the opportunity to experience the program first hand – today was the day.

When I arrived at the schoolhouse library the first thing that stuck me was the sharp contrast of technology to the African backdrop. Linda simply had a MacBook Pro laptop and a projector hooked up, but in the environment it seemed like a supercomputer. The children were gathered around as she taught on the principles of photography – today’s topic was portraits. She toggled through famous portraits one after another, with each explaining the composition as well as the subject. Salvador Dalhli, Albert Einstein, Miles Davis. Just how do you explain Marilyn Monroe standing on a subway grate with her dress blowing up to African children?

Linda discussed the composition of a portrait, the rule of thirds and using lighting to tell the story. Heavy concepts for the early art student, much less children, African or not. They seemed to soak it all up. Next, the assignment was given. Create your own portrait. Small point and shoot cameras were handed out and the kids, in partnerships because there is not enough cameras to go around, then they hit the streets. Linda, Andre and I tagged along.
For about two hours we roamed the streets and villages of the area surrounding the school. The children shooting the entire way. They would approach people hanging around, which is never a problem in Africa, and ask to make there photograph. I was impressed with care and composition of a number of the students. Every now and then Linda would point out some relevant photographic techniques like the position of the sun and lowering the camera to be at eye level when photographing small children. On and on we walked drawing quite a crowd as we progressed. I asked Linda about the following we were attracting and she said it was larger than normal as three “mazungas” (white people) were traveling in the group, two of which (Andre and I) had very large cameras. We collected our images and returned to the school library where Linda downloaded every camera and the class reviewed each photograph, often commenting on strong images and making recommendation for better composition or lighting. At the end, a short story was read from the Bible which helped the children grasp the concept to love and considering others more important than ourselves. I was impressed the children were as engaged in this aspect of the workshop as seeing some of the most famous portraits in the world.

As I sat and thought about the program, a couple things struck me. The first, as a photographer here in Africa I don’t exactly fit in. Between the white skin and the large Nikon I carry, I draw attention. So more often than not this alters the photograph - A look of mistrust, a pose or even a smile. Its rare to capture the culture and life here in Africa without that filter, and ultimately that is the shot I am always trying to create. Put a small digital camera into a child’s hands and turn them loose and the possibilities are endless. It gives them a voice, or a picture, into their world and has the ability to capture real life, raw and unbiased. Also, allowing the children, especially these children, to take there own photographs and share them in the workshop setting gives them a sense of empowerment that they are creating and contributing. They have an ability – a skill.

As we ended the workshop, Andre and I let them shoot a bit with our cameras. The kids got a trill out of holding the large HD camera on their shoulder. As they looked through my Nikon with telephoto lens there eyes widened – I am sure most had never seen the view through a telephoto before. I could help but think this may be a way to give some of these kids a voice and perhaps even a vocation. Helping them understand they have a story, that they have something to contribute can go a long way in shaping a young mind – especially those orphans or children living with HIV/AIDS. The Through The Eyes of Hope Project truly is about hope – but on this day, the hope was mine - hope for the future of these special kids. 


  1. Linda Smith is my niece and I just want to say that I am so very proud of her. She has a special gift and I know the children love her. She is truly a gift from God. Linda I miss you but you are a special person who gives all you can to help these poor children.
    Love you
    Your Aunt Dolores

  2. this is so wonderful--i am looking forward to meeting up with linda when i am in kigali in august. you sound pretty super, too!

    kind regards,
    kresta k.c. venning