What's the fastest way of cutting through barriers of distance, language and culture? To Fiona Bailey, it's a photo on the Internet. And when children make contact this way, amazing things can happen. Bailey knows. In 1997, she initiated a photo and e-mail exchange between 120 London schoolchildren and more than 100 others in Dhaka, Nairobi and Cape Town. "A Tale of Four Cities" ran for a year and a half and left an extraordinary body of photographs that attest to the project's success at building intercultural bridges.
The photos clinched the relationship, made it real," says Bailey. "The children almost felt they were face to face." And for many of them, photography itself became a road to self-discovery. Bailey came to the idea while working as projects organizer for The Photographers' Gallery in London. After the Richard Atkins Primary School in Brixton, London, expressed interest, she found three committed partnersthe DRIK Photo Library in Dhaka, the Shootback Project in Nairobi, and the J Team Youth Center in Cape Town.
Each exchange was unique. To begin with, there were the vastly different cultural, social and economic realities faced by each group. Many of the children outside London struggled with poverty, homelessness or horrific pollution. "In London the children talk about Nintendos," says Bailey. "In Nairobi they talk about extreme hardships, and ways of overcoming them." Camera skills varied, from the enthusiastic (London and Cape Town) to the budding professional (Nairobi and Dhaka).
Whatever their skills, the personalities and concerns of the children blazed through the photos, and it's these that ultimately shaped each visual language. In the London-Nairobi exchange football was the catalyst, a shared passion that led to more serious concerns. Many of the photos arriving from Nairobi were unsettling, funny or surreala boy "teaching" two dogs in shorts to play football, for example. The children in London became inspired. "They began to think more creatively about what they wanted to represent, and go out and find it," says Bailey.
The children in Cape Town refused to send photos at first. "They said they were too ugly," says Bailey. "It's a legacy of apartheid." After the first batch of photos from multicultural Brixton arrived, rapport was immediate. A flood of lively snapshots followed: "This is me and my Mom, my cat, my friend Joanna." This exchange was, Bailey says, the most childlike, stripped down to essentials to meet an urgent need to show and tell.
By contrast, the group in Dhaka had developed a more detached eye, selecting photos and conveying what they felt about them in stories. This process was often empoweringin many cases these children were portraying injustices they had narrowly escaped themselvesand the photo-essays raised important political issues for the London group.
Bailey is certain that e-mails alone wouldn't have sustained the contact. And the photographs, she feels, did much more than that by setting an important process in motion. "Children really want to take photos," she says. "We were channeling that need. There was an immediacy about the images that sparked off discussion. Gradually, as the children discussed their work, they gained in confidence. They began to really feel they were the authors of these stories. They became more interested in their surroundings. And as they chose new subjects to photograph, they started to realize what was important to them who they are, really."
Said Bailey: "There's a lot of criticism about computers taking social skills away from children. But this project is exciting because it was tremendously social. The children in London would be three deep around the latest image on the computer, talking, laughing, joking. And deciding what to send next."
The Photographers' Gallery, London, United Kingdom <http://www.photonet.org.uk>
Subject: Hello from Kenya
Date: Mon, 10 Nov 1997
12:44:12 +0300 (GMT)
Jambo! (Hello! in Swahili) We're the Shootback Gang from Mathare area. We mostly play with bare feet. It REALLY hurts but we have no choice. Would you be able to send a photograph of one of your matches?
Kwaheri (goodbye) for now The Shootback Gang.
Subject: Jambo from Brixton
Date: Mon, 17 Nov 1997 12:44:12 +0300 (GMT)
Jambo! We are sending a picture of Year 6 playing football. You can see our feet! We are playing in shoes and it is a wet day. In your picture it looks really hot and bright!
Kwaheri! From all of us in Year 6
Subject: the MYSA ball
Date: Thu, 19 Feb 1998 11:06:43 +0300 (GMT)
This picture was taken by James and shows the hand made ball we play with. It is made of plastic bags, paper and string. It also shows the ground we play on and how we play in bare feet.
Subject: John and Penn
Date: Tue, 15 Jul 1998 14:31:16 +0100
Jambo! My sister Penn plays football all the time in the house and my mum always tells her off. John is my little baby brother. He is eating a piece of cucumber. When he eats his food he has to have music playing. He really likes it. If there is no music on he fidgets and starts crying and won't eat his food. He likes listening to the Spice Girls.
Subject: my mum
Date: Tue, 15 Jul 1998
This is my mum. I like my mum because she is very special. What is special about my mum is that she never breaks a promise.
Subject: Growing up in our area is kind of fun
Date: Wed, 24 Jun 1998 03:57:51 EDT
The best things we like to do in summer are:
Melissa I like to play netball and I like dancing.
RushanaI like swimming and I like netball.
HayleyI love reading and learning interesting stuff.
Subject: hello Lotus River!
Date: Mon, 06 Apr 1998 18:22:08 +0000 (GMT)
Hello everyone in Lotus River! Our names are Darrel, Afzel, Ayat and Nina. We go to Richard Atkins Primary school in Brixton Hill. We think Brixton is great because there's lots of shops and a big market. Nelson Mandela came to visit Brixton and we went to see him with our teacher.
Subject: this is our home town
Date: Tue, 11 Aug 1998 16:12:07 EDT
Dear friendsThis is our home town. We enjoy living here. Nikki and C.J. were on their way when they were stopped to take a photograph. They were very excited when they heard that it was going to be sent to London.
Subject: I wanted to show you my cat
Date: Tue, 11 Aug 1998 16:13:49 EDT
I am Nadeema and I posed for a picture with my brother and my cat, I wanted to show what my cat looked like.
Good bye, we'll write again soon. Nadeema
Subject: Afzal's ear!!!
Date: Thurs, 20 Aug 1998 17:42:15 +0100
Hi Melissa and Belveniawhat's up doc! We sent you a funny picture of Afzel's ear! Afzel doesn't like getting his hair messed up because he thinks it looks bad if it's not perfect. He wears two earrings in one ear, he has two holes.
Date: Thurs, 20 Aug 1998 17:22:15 +0100
My name is Jonathan. I keep spiders. I just found a new spider it's big like a tarantula. I go out to catch them everyday. I've got twenty five spiders in my bedroom and they are free to run around. Have you got any pets?
Subject: Firoza's story
Date: Thu, 15 Jan 1998 18:22:44 +0600
Firoza had a desire to continue her education. But she failed due to poverty. Now when she gets time she likes to read and write.
Subject: Tottenham Hotspurs
Date: Thu, 15 Feb 1998 12:29:47 +0100
Hi, my name is Jamie. This is my bedroom which I share with my brother. On the wall are posters of Tottenham Hotspurs Football Team which are my favourite.
Subject: the rickshaw
Date: Thu, 15 Jan 1998 17:38:44 +0000
A rickshaw puller with his rickshaw. The children are to and fro around the rickshaw on street.
The view from my window
Date: Thu, 15 Feb 1998 12:29:47 +0100
This was supposed to be a photograph of the view from my bedroom window.
Subject: carrying water
Date: Thu, 15 Jan 1998 18:22:44 +0000
A small boy is carrying water jug on head.
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