When you give a child a camera, you give a child a voice.
American photographer Lana Wong started the Shootback Project in August 1997 with Kenyan youth leader Francis Kimanzi to help give young people in Nairobi’s Mathare slums the means to tell their own stories. Equipped with $30 plastic cameras, a group of 31 boys and girls, aged 12 to 17 photographed their lives and wrote about them every week for almost three years.
The results, from kids who had never held cameras before, were honest, raw, amusing and beautiful- these visceral images became the basis of a book called Shootback : Photos by Kids from the Nairobi Slums (Booth-Clibborn Editions, London 1999). The book was launched at the Barbican Centre, London with an exhibition that traveled to twelve countries including stops in New York, Paris, Berlin, and Bamako.
The pictures and words of this talented group attest to the power of photography to transform the lives of disadvantaged youth. Nearly two decades after it started, the Shootback project continues to train young photographers in Mathare and their photos are displayed both in the slum and in international shows. In May 2008, Shootback launched its 10th anniversary exhibition at the headquarters of French fashion designer agnès b. in Paris.
From the original Shootback group, there are inspiring stories which demonstrate that the intervention of a grassroots development project can indeed change individual lives.
Seventeen years after taking his first photos with the Shootback Project, 31 year-old Julius Mwelu now has an impressive list of group and solo photo exhibitions to his name, a book of his own photographs published, experience as a cameraman and a stint as ‘artist in residence’ in The Hague. He now works as a photographer for the UN in Nairobi and was awarded the Bayeux-Calvados Prize for ‘Young War Photographer of the Year’.
Julius created the Mwelu Foundation (www.mwelu.org) to continue the legacy of youth empowerment through photography that Shootback started. Every Saturday, Julius teaches kids in Mathare how to take pictures so they have a voice to tell their own stories. Julius is living proof that this creative process can have a remarkable and sustainable impact.
Born in Mogadishu in 1984, Mohammed Dahir moved to Nairobi as a refugee in 1989. He was the first member of his family and the first student from Shootback to attend university. He completed his BA in Media Practice and Digital Imaging in London while shooting paparazzi pictures for a London agency and working as the Photography Director for an African fashion magazine called SHEEKO. Mohammed was the second Shootback student to win the Bayeux-Calvados Prize for ‘Young War Photographer of the Year’.
James Njuguna worked as a staff photographer for Kenya’s largest daily newspaper, the Daily Nation, and won the ‘Journalist of the Year’ award from the Nation Media Group in 2007. He was the first African student to be accepted to the Danish School of Media and Journalism, where he completed his degree in photojournalism.
Collins Omondi, won a scholarship to study photography in Norway and returned to Nairobi to manage the Shootback Project. He started his own youth development organization in a neighboring slum which he continues to direct today.
Peter Ndolo is the current program manager of the Shootback Project and a freelance photographer and videomaker.
Ali Barisa, Fred Otieno, Moses Ouma, Nicholas Mathenge, Pauline Awour, Serah Odeke, Vinick Kemuma, and several other original Shootback members are now trained in video making and actively documenting daily life in the Nairobi slums through an offshoot project of Shootback called Slum-TV (www.slum-tv.org).
Shootback Project Founder Lana Wong was born in New York and studied fine art/photography at Harvard University and the Royal College of Art, London. She moved to Kenya in 1996 and worked in East Africa as a photographer for various UN agencies. Her photographs have been exhibited internationally and she has worked as a television presenter (BBC), educator, and creative director of a World Bank climate change communications campaign. She is currently based in Washington, DC.
The Shootback Project was set up under the auspices of the Mathare Youth Sports Association (www.mysakenya.org) with support from the Ford Foundation and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).