I am 2700 meters above sea level, trying to catch my breath. I am gasping not only because of the altitude but also because of the beauty of the Andes that surround Cajamarca in Northern Peru.
I am here to teach kids about photography and I have mixed feelings. First of all I do not speak Spanish, and secondly, I have never done anything like this in my life, ever. So, I am excited and scared.
Why would I do such a crazy thing? Inject myself into a remote culture so far removed from my own roots? And one of the poorest places in Peru? Well, I have always dreamed of visiting South America and I thought this would be a meaningful way to do it all; teach and inspire kids, learn Spanish, experience another culture, connect with like-minded people, and have fun too.
I arrive in Peru, armed with 15 digital cameras, extra batteries and accessories, all donated by friends and family and delighted to be very far away from the blustery Canadian winter of 2009.
In 2008 I designed a program called “Eyes on Life” a Photography Program that empowers youth and gives them an outlet for self-expression. Using photography to capture the imaginations of children, build their confidence and self esteem was a challenge I could embrace after much planning.
For the next 8 weeks my home will be “Incawasi” a non-profit organization located in the centre of Cajamarca, a very Spanish, colourful, bustling colonial city of 150,000 off the beaten tourist path. Incawasi consists of about 40 young and vibrant kids from disadvantaged areas between 13-17 years old. Some of the kids walk down from the hills, which takes hours a day to get to the school, rapidly wearing out their shoes. Children spend every day here learning through the various activities that the international volunteers organize. The school also feeds the children daily and as I found out for most of them, this is their only real meal each day.
I take the kids out on location with the cameras and they are instantly photographers, snapping at everything they can; eating up batteries like there's no tomorrow, asking questions and showing me their creations, “mira prof, mira!” one kid says (look professor, look!) I've never been called a professor before, but I am starting to like it.
I've never seen kids so happy. They snap photos of everything; the vast panorama of their sprawling city with the Andes flowing in the distance, the abundant fruits at the markets, prominent statues, the street parades that come out of nowhere, beautiful gardens, impressive Cathedrals, and mangy stray dogs.
I am starting to worry as with their fresh eyes and perspective they are taking better photos than me! But it is the photos they capture of themselves that really have a lasting impression; simple and innocent, a snapshot of their life and existence in an extreme environment.
Although I teach the kids the rules about photography; composition and how to frame their photos, the power of colour, the use of texture and repetition, they quickly realize that rules are meant to be broken. Their most powerful and interesting photos are the ones that stray from the norm and smash all the traditional rules that bind creativity in.
I was lucky enough to also teach at the Bill Gates School in Santa Barbara, Peru. The kids here are so eager, so full of life and love and willingness to learn that it inspires me to be in their presence. I was so happy to help them find their voice, to help them realize that they have something worth communicating and to believe in.
At times I had to remind myself; these kids live in one of the most harsh and unforgiving regions in Peru where 65% of people are surviving in extreme poverty. Their struggles were evident; hunger, oppression, disease, social inequalities, and lack of quality education, things that we in Canada take for granted. Some of the young kids even work all night on the streets to support their families.
The day I left Peru the kids sang Spanish songs, they made me beautiful cards (written in Spanish!) and we celebrated by dancing into the crisp Andean night around a warm fire, as time stood still.
Even though there was a language barrier, our connection was epic. In the end it wasn't even about photography, it was about something bigger; it was about human connection and I embraced it all. My message to my students was clear; “It doesn't matter what your situation is, if you can dream it you can do it”.