Out of Africa: every (digital) picture tells a story

Digital photography remains relatively expensive in Africa. An American graduate student, Eric Green of the University of South Carolina, has found a way to introduce the power of documented visual images to among the poorest children in the world.

Green is studying psychological reactions of people living in â''displacement campsâ'' in northern Uganda. The camps are usually clusters of traditional huts built along roads and in the center of villages in a remote, impoverished part of Uganda. As a sideline, Green loaned two digital cameras to 12 teenagers in the Opit camp, about 45 minutes outside the provincial capital of Gulu. Last fall, the teens took thousands of pictures of their peers, parents and environment.

â''So many people study refugees and speak for them,â'' Green told me by phone. â''My idea was to let the kids speak directly.â''

Green calls his project â''Photovoice.â'' None of his kids, ages 12 to 16, had ever used a camera before. The dozen teenagers took turns taking shots over a period of weeks.

I met several of the Opit teens in a school classroom near their camp earlier this month. On a hot and dusty day, I found them pining away for the chance to take more pictures. Green paid for the project out of his own pocket, and only loaned cameras to the youths, who last took photos in September.

Catherine Achan, one of the kids I met, clearly grasped the power of photography, an old technology undergoing rapid change of late.

â''Pictures are factual,â'' says Achan, who is 16. â''We can use pictures to fight deceit.â''

Peter Oola, another youth in the project, talked about how he could capture the everyday labor of ordinary people in his camp. His favorite photo is of a man selling boiled maize, a tasty dish that goes for a few pennies.

Oola, who is 14, says his photos â''give clues to other people about how we live.â''

At the end of September, about a thousand photos were projected on a wall in a community center. The Ugandans watched the images for hours. â''What was most remarkable to the adults was that children took these photographs,â'' says Jimmy Bentham, who coordinates the project.

Putting digital cameras in the hands of poor African youth, while a modest initiative, highlights the way that information technologies alter the self-image of those who use them, especially in the developing world. â''I felt special with a camera,â'' Achan says. When other children, and even adults, followed her around while she snapped photos, â''I felt important,â'' she recalls.

Achan misses not having a camera. She wants a camera in her hands â'' and to feel important again.

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