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Photo Camp Kenya: Teaching the Language of Photography

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Photo Camp student Monicah Njeri Mwangi tells the story of 25 year-old Edna Mogiti and her family in southwestern Kenya.

As a photojournalist for the New York Times, Kirsten Elstner recalls musing with colleagues about how interesting it would be to put cameras in the hands of the people they were traveling the world to photograph, and let them tell their own stories. For the past decade, she has been doing just that, along with teams of National Geographic photographers.

Watch a video of Photo Camp Kenya, above.

National Geographic Photo Camp, a melding of the minds of Vision Workshops, a non-profit founded by Elstner, and the National Geographic Society, empowers youth in underserved areas of the world to find their voice through photography. Since the first Photo Camp in 2004, workshops have been led in such diverse places as Haiti, Maine, Crimea, and Doha, to name a few.

In February of 2014, Elstner, in partnership with Internews, put together a Photo Camp of a different kind. Instead of teaching children and teens how to tell a story with single images of their surroundings, photographers Lynn Johnson, Matt Moyer and Amy Toensing traveled to Kenya to teach a group of accomplished journalists how to dive into one story and develop it visually—in five days.

I recently spoke with Matt Moyer along with his partner in life and visual storytelling, Amy Toensing, about their experience:

Alexa Keefe: What made this different from other Photo Camps you have been part of?

Amy Toensing: We had never worked with professional journalists before. For the most part, everybody was really raw with photography but their sense of story was very good. That was really exciting because we knew they were going to have that journalistic sense. The only thing we were nervous about is that sometimes if you are trained as a writer it’s really hard to divest yourself of that. It really is a different part of your brain. It ended up being just incredible. They know what it is like to be working and chewing on a story, which can be a real roadblock for beginners.

Matt Moyer: The camp was exceedingly ambitious—having each individual working on a specific story is a really heavy lift. When we started out I wasn’t sure that each individual was going to a have a complete story, but in the end everyone did. The work produced stands on it’s own as compelling visual storytelling. And that’s inspiring and really rewarding.

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Photo Camp student Monicah Njeri Mwangi tells the story of 25 year-old Edna Mogiti and her family in southwestern Kenya. Edna has been confined to a wheel chair after she suffered polio at the age of one making her both physically and mentally disabled. Her parents died of HIV complications when she was only five leaving her under the care of her grandparents. Photograph by Monicah Njeri Mwangi
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82 year-old David Ombasa is Edna Mogiti’s grandfather. Things changed for worse when his wife, who helped a lot in caring for Edna, died 8 years ago. Apart from Edna and a 15 year-old boy who is still in school, David’s other grandchildren have opted out of the home to look for opportunities. Photograph by Monicah Njeri Mwangi

Alexa: What did you as professional photographers bring to this group of accomplished journalists?

Amy: In order to get into advanced storytelling, you need to know the craft. We got deep into visual devices and how you expose something or choose certain things is going to give a different feeling to your images. In this new age of photography, you can pick up a camera and never know aperture and shutter speed. But if you are really going to do this, you need to know that. We were trying to teach them that and getting them to be thinking about their composition and layering.

Matt: What we brought to the table was really pushing them to think critically about the image. A lot of them had taken pictures before but simply as visual notes for their writing. For example, one woman went out and the first day there were pictures of signs, there were pictures of paperwork, pictures of very detail-oriented things. By the end, she had come to understand that to communicate through photography is an entirely different language. There is a whole toolbox that you use of subtle cues that help you to tell the story. By the end, that was what she was doing.

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Aging and sickly, David cannot possibly feed himself and Edna forcing him to rely on neighbors and well wishers for a living. Among them is 38 year-old Rose Kinyanya who has made it her role to bathe Edna every morning and cook for the family on a daily basis. Photograph by Monicah Njeri Mwangi
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David peruses through an photo album including photographs of his late children. David lost all four of his children, two of them from HIV complications. “My daughters died when they were very young but my two sons and their wives passed away after getting that bad disease.” Photograph by Monicah Njeri Mwangi

Alexa: As National Geographic photographers, how do you feel what you do fits into the Photo Camp mission? How do you see those things intersecting?

Amy: My mission is to inform people in the visual medium—a photograph speaks in a powerful, universal language and a lot of mass understanding and connection can happen just from looking at a single image. The visual language dominates our world more and more so it’s essential that everyone—even a non-photographer—becomes visually literate. It’s very rewarding for me to teach these things and open people’s minds to how powerful visual storytelling can be. It’s fun to get people thinking about it.

Matt: The dedication that has gone into a career to be able to do what we do professionally—it’s a tough industry—our passion and belief in the power of the image is pretty ingrained in us. Photography allows you to explore the world, but it also allows you to take a journey within. We already have that passion and belief just simply because it’s what we do, it’s what we love to do. Being able to share that and see that light go on inside of them is an incredibly rewarding and profound thing. And it’s also very selfish, because you do something for as long as we have, it never hurts to have a little extra inspiration coming from others to rekindle the fire. And that happens to me on Photo Camps.

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David and Edna under a tree in the yard of their home where Edna spends most of her time. Photograph by Monicah Njeri Mwangi

Alexa: What came out of this one for you in that regard?

Matt: Being really impressed by how in-depth they got, how connected they were to their subjects. This is what I try to do whenever I am shooting and it is inspiring to see them do it too. Being around such talented and devoted journalists makes me energized about the impact our work can have. It inspires me to keep telling important stories.

Amy: I was really inspired by how open and vulnerable they were, and how ready to learn something new they were because these guys are all established professionals, and it’s an important reminder that we all need to grow until we are dead. People can get stuck in their ways. It was inspiring to see how game they were. It was really cool.

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Edna is photographed in her room. Photograph by Monicah Njeri Mwangi
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Edna and her caretaker Rose Kinyanya share a moment together. “Though I am given some little money at the end of the month, this is my way of giving back,” Kinyana says referring to the 2,000 Kenyan shillings she gets every month. “Without love, commitment and God’s grace, one cannot do this kind of work.” Photograph by Monicah Njeri Mwangi

The 2014 Photo Camp Kenya was done in partnership with Internews, whose mission is to empower local media worldwide. Past Photo Camp projects with Internews include camps in Pakistan, Crimea, and Washington D.C. Learn more about Photo Camp here.


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