Lana Wong

Posted by on Nov 30, 2009 in Inspired by Dan
From the Epilogue of Shootback
By Lana Wong

Every time it rains in Nairobi, especially during the rainy season when the sky unleashes enough water for a small sea, I think of my friends in the slums around the edge of town. Trying to avoid the litter, sewage and shards of glass scattered across the slum paths is hard enough in the day. “Try it in the dark, in the rain, and without shoes,” my friend Kim once said to me with a grin as we leapt across a blocked drainage pit.

Most of y friends in Mathare, Nairobi’s largest and poorest slum, survive without many of the things I take for grated. They do not have toilets, running water, electricity or a good pair of shoes. Working people I the slum are lucky if they earn sixty Kenyan shillings (roughly one US dollar) a day. Crammed into one-room shacks with sheets hanging from the ceiling as room dividers, families are large, with five to ten children. Single mothers run the majority of households. Many fathers have left or died, perhaps from AIDS or one of the other illnesses that plague the slum.

This is the Nairobi most tourists do not see. Many local Kenyans, expatriates and wazungus (white people) do not see these areas either, because the slums are no-go zones. The only stories they hear about “notorious Mathare” involve violence, drugs, and prostitution. Most are told or written by outsiders. But as the kids’ photographs in this book s how, this is not the whole story.

As a photographer, I have always struggled with issues of access, ownership and subjectivity within the documentary tradition. My reason for first visiting Mathare was a freelance job: an assignment to photograph a youth group which is also Africa’s largest youth football league—the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA). Just off of Juja Road, the main artery that links the vast Mathare slums to downtown Nairobi, I met a group of kids playing soccer with balls made of plastic bags, waste papers and string. They were obsessed with football and aspired to be the Ronaldos of the future. Football could be their way out.

I started hanging out with these kids, watching young boys and girls play football barefoot on dusty pitches covered with rubbish and stones. I photographed their weekly community clean-ups and listened to their peer counselors tell friends about the dangers of drugs and AIDS. I was struck by the quiet strength and hope of these kids w ho, despite dire living conditions, dreamed of becoming football stars, lawyers and doctors.

The promise of these kids inspired me to follow the lead of photographers like Jim Hubbard (founder of the Shooting Back Center in California), Wendy Ewald, and Nancy McGuirre, all of whom have demonstrated photography’s power with disadvantaged young people around the world. Their work has shown that kids have vivid and important stories to tell, and cameras are dynamic tools for this expression. I hoped to teach the MYSA footballers a new skill: shooting with cameras. Thirty-one kids who had never touched cameras before were given basic 35mm point-and-shoots and a roll of film per week. Some had never even heard of the word “photography.”

In September 1997, Francis Kimanzi—aka “Kim,” a NYSA youth leader and top striker on Mathare United the professional slum football team—began working with me to teach photography and writing skills to a group of boys and girls, aged 12 to 17, selected from the MYSA youth teams. During our weekly sessions at the MYSA office, we watched shy kids bewildered by these strange plastic machines transform into confident young photographers, emboldened by their new talent and the attention their pictures have generated in Kenya and abroad.

Throughout this process, the Shootback Team has repeatedly humbled me with their vision and perspectives. Although I have spent three years working in Mathare, the intimate insight that these youths have on their lives is something I cannot replicate. Collins Omondi, a wry 17-year old, expressed it well when he wrote in his Shootback project journal, “There is no difference between us and other photographers. The only difference is that they shoot and shoot back.”

Lana Wong
April 1999, Nairobi

Lana writes to say: “MYSA Shootback is still going on and has just received new funding from the Ford Foundation. The current MYSA youth leader in charge of the project is Francis Mutuku. There are plans to train more young photographers, improve writing skills and to start a darkroom in the slum.

As for me: I am currently based in Paris working on personal photography projects, and my title as ‘Mama Shootback’ has been reinforced by the fact that I now have a 2 year-old son, with another boy on the way in June. Thanks to email and the improving internet skills of Shootback members, I have maintained good contact with various kids and have been advising the project from afar when possible.

The project is still generating income through sales of the Shootback book and through fees from usage rights for the youths’ photographs. We are still looking for venues for the Shootback exhibition, and I hope to eventually get the exhibition shown here in Paris.”