Thursday, November 6, 2014

Reimagining La Paz through Photos: Niñas San Gabriel Photo Exhibition

Reimagining La Paz through Photos: Niñas San Gabriel Photo Exhibition

This post is a personal reflection, by Aleja Taddesse, on the work contributed to the Niñas San Gabriel Photo Exhibition by Cohort 10.

The burden of expectation
It is fair to say that our arrival in La Paz had a few expectations weighing on it. For some of us, this related to what we did not expect as much as what we did - not expecting to encounter a cityscape complete with tall structures and morning traffic jams, or not expecting to see your favourite chocolate stocked in local supermarkets. For me, it was a surprise to hear perfect English reel off the tongues of my host family.
Our initial impressions of La Paz, and of Bolivia, seem a way behind us now. Five weeks into our project, it is overwhelmingly clear that our team is comprised of passionate and motivated individuals. Cohort 10’s Childhood and Youth Empowerment team consists of seven fantastic (at times diametrically opposed) people: Pizus, Alejandro, Maria-Renee, Toni, Evan, Penelope and me - Aleja. Between us, we have many reasons for being here - none greater than the desire to create meaningful impact together: one that can sustain itself and others with it.

Thrown in

With eleven weeks to conceptualise and enact exactly what kind of change we hope to foster, it was both an exhilarating and intimidating prospect to be thrown into the ongoing work of previous cohorts.
Awaiting us was the task of finalising the Niñas San Gabriel Photo Exhibition. Six months in the making, the exhibition was the brainchild of cohort 8, who successfully bid for a small grant of £200 to showcase the photography of Niñas San Gabriel.

(Note: Niñas San Gabriel is a local community organisation which has partnered with Childfund over the past twenty years to provide sponsorship and extracurricular activities for girls (and some boys) ranging from 3-20 years of age. It consists of two centres - Villa Fatima and Villa Copacabana. Penelope, Maria-Renee and I work with five groups across Villa Fatima and Villa Copacabana whilst Alejandro, Toni and Evan are working with two other partner centres. Although the children at these centres are sponsored by individual donors, they operate on an open-door basis which allows parents to apply for a place on their own initiative, and without having secured a sponsor).

The aim of the exhibition, apart from being a lot of fun, was to allow the young people at these centres to express their opinion through photography on vital aspects of La Paz - in this case, ‘the role of a woman in the community’.
Again, expectations seep in even when you do your best to remain open-minded. I remember inwardly questioning how effectively anyone could capture something so seemingly abstract and subjective.

Sitting down to view the photos and decide on those which would have a space, was tantamount to realising that this exhibition was about voice as much as it was about photography. Not knowing a great deal about photography was not the hindrance I imagined it to be - especially with avid photography lovers and artists on the team.
As we flicked through countless photos - one of a Cholita decidedly turned away from the camera, another of a boy gazing disarmingly head on at the photographer, I found myself wondering more about the person behind the lens. Why did they choose this shot? How formative have women been in their life? How do they feel about growing up as young women in La Paz?

Every stage of the way, I have found myself marvelling at how much input we as volunteers have had in something undoubtedly bigger than us. We have quickly discovered that our opinions are as diverse as our backgrounds, but I believe this has enhanced our ideas and challenged us to approach decision-making with rigour. From selecting the photos to be displayed, to visualising the interiors of the venue, we were compelled to make team decisions at every phase. To my mind, it was the inescapable quality and depth of the photos which helped these decisions along.
Of course, there were material goals to be met. The exhibition was intended to raise money for a digital camera for the girls at each centre to share. We surpassed our initial target of 900 Bs on the day and orders have been flowing in since, further testament to the brilliant work of the girls.

Reimagining La Paz

It is an indescribable feeling to tangibly witness such impact in the way we have been fortunate to. On the day of the exhibition, the girls and their families arrived in full force. The accumulation of six months’ work was evident, as was everyone’s excitement. Eager to get an outsider’s opinion, we stopped a lady who had come alone just as she was leaving. She had heard about the exhibition through the event poster, which Evan designed and together a few of us had stuck around the city. Her words reflected much of what had been said throughout the day. She was astounded by the quality and composition of the photography, and even more surprised to learn that the girls had just one photography workshop beforehand. Looking out onto the remaining observers, I reflected on how the photos had played a part in reshaping my imagination, and realising how much I can learn from others when limiting expectations are put to one side.

Far from being the end of the work achieved through this project, I believe the exhibition has opened up La Paz’s landscape - the voices, girls, boys, women, men and colours which make it up and the fact remains it will be revisited through these photos time and time again. 

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