I’d had my doubts: I have no qualifications in youth work, nor do I have years of filmmaking/photography experience. “’If you can’t – teach’… eh??” remarked some guy I met in London, the week before leaving – and I wondered if he was right. Maybe I was being totally irresponsible.
But – with a first full ‘participatory photo/video’ project behind me, with young people in Kazo, Uganda – I’m glad I stuck with my instincts. Of course, the doubts didn’t disappear (for a blow-by-blow account, see here) – but I know a few people learned something. As for me, here’s what I learned.
- Working with the right partner, though I didn’t know that till I’d arrived, of course: a growing organisation, led by someone who’s very supportive of people learning as much as possible and is open to new ideas, plus a keen (if small) group of participants.
- Bringing ideas (and material) for exercises – especially those I’d done myself as a trainee with Photovoice and Insightshare, but also from more conventional video/photo courses – but no fixed schedule till I arrived.
- Bringing cameras donated by friends in Europe. Everyone used my SLR (and it survived), but it was hugely useful to have a few cameras for people to experiment and do team exercises with, for the younger kids to use, and to leave behind after I left.
- Linking up with Ugandan contacts and organisations, including a photographer (and breakdancer) who offered to mentor the young guys if they were keen; and a filmmaker who gives free classes in the slums. Such role models, as we discussed – locals who have made this their profession, yet are still young and ‘cool’ enough to inspire a teenager – are really important.
- Small number of participants – despite having planned for a bigger group, smaller groups meant more hands-on camera time, plus time to get to know them and their individual strengths better (and soon being able trust them with the camera for the afternoon). The final 12-minute film we made was almost entirely shot and directed by the participants; after a shaky start, a sort of teamwork emerged.
- Taking charge of the planning – though they knew what to do, I found that if I wasn’t physically there (even just lurking in the background), filming didn’t happen. They needed a bit of a push to get going, and sometimes also the confidence to approach people to ask for help for locations and favours, etc.
- Filming around the village –this had the great advantage that – pulling in bystanders as extras – we ended up involving more people in the project than would’ve happened otherwise; by the time we finished, two newcomers had joined the youth group.
- Learning to be flexible – especially on timing – without giving up on the final objective. At some point – with no electricity and our main actor having disappeared – I wondered if we should give up. Some improvising and compromising is worth it if it means you achieve what you promised. Also being flexible enough with your own workload: in my case, my boss kept coming back to me with new requests for help, but mostly I managed to fit it in.
- Showing off their work – exhibiting their photos (even if it means sticking them up – with surgical tape – on the backs of schoolbook covers for just an afternoon), and screening the film (even if it’s on my laptop in a dark classroom to 20 people) – in other words, leaving them with something tangible, and giving them a chance to feel proud.
So, that was the easy bit. Now for what didn’t work; or let’s say, what I’d do differently next time:
- More experimenting/exploration – give them more time to discover what they wanted to photograph, and perhaps less critique of the work they bring back. (The doctivist course I did in Tanzania had us make and show video diaries every week, a great way to explore one’s ‘voice’, but means being able to send participants home with a camera each evening.)
- Find a way to manage ‘fluid’ participation – young people always have other commitments; you have to take that into account; but it took me a while to realise that often people just told me what I wanted to hear (‘tomorrow, there’ll be 15 or 20 people for sure…’). Plan activities that will work for both large and small groups, or even one-to-one. Above all, plan some easy-to-join activities that will work if people come and go throughout the month.
- Prepare for sometimes difficult circumstances – i.e. no classroom or quiet space to work in, no desks, no power supply and many days of power cuts. Think up some activities that work without power (??) or at least that don’t use up batteries too much.
- Don’t underestimate the energy needed to adapt to and live within a different environment – at times, the overall weariness with being the outsider/the white person and all that it entails, plus the basic living conditions – as pathetic as it sounds – affected my motivation at work.
- Push for a bit more formality – even with small groups, lax timing and informal settings, I could have insisted on a bit more structure e.g. keeping track of what’s been learned, doing feedback exercises, etc.
- Spend more time on content – people are more excited about actually using the cameras, but I could spent more time on discussing themes and ideas before jumping into the script.
- Less focus on the final film – it was long, which meant we ended up rushing through scenes, but above all, it meant that all my energy went to making sure we would get it finished before I left – whereas I could have continued with some smaller exercises with other participants.
- Try to schedule in one-to-one time with each person – most people I met had something they wanted help with: setting up a website, sending a CV, learning editing, etc.; in an ideal world, you manage all of that (if the electricity supply obliges).
- Make the final screening/exhibition more formal – and think about this when budgeting (e.g. we could have hired a projector, had some drinks etc.), and schedule it properly (we ended up showing it only after a long teachers’ meeting had finished, when people were tired).
- Don’t overlook transferring of files – I did a lot of filming for the organisation alongside the workshops, and hadn’t thought about how to transfer them – with no external hard drive/CD drive, this was a bit of a headache on the last day/evening.
- Be aware of the impact of leaving cameras behind – I left two cameras to the organisation. But I also gave one to one of the young guys who I felt would get most use from it, which apparently caused some tension.
- Think about what’s next (before the last day). Where do they – and I – want to go from here? Can I find someone to do a follow-up workshop with them, and what kind of person should that be?
Above left: the ‘exhibition’; right: lots of sunglasses-based photos