Skip to comments.Eyes Wide Open
Posted on 03/06/2002 8:05:42 AM PST by Cincinatus' Wife
With cameras around their necks and a mandate to photograph whatever intrigued them, they went off for two weeks to document life in South Africa from their perspective--that of 8- to 16-year-old urban Los Angeles kids.
They came home with stunning images--of AIDS orphans, the homeless, anti-American protesters, abject poverty. Not the stuff of tourist brochures. They came home, too, with a renewed appreciation for what they have and how they live--and a surprisingly mature take on excessive consumerism and the shallowness of looking good and wearing the right labels.
The six youngsters were among 7,000 delegates from 166 countries at the Third World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in August and September in Durban, a seaport on the east coast of South Africa. Now they are sharing what they learned and saw by participating in community photo exhibits and school programs.
The Los Angeles kids, chosen for their photographic skills and their ability to work with others, represented the Venice Arts Mecca, a nonprofit organization that brings volunteer artists together with youngsters from low-income families to nurture their creativity in areas ranging from literary arts to photography.
They looked. They listened. They photographed. And they took notes for their journals.
I interviewed a guy from Sri Lanka. His name was King Ratnaw. He was with the Young Asia Television. He is in the minority community, so they get kicked around a lot. In his country, kids don't fight with words, they fight with guns. Eamon Wright, 13, Lincoln Middle School, Santa Monica
Before embarking on their adventure, the kids--who were joined by two young people from Washington, D.C., and accompanied by adult mentors--studied the sociopolitical history of South Africa, including apartheid. All were Latino or African American or a mix of the two, and were encouraged to think about their own identity, their own experiences with racism.
One of my favorite parts was when we saw an albino. All the black people (Zulu dancers at the opening ceremony) were letting him in the group. They weren't leaving him out.
--Rae Wright, 8, Canyon Elementary School, Pacific Palisades
At the conference exhibit hall, the L.A. kids mounted a photo exhibition showing the underbelly of America. There were bleak images of life on an Indian reservation, of the homeless in Los Angeles. It was an eye-opener to some South Africans, who thought everyone in America was rich. "They were absolutely shocked," said Lynn Warshafsky, executive director of Venice Arts Mecca
In turn, the L.A. group was surprised at the degree of anti-American sentiment, something they had to process. "They had to ask themselves questions they'd never asked before" about how others see them, Warshafsky said.
I am a very lucky kid. I have a nice house and a good family. What else could a kid want?
--Michael Linarte, 11, Coeur D'Alene Elementary School, Venice
An exhibition of their photographs will open Thursday at Los Angeles City Hall in the rotunda adjacent to the council chambers. Another exhibition is planned at the Social Public Art Resource Center in Venice in late April. The Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, primary funder of the trip, is printing a catalog of the South Africa photographs together with L.A. images--among these Skid Row, a Culver City mosque, Chinatown--shot by the six and others who have since joined the project. It will have limited distribution in late April.
The concept behind the trip and the subsequent exhibits, said Warshafsky, was "not only to educate this small group of kids, but to bring that back to create dialogue." Through school assemblies and workshops, they "will help others explore issues of community."
They returned home shortly before Sept. 11. For some, the terrorist attacks put the trip in focus because they had seen firsthand evidence of anti-American passions. On their return, they were dismayed by the lack of interest shown by schoolmates in their South African adventure. But after Sept. 11, with renewed classroom emphasis on current events, they saw that change somewhat.
I said, "Guess where I went--South Africa," and they said, "So?" Now they're finally interested. "You went to South Africa? That's really cool." Still, they can't show how interested they really are because they're afraid what other people will think of them.
For Delisa Alejandra, 13, the most abiding memory of the trip was a visit to an open market and "how they chopped up (livestock)in front of everybody." Delisa was amused when people "asked us what we were. They didn't know we were Mexican. They were like, 'What?' and surprised to learn (we)were not Black."
For Eamon, the highlight was hearing Fidel Castro speak. "I had thought of him as seriously evil. I realized he's not evil, he's doing what he thinks is best. He has this sort of demeanor about him. Whether you like him or not, you respect him. It opened my eyes."
Security was tight at the conference site--lots of barbed wire and soldiers with assault rifles and machine guns. Michael remembers "when the riot control people let us into their armored vehicle. It was kind of cool. They were really nice."
He recalls, too, being caught up in a heated argument that broke out among a Palestinian, a Hasidic rabbi and a Holocaust survivor from Israel.
Justin Hill, 16, a student at Westside Leadership Magnet School in Marina del Rey, also walked into that conflict and introduced himself to a Hasidic Jew. "He told me his group is against Zionism, which means he's against the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Then an Israeli woman sort of pushed me to the side and called him a traitor, and said it was his parents and grandparents who were killed by Hitler."
One early afternoon, the group happened upon a men's drinking party in a garage in a Zulu township. The Americans were astonished when one of the men came forward and asked, "Why isn't Colin Powell coming--because he doesn't want to come or George Bush doesn't want him to come?" (President Bush did not send the first African American secretary of state, even though Powell had said he wanted to go.) Fielding the question were Justin Hill and mentor-chaperon Tom Wright, father of Rae and Eamon.
"We were trying to say it wasn't his decision to make, that he was appointed by Bush. We talked about that for a long time."
In Kwa-Mashu township, the L.A. youngsters partnered with young South Africans, tutoring them in photography. Selena Vargas, 17, a student at Venice Skills Center, partnered with a young woman named Sia. She took Selena with her to a friend's wedding. It was a bittersweet occasion. The bride's father had died just days before but, in keeping with Zulu custom, the wedding went on.
For all, the visit to the Ark, a homeless shelter in a township near Durban, which also cares for AIDS patients, was a riveting and sobering experience.
They had two AIDS rooms and one sick room. The smell was so intense, 10 times worse than on Skid Row. I saw a lady who'd had both of her legs amputated.
Delisa Alejandra, St. Anne's School, Santa Monica
Eamon described it as "really shocking. People had been swept off the streets just for the conference and would be kicked out of the place after it was over. There were kids that were just months old."
In the middle of "all this weird darkness," he saw a kitten playing with a ball of yarn. "After all this gloom and sadness, there was a good side."
The young photographers were surprised at how polite everyone was to them as they traveled from township to township. Once, they stopped to ask directions to their bed-and-breakfast inn, and strangers spent half an hour directing them there. "If you asked in L.A.," said Delisa, "they'd give you wrong directions."
But they also came home with impressions of a different kind. They saw drugs being sold openly on the streets. And there was what Delisa calls "the bathroom incident. A guy tried to touch me. He was old and ugly and he was touching my thigh."
She learned how young girls are being raped by HIV-positive Zulu men, who "think if they have intercourse with a virgin, (the virus)will go away."
The young Angelenos were surprised at how, thanks largely to the Internet, most South Africans are up to date on what's going on in the world--in sharp contrast, they noted, to many of their self-absorbed schoolmates at home.
Delisa said the trip "opened my eyes to how much the United States has. We overdo it and we buy stuff we don't need." It brought home to Rae that "we're not the only people in the world."
Selena said, "I don't take anything for granted anymore. You see so many people struggling. Everything they've gone through, I don't think we could go through over here."
The kids have been invited back to Kwa-Mashu township in December, and Venice Arts Mecca leaders hope to raise the funds to send a group. They are also exploring the possibility of having a performing arts group from Kwa-Mashu come here.
Human Relations Commission project director Michelle Marsh, who was on the trip, said of the young ambassadors, "Going to South Africa almost made them more American. They were not seen as what they're labeled as here," Latino or African American or whatever. "There's no stigma."
The commission paid about half of the $27,000 cost of the trip, with the rest being made up through fund-raisers and grants. It does not look at the trip as a single event, Marsh said, but as the starting point for a yearlong program.
"They will have this rich, rich wealth of a journey that they will savor and treasure the rest of their lives," said Warshafsky. "And now they have a thirst for it."
Cuban President Fidel Castro speaks on TV, March 5, 2002. Castro commented on the scandal around the Mexican embassy in Havana, stormed last week by a group of 21 Cubans in a hijacked bus. The men were later expelled by authorities. REUTER
The longer the FReepathon lasts, the longer you'll see me! Oh the horror! Donate now. Do it 'for the children.'
Did Castro show them any glossy brochures of his Homosexual Prison Farms?
Nice U.S. ambassadors.
Pacific Palisades (cheapest house: $550,000), Venice (cheapest house: $339,000), Marina del Rey (cheapest house: $425,000), Santa Monica (cheapest house $320,000), etc.
It seems to me that the kids went through a healthy amount of brainwashing before they started the trip, and the trip was carefully arranged to emphasize what they'd already been told.
If it made them more interested in the world around them and more involved, it might have been worth it. I thought their encounter with their fellow kids after they returned was interesting - most of them weren't curious, or wanted to be "cool" by not admitting curiosity, and I think that's a darn shame.
I'm still distinctly uncomfortable with the brainwashing.
So am I.
Can't read. Can't write.
Can make photo documentaries.
Somewhere Steve Jobs is smiling.
Everywhere, home school parents are saying, "Thank God we got out!"
Photography can be highly emotional, and that reinforces this kind of message, even if it's wrong. Perhaps especially if it is.
And I say this as an avid hobby photographer.
I'd like to think these students are getting some historical and political balance in school but I know that isn't happening.
In order to use computers even passably well, you have to be pretty good at reading and writing. You can't understand video editing software if you don't know how to read. And you can't produce a compelling film if you can't write the script.
Even still photography is a lot more than pressing a button, and to understand why and what it is, you need to be able to read.
David H Dennis is a hobby photographer and video producer/director/editor.
I agree with everything you said.
BUT -- The whole modern trend in computing is to use icons rather than text. Kids just have to know which pretty button to press, and in which order. And usually there's some oh-so-compassionate grad student near enough to tell them that. And, rather than needing to use the computer "passably well," these days all most kids do (in my experience) is plug stuff into slots of this or that template that some graphic artist put together for this or that software program. Perhaps I'm just cynical.
Speaking of photography, however -- if I can get off topic for just an instant -- I just read this book --
It is now easier than ever to do things badly. But if you aspire to greatness, you have to break the mould and do most things yourself. Problem is that most people aspire to no more than mediocrity.
I've gotten some great sunset pictures with my Canon EOS D30 digital SLR (the digital camera to get if you want to control exposure yourself - controls are fantastic, but of course it was back-breakingly expensive). I'll have to send you a link when I put 'em up on the web. I'm no Ansel Adams, but some of them look just plain cool.
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