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Africans see themselves through an African lens

Photojournalist Robertson Bales spent years documenting development projects in Southeast Asia and South America — but his latest venture…

Photojournalist Robertson Bales spent years documenting development projects in Southeast Asia and South America — but his latest venture involves putting cameras into the hands of young Africans.

“I’m looking for a small group of maybe six to eight youth,” said Bales on Monday.

“I’ll teach them very basic photography skills — then I’ll get them to go out and shoot their own stories. It’s important to see things from their perspective —I mean, who am I to go over there and document this with my eyes, I want to see it through their eyes.”

Bales leaves for Zambia on February 7th, and he’s seeking donations of used point-and-shoot film cameras to take with him for the project.

Getting fledgling photographers to document their own communities is just one part of Bales’ plan. He hasn’t hung up his own cameras yet — he’s working on a photo documentary about grassroots African efforts of dealing with the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“I want to emphasize the positive things that people are doing over there, the grassroots organizations,” he said. “All people seem to hear about in Canada is the bad things, as soon as they hear Africa, they think what a basket case it is.”

Changing people’s perceptions of Africa is what it’s all about, and this can be a tough sell to people fatigued by horrific images and stories.

“A lot of the stuff in the media, in terms of statistics, is true. There are whole communities of orphans, with no one between the ages of 18 and 40.

“Death and destruction sells, it sells newspapers, that’s what gets people’s attention — I think we know that,” said Bales. “But there are also a lot of very positive things happening, with local non-profits and NGOs — that’s what I want to focus on.”

He got a glimpse of the subject during a three-week trip to Zambia in 2005, which resulted in an exhibition displayed at the Chocolate Claim in 2006.

But Bales needed more time to tell the stories he wants to tell.

“The last time I was there I was travelling with a group of seven or eight other people, and it was just too short,” he said.

“Focusing on HIV/AIDS is a very sensitive issue, lots of stigma, working in photography, and getting people’s stories — you cannot travel in a group and do that.

“You’ve got to do it on your own, spend time in the communities, build up a relationship, a trust with people. Then you start asking questions and taking pictures.”

He added he’s had his fill of parachuting into traumatized places, and getting out just as quickly.

This time, Bales plans on staying for six weeks, but he knows when to let the current carry him away.

“The last time I went on something like this, I was planning on 10 months and it turned into six years, so we’ll see what happens,” he said with a chuckle.

Joining Bales is fellow Yukoner Tracey Wallace, a veteran of several years of development work in Swaziland and South Africa.

“We all know how Africans die, but we don’t know how they live,” said Wallace, quoting Swedish writer Henning Mankell. “That was the feeling we had behind this project.”

With the assistance of the Victorian International Development Education Association the pair is hoping to build on relationships established between Yukon schools and African projects established during Bales’ previous trip in 2005.

“We’d like to get schools here, if we can, to do their own photography documentary — we’ll take them to Africa with us, and bring back the documentary the kids in Africa make. An exchange between kids, really,” said Wallace, adding that Golden Horn Elementary School has expressed interest in the project.

With a bit more time to dig in, Bales and Wallace have plans to work on a few stories outside of the school project — a community in northern Botswana dealing with HIV/AIDS where a colleague of Wallace’s is working, and the story of a Zambian student’s struggle to get a university education.

“I met James Kapela, an exceptional student who wanted to go to university but didn’t have the means, when I was in Zambia in 2005,” said Bales, who exchanged addresses with Kapela.

His community rallied around him, enough to finish high school, but the cost of post-secondary was beyond them.

“I managed to find a family in Toronto to sponsor him for university — we found out only three days ago that he was accepted, and will be starting at the University of Lusaka in two weeks,” said Bales.

He added that there are tens of thousands of young people in similar situations.

“We looked and looked for funding or scholarships, and there’s absolutely nothing,” he said.

“A number of organizations will pay for primary or secondary education, but after that there’s nothing available.”

Good news stories like this, that illustrate the need for continued support, are a key way for people to combat donation burnout, and fatigue.

“I think if you can pinpoint something about the project, or about the people you’re working with, that you know will make the slightest amount of difference, then you can keep going,” said Wallace, when asked about the struggle of working in international development.

“We want to celebrate the things African people are doing,” she said.

Anyone interested in participating in the school photography project, or anyone with an old point-and-shoot film camera to donate can contact Robertson Bales at or Tracey Wallace at