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The Umoja Photographers

The youth of Ukerewe find a new view

Story by Standing Voice July 31st, 2017

Photography: at once an art form and a profession; a livelihood but also a way of capturing the world, of exploring, defining and exchanging perspectives. For people with albinism in Tanzania -- marginalised and brutalised for the colour of their skin -- economic security can be hard to find. Rarer still are opportunities to assert their voices, or express their interaction with the world through creativity.

Credit: Imogen Freeland
Credit: Imogen Freeland
Credit: Imogen Freeland
Credit: Imogen Freeland

During the Summer Skills Workshop, Standing Voice introduced photography to give the community a platform for viewing and documenting the world around them. Aspiring photographers, with and without albinism, came together under the instruction of British photographers Imogen Freeland and Brain Benson. Imogen had previously travelled to Tanzania to volunteer with Standing Voice, but Brian’s journey into this issue had only just begun, after he encountered our work in the recent BBC documentary Born Too White. Together, Brian’s background in event and studio photography and Imogen’s catalogue of conceptual portraiture were a perfect match: in Brian’s words, their “very different approaches to photography” meant they could “complement each other’s strengths”.

Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Imogen Freeland
Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Imogen Freeland

From the very beginning, Imogen and Brian set ambitious targets for their students. Armed with second-hand cameras and printers purchased through crowdfunding in the UK, the group spent the first day learning the basics of how to use a camera. The students used paper viewfinders to learn how to frame a photo, experimenting with distance, perspective, and different compositions. From there, progress came quickly. Climbing aboard a bright yellow school bus, with translator Yohanna on hand to lead frequent singalongs, the budding photographers set about exploring their island in search of the perfect shot.

Credit: Imogen Freeland

With each day, the confidence of the students grew. Their curiosity and desire to learn shone through in every lesson, as they inundated Imogen and Brian with question after question. Soon, they came to see their weeklong workshop as the first step on a much longer professional and personal journey.

Credit: Imogen Freeland
Credit: Imogen Freeland
Credit: Imogen Freeland
Credit: Imogen Freeland
"It didn’t take long to realise our students were fast becoming Ukerewe’s only photographers. It was incredible to see so much natural talent emerging." Imogen
Credit: Imogen Freeland
Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Imogen Freeland
Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Imogen Freeland

One of the most striking aspects of the workshop was its inclusivity: people with albinism and their peers united in a common endeavour, supporting one another to learn and improve. This bond of solidarity was poignantly captured in the name students gave to their group: the Umoja Photographers—meaning, in English, ‘oneness’ or ‘unity’.

Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Brian Benson
"The breadth and incisiveness of their work was astonishing. These weren't just snapshots scratching the surface. Through their personal projects, participants went deep into communities to capture Ukerewe life, telling stories with their cameras." Harry Freeland

A SAMPLE OF WORK BY THE UMOJA PHOTOGRAPHERS, EXHIBITED AT THE UMOJA TRAINING CENTRE ON INTERNATIONAL ALBINISM AWARENESS DAY 2017:

Credit: The Umoja Photographers
Credit: The Umoja Photographers
Credit: The Umoja Photographers
Credit: The Umoja Photographers
“The Standing Voice team were incredibly accommodating and friendly. The entire trip was well organised, and we were given all the support we could possibly have needed, including brilliant translators.” Imogen
“The week was perfectly planned. The beauty of the centre, the professionalism of the Standing Voice team, and our own rapport with the participants fostered excellent results.” Brian
Credit: The Umoja Photographers
Credit: The Umoja Photographers
Credit: The Umoja Photographers
"The last day of the project coincided with International Albinism Awareness Day. To my delight, the first thing our students did when they arrived was to come to me and ask for the cameras. They spent the rest of the day photographing the celebrations like it was their first commission!" Brian

Looking back, both Brian and Imogen wax lyrical about the enthusiasm and dedication their students showed in (and beyond) those lessons. Plans are afoot to help the Umoja Photographers achieve new heights, including using the Umoja Training Centre as an operating base and exhibition space. Already, the group is preparing to launch a passport photography business on the island, pursuing career paths that will change the view of people with albinism forever.

Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Imogen Freeland
Credit: Brian Benson
"Ukerewe couldn’t be more remote, yet our students' drive to learn and transform their careers left a profound impression on me." Brian
Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Brian Benson
“Our students were wonderfully enthusiastic, determined and grateful to learn. It was utterly awe-inspiring to watch such a marginalised group of people use photography to work so closely together with their communities, finding the courage to talk to locals, taking portraits and exploring areas of their own island that they had never visited before.” Imogen
Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Brian Benson
Credit: Imogen Freeland
Credit: Brian Benson

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Footnote: Cover image credited to Imogen Freeland
Ukerewe Island, Ukerewe, Mwanza Region, Tanzania
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