Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Focus Exhibit in Kampala

Project FOCUS initially started with a photography project. In the summer of 2006, Daniel, Harish, and Aura traveled to Uganda with donated cameras and film and were lucky to have found FOCUS Uganda: The Mulago Child Development Project, who let us work with 16 of their students. In an attempt to portray the every day lives of a group of youth living in Kampala, the FOCUS Exhibit was developed. Through it, we were able to see the powerful effects of using art as a tool of expression to communicate unique and delicate stories to people who might not otherwise have chance to experience it. As we began to plan our return trip to Uganda to begin a similar project with another Community-Based Organization in a different region of Uganda, we were imagining ways that we could continue our collaboration with FOCUS. One idea was to bring the actual exhibit back to the youth who took the photographs and allow the students the opportunity to display their work for their own community. We arrived one year later with the photographs in digital form which made them easy to view, compare, and discuss. After the selection of the photographs, we worked alongside the staff and students of FOCUS to make the exhibit a fun and educational event.

We were very excited to be able to bring the photographs back to the youth, and to have the opportunity to show the students how well received their photographs had been in the United States. Unfortunately, the four “Response Banners” that were hung at all of the exhibits in the U.S., where people were able to write or draw their reactions to the photographs, were in luggage that never arrived in Uganda (we finally got them upon returning to Chicago!) Fortunately we were able to have a running slideshow of photographs that had been taken at The FOCUS Exhibit in Chicago. The photographs were able to capture the audience’s reaction to the art work. The students seemed very pleased to see a diverse group of American’s so intrigued by the stories that they told with their cameras.

Another element of the exhibit was a continuation of the Community Art Projects that we began last spring in Chicago. Everyone present at the exhibit was invited to participate in the mural painting, and be a part of the beautiful finished product.

Aside from the photography exhibit and the Community Art Project, there was also wonderful performances the Bitone Troupe, a youth group from Katanga Church, and the students of FOCUS. The entertainment certainly added energy to the day, and seemed to be thoroughly enjoyed by all.

While reflecting on the exhibit, as a group, we were trying to measure its success. As an organization, all of our projects aim to meet the three criteria that we have established: Educate, Inspire, and Empower. If all three are achieved to a relative degree, than we can consider a project or event successful. We assumed that because the exhibit had been a success in Chicago, that it would receive the same appreciation in Uganda. There was a sense of pride coming from the youth, their family members and local community leaders which speaks to the ability of such a project to empower a group of youth. However, it was difficult for us to gauge how much the audience actually learned from the experience. In an exhibit that displays their daily lives, their community, the streets they live on it, we wondered if the exhibit had provided them an opportunity to see their community through a different lens. The inspiration sparked from the exhibit is another concept that was difficult to measure. Project FOCUS can hope that the students, parents, and community leaders found inspiration in seeing that there are individuals across the world as well as in their own community who are committed to bringing change to their community through their youth. Project FOCUS members found inspiration in the photographs, the dancing, the music, and the smiles on everyone’s face as we came together as people from very different worlds and enjoyed the day.

The students and staff of the Mulago Child Development Project also spent time reflecting on the exhibit and sent us a formal evaluation. One very important point that was raised was the oversight of our group to assume that photography in Uganda is revered as an art form, and a tool for expression. It would have been helpful lead a class on photography before handing the students cameras and film with a very vague prompt. Another important observation made by some of the older participants was the inequality or “opportunity gap” that exists between the two worlds and that it is unfair that they are unable to travel to the US and give kids cameras so that they could experience life in the States. The evaluation suggests that “the kids are perceptive enough to locate that gap, and some kind of compensation should take place if the photo exhibition partnership is to continue into the future,” which could take the form of doing a very similar photo project here in the states and brining it to the students of FOCUS.

Not surprisingly, in our reflections of the overall event, we realized that we still have a lot to learn about immersing ourselves into a different culture, and we have to continuously reexamine our actions. Our collaboration with FOCUS has provided us with great teachers, so long as we continue to view ourselves as learners. Madelene, the most recent addition to Project FOCUS arrived in Uganda just one week prior to the Exhibit. In a reflection of the day (and her overall initial impressions of Uganda) she stated, “I am already infinitely impressed by the local Ugandans I have met who commit their time and energy to working with the youth. Their dedication inspires and humbles me. In working with Nelson, Ernest and Audrey (staff of the Mulago Child Development Project) to bring this exhibition to fruition, I was continually struck by the absolute necessity to develop positive collaborative relationships with community-based organizations like FOCUS.” We are fortunate to have met the leaders of FOCUS because they do not hesitate to give us honest and constructive criticism. We, admire their work and their individual characters. Their guidance to us as a young group has been necessary and deeply appreciated.

Originally, we wanted this exhibit to bring a sense of closure to the project so that we can begin focusing all of our energy to launching new projects in Lyantonde, Uganda. However, through discussions with the leaders of FOCUS Uganda, we realized that there is an immense amount of value in continuing the photography project in some capacity with the students of FOCUS. We are not sure exactly what shape it will take, but we are very excited and honored to strengthen our relationship with FOCUS Uganda both through future projects as well as viewing the staff of the Mulago Child Development Project as mentors and advisors.

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