To say I’ve learned a lot from my time in Kenya would be quite an understatement. From the moment I arrived, it’s been full of learning- about myself, about these kids, about culture, and about, well, everything else in life. And not that I learn from and about these kids better than other people do, but I do think I get a unique perspective of learning that not everyone else does.
You see, my job here is to watch these kids closely, literally. As a photojournalist for MITS, it is my duty to keep my eyes glued to the kids waiting to capture that special moment. While other visitors teach classes, organize game days, etc., I am here, from a job perspective, primarily, to simply pay attention.
Now, I want to clarify something before I continue. Being a photojournalist is extremely different than being a photographer, and that’s honestly taken quite a process for me to learn. You see, as a photographer back in the States, all of my photos are about me creating. I frame a landscape the exact way I want to. I pose a model precisely as I’ve envisioned. And all of this is to create something in my mind that, in some ways, did not exist beforehand. It’s all about creating. Here, being a photojournalist, it’s totally different. My job isn’t to set up a beautiful landscape shot. My job isn’t to pose these kids in some sort of way. My job is to witness, to document, and to capture these kids in their everyday lives in the most natural and accurate way possible. And from that, I see what they see. I learn their habits. I understand their personalities better without even having to say a word.
So, because of that, here’s just a few things, some serious and some not so much, that I’ve learned along the way:
1.) Kenyans don’t mess around on birthdays. Kenyans have a tradition of “washing” you on your birthday. At first, this doesn’t sound so bad. Everyone loves a good shower right? Well, these kids will literally put mud and stones in water solely to throw all over you. Because of this, only in Kenya would it make sense to lock yourself in your room and have no contact with anyone on your birthday.
2.) Fist bumps are for EVERYONE. No seriously, it’s amazing. Toddlers, teens, adults, even the elderly! In Kenya, it’s completely normal for a 70 year old woman to walk into the room and give you a fist bump. America needs to catch on.
3.) When kids find a song they love, they will listen to that song, and that song only for the rest of eternity. This photo was taken while the kids were listening to Hotline Bling for the 7th time in a row.
4.) Always accept a free ride. Here, we walk just about everywhere. So, when your prayers are answered and a truck drives by, even if you have never met the person who is driving the truck, you hop on the back and enjoy the heck out of that joyride.
5.) These kids have dreams. Every kid I talk to, no matter what background he came from, has this amazing dream that they want to pursue. And when I say these kids have dreams, I mean big dreams. They were all once street kids who the rest of the world viewed as impossible cases. So, let’s just say that the word impossible doesn’t mean a whole lot to them.
6.) Every Kenyan is ripped. It’s hilarious, annoying, and extremely impressive. This kid pictured, who will go unnamed, constantly complains about how he’s gotten fat and has a belly now (and he’s being completely serious when he says that….)
7.) God has given superpowers to Kenyan hands. They’ll pick up a pan with their bare hands off the stove. I’ve seen an elderly woman pick up a hot coal off of a fire, hold it in her hands, and then look at me and just laugh. And I’m over here struggling to hold my coffee mug without getting burned…
8.) Swag is everything. Or, as they say here- looking “smart.” Constantly changing hairstyles, crazy glasses, and literally anything they can do to look swag, these kids will do.
9.) Everyone has a signature pose. When a kid asks for a picture, 9 times out of 10, they will do the exact same pose they always do. There’s beauty in being dedicated to your craft.
10.) Don’t be afraid to get your hands, or uniforms, dirty. These kids will draw on their uniforms, work in the farm in them, play basketball in them, and even dive into a field to crawl their way to tackle a sheep in them. True story.
11.) Don’t give out of wealth, but give out of compassion. These kids, even the ones still on the streets, share more than anyone I’ve ever met. Kids who may not have money to buy dinner will be the first one to split a snack 5 different ways if it’ll help feed their friends as well. They don’t wait until they have a lot to start sharing and giving. They do it whenever they get the chance, no matter how little or how much they have.
12.) All for one, one for all. Nothing is done alone. Everything is done together. Maybe it’s because they learned to survive on the streets by relying on each other, but these kids never leave each other. It’s very rare to see one hanging out by himself. They stay in their packs. Their friendships are tighter than almost anything. So, if I invite one kid to play basketball with me, ten will show up. Because you don’t break up the squad.
13.) Kenyans have the best smiles. Even these kids who currently live on the streets and almost never brush their teeth have the whitest smiles. Like, would you look at the grill on this kid? Dang. *currently fighting the urge to stop brushing my teeth for a month to see if it’ll make my teeth look like this*
14.) Entertainment can be found in anything. Rodgers here decided he’d break a pen to put all the blue ink in his mouth so he’d have a blue smile, just for kicks and giggles.
by Hillary Sturgeon
For years, photography has been an interest of mine. Though in this day and age everyone is capable of being a photographer with the newest iPhone, I still find solace through the comfort of my camera and the artistic expression in photography. It has been a personal joy and deeply personal for me as a way to connect with others and the world around me.
For this reason, I have struggled to understand how I might use my photography to help others. I knew how taking pictures at Made in the Streets would help the organization as a whole, but until I got here I was lost on how I could use this talent to specifically help the students at MITS.
I had to take a look at the way pictures have influenced my own life.
In order to figure out how pictures can improve the lives of these former street kids, I had to take a look at the way pictures have influenced my own life. I thought about the vast number of times I have grabbed the boxes of pictures at home and spent hours perusing the old photos, thinking about the stories, trips, and adventures that inspired the moments in them. I thought about how my photos of friends and family were the first things I put on my walls when I got to college. Pictures have helped me remember the moments throughout my life and have helped me connect with family and friends even when they have seemed far away.
Now my experiences with photos revolve around the students here at MITS. One of my distinct memories from my first trip to Kamulu was of how much the students loved to have their pictures taken. The girls tend to have a full photo shoot, complete with all of their friends and various poses, while the boys stare at the camera and attempt to look as cool as possible. They like to take my phone to look through ALL of my pictures, and they absolutely love when visitors send printed copies of photos from their trips.
Despite absolutely loving photography and pictures, however, I can’t help but become frustrated when the kids are constantly asking to look through my albums, or ask me to “take me photo” every time I have my camera out. It becomes hard to not draw attention and easy to become a distraction. When I become frustrated, I start to think of myself and about how much of an inconvenience it is for me. In times like this, I forget who I am here for.
In the end, I am in Kenya for every child here at MITS. I have come to realize that these kids love pictures for all the same reasons I do. Their lives have most likely never been documented before coming to MITS, and now they are taking every chance they can get to seal every good moment in time. I often forget that these are some of the first visual representations of their lives they have ever seen and it is exciting for them. Finally they are able to remember their stories in a way they were unable to in the past, and see the way their lives have changed for the better since they arrived at MITS.
Now when I think about the way photography can be used to support these kids, I think of their beautiful smiles on the other side of my lens and of their excitement when they show me the photos proudly displayed in their rooms. With this mindset, the most important part of my job becomes remembering to keep an eye out for the important moments in each student’s life and capturing them. All of a sudden, a personal joy of mine, something that seemed so private and intimate, is transformed into something I can share with these students to bring joy to their lives, and that is more than I could have ever asked for.
When you do this for 20 years, you're bound to pick up a few stories and lessons along the way. Thoughts, impressions, news, and highlights from our staff, visitors, donors, students and alumni.