• January 12, 2015

Peacebuilding With Cameras in South Sudan

Alexa Keefe

Can a camera be a tool for peacebuilding? And can change begin with something as small as a group of students coming together to take pictures not of what separates them but of what bonds them as human beings—simple things like the dawn, kids on a playground, or a sports tournament?

Picture of a woman vendor at the Juba Customs Market in South Sudan
A woman vendor at the Juba Customs Market
Photograph by Stella Poni Gaudensio

This past September, these questions were put into practice in South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, which has been embroiled in bitter ethnic conflict since December 2013. National Geographic Photo Camp, in partnership with Internews, put cameras in the hands of 20 communications students at the University of Juba. Equal numbers of men and women, representing a cross-section of tribes, spent six days with National Geographic photographers learning how to become visual storytellers.

Picture of a man smoking a cigarette at Juba University in South Sudan
A portrait taken at Juba University
Duku Stephen Savio

“Living closely together for five days, we didn’t have misunderstandings or fight,” wrote one student following the camp. “I think this sends a big message out there that we’re South Sudanese, and no matter what, we can live together as one people.”

Picture of athletes training for a kickboxing tournament
Athletes train for a kickboxing tournament at an organization focusing on bringing members of different ethnic groups together around the sport.
Photograph by Mabil Dau Mabil

The biggest challenge, it turned out, was not with interpersonal dynamics but with something we take for granted in Western democracies—being able to photograph freely in public. “It is very hard to photograph in South Sudan … between the paranoia of the people and the absolute rejection of photography by the security forces and the [government] officials,” says Ed Kashi, one of the National Geographic photographers on the trip.

The group was under security protection, and their movements were closely monitored. With the exception of a road outside of town that they visited to photograph the sunrise (and to which they were restricted to a quarter-mile strip) and trips to the local market, most of the situations were in closed environments. Even then, each place required extensive advance work to get permission. “You don’t just drive around Juba,” explains Ross Goldberg, another member of the National Geographic team.

Picture of a girl playing dress-up at an orphanage in Juba, South Sudan
Girls at the Confident Children Out of Conflict orphanage in Juba, South Sudan, put on a fashion show.
Photograph by Dotjang Agany Awer
Picture of a young boy in an orphanage in South Sudan
A young boy is comforted by a volunteer soon after his arrival at the Confident Children Out of Conflict orphanage in Juba, South Sudan.
Photograph by Achol Kur Marial
Picture of young girls at an orphanage in South Sudan showing off their rainbow loom bracelets
Girls at the Confident Children Out of Conflict orphanage show off rainbow loom bracelets that they made to sell at the local market. “South Sudan is not a war zone,” photographer Catherine Simon says. “Through the camera we can see the life there.”
Photograph by Catherine Simon Arona Samuel

One particularly tense situation unfolded in an IDP (Internally Displaced People) camp, where Kashi had taken his team of students to photograph. The camp mainly housed members of the Nuer tribe and essentially served the purpose of both protecting them and preventing them from entering the surrounding enemy territory, Kashi explains. As the group was leaving after the first day of shooting, they were confronted by several young men, angry with them for taking pictures and accusing them of working for the government. The team ended up being escorted out under armed UN guard, and, to keep the peace, had to delete their photographs.

“In some ways it starts to feel heartbreaking when these moments happen. It’s such a disconnect of intention, motivation, and perception,” Kashi says of the experience, which for him speaks to the rawness of the situation in the country. The students handled it beautifully, he says. “I am impressed with the potential these students represent for South Sudan. It doesn’t have to be this way. They don’t think this way.”

Picture of a woman and children outside of a refugee camp in South Sudan
For photographer Akout Chol Mayak, who spent most of his life as a refugee in Kenya, this frame of a woman and children at the Lolungo Collective Center reminds him of his own experience. “Where there is hardship, there is hope,” he says.
Photograph by Akout Chol Mayak

As for the students themselves, when asked whether they were hopeful about the future of the country, their answers were overwhelmingly positive.

“Flashing back across the moves I took across the valleys, deserts, rivers, and bushes, across the country with my parents over 21 years of civil war, [there] were animals feeding on human remains, the days were always growing dark and darker, and dreams were fading away every single moment. Some changed their nationalities because of depression they passed through,” wrote student Akuot Chol Mayak.

Picture of shoppers at the Juba Customs Market in South Sudan
A scene from the Juba Customs Market in South Sudan
Photograph by Stella Poni Gaudensio

“The world’s eyes are on this nation, not because it’s special, but because it is the newest. We are truly African and I’m proud of that. We still did not lose our culture’s heritage. Our life is that we are simple and we see every person as a friend regardless of the nation they come from. Life is a journey that makes the traveler meet more obstacles before reaching the final destination. We are still on the move but we shall reach there.”

Picture of orphans at the Confident Children Out of Conflict orphanage in Juba, South Sudan
Girls at the Confident Children Out of Conflict orphanage in Juba, South Sudan, play on the trampoline.
Photograph by Simon Odhol

And what role can photography play in this journey?

“A country without photography has holes in its history. You can’t see what happened,” says Jean Luc Dushime, a multimedia trainer with Internews who also worked at the camp. In a continuing effort to build South Sudan’s visual literacy, there have since been three photography exhibitions in Juba featuring work done by the students. Internews has also started a photography collective, which made postcards and calendars to sell, all contributing to the students’ confidence, courage, and contribution to community, he says.

For people not accustomed to photographs as a storytelling tool, the potential for transformation is enormous. Student Catherine Simon describes showing friends photographs she took around their city of Juba. Using different camera angles and perspectives, the photographs show a side of the city they at first didn’t recognize. “They didn’t believe it was in Juba,” she says.

“As I was looking through the lens of my camera I just realized what I was really doing: I was actually capturing the history of my country,” writes student Simon Odhol. “It was so powerful that I just kept on taking photographs, and I will keep on taking photographs.”

Photographs by the South Sudanese students are part of a retrospective exhibit highlighting a decade of storytelling with Photo Camps around the world. The photographs are on display now through May 31 at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. For more information about Photo Camp, visit our Photography site or read previous posts on Proof about camps in Arizona and Kenya.

The National Geographic team at Photo Camp Sudan included Ed Kashi, Matt Moyer, Amy Toensing, Ross Goldberg, and Jon Brack. Photo Camp South Sudan was sponsored by National Geographic Mission Programs and USAID in partnership with Vision Workshops. Cameras were provided by Olympus.

There are 11 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Cate Cameron
    February 8, 2015

    what an amazing project! We too are a small non profit working with cameras in much the same way. Photography has many unseen and untapped powers within its contexts and this is a great example of its therapeutic uses both in execution and output!

  2. Madi Scheer
    February 6, 2015

    Beautiful! These pictures say so much more than any words. We are all one.

  3. Jok Akec
    February 6, 2015

    South Sudan movement

  4. Jenna Hammerslag
    February 3, 2015

    I love this story. We are a small peacebuilding nonprofit based in Liberia, West Africa and use photography as a tool for peace. Check out our website, http://www.everydaygandhis.org and our Future Guardians of Peace Program as well as our film The Fight to Forgive. All three of our documentary films are free for viewing now until march at http://ow.ly/GIr8A

  5. Leilani
    January 17, 2015

    Thank you for the visuals.
    You stir up emotions!
    God bless you on this journey!

  6. Colette
    January 14, 2015

    Keep up the amazing contribution you are making for freedom. For the unborn it is counted as gold.

  7. Janie
    January 14, 2015

    Powerful, The camera is a powerful tool through which to explore the human condition. Tarek, try contacting http://www.photovoice.org for information on organising a programme such as this.

  8. Ratnabodhi Gunasiri
    January 14, 2015

    I think this is the only way to reveal humanity within ourselfs. To show that we after all are humans.

  9. Mor Diop
    January 13, 2015

    Such an inspiring tribute to the power of a vision. By showing the daily, these photographs show far more. The accompanying text is not only well written, but a hopeful commentary on this vision. My thanks to all involved.

  10. Tarek AlHaddad
    January 12, 2015

    Interesting artical. I would like to ask if you have such programs for MENA region? Specially in Lebanon?
    Thank you.

  11. juca
    January 12, 2015

    Wow! The power of the visual voice resonates throughout this amazing photography project, and shows yet again how National Geographic continues to evolve into a timely and relevant discussion of international importance. Bravo.

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