Class of 2023

One of the assignments on our recent visit to Tanzania was to visit a school and shoot some images for an article about how rural education on the periphery of wildlife areas is substandard. Lack of adequately maintained buildings, qualified teachers, and basics like appropriate textbooks, means that the youngsters in these areas don’t have it easy, writes Andrew James. I’ve been to several schools in Kenya in the past, so I knew what to expect, but even so the state of the facilities at this particular school left me shaking my head in disbelief. I admired both the teachers and pupils we met for their enthusiasm and optimism for the future.

When I am in these situations, I am acutely aware that the sight of a silver-haired old Westerner with a camera invokes a response. It’s simply impossible to be totally unobtrusive and candid in my approach. I am about as obtrusive as you can get. My visit had been pre-arranged and sanctioned by the head of the village, so there was no problem with me being there. Obviously, it would be totally wrong to just turn up at an African school and start taking pictures, just as it would at a school in the UK.

To a large extent, I have no way of pre-thinking what I am going to shoot in these situations. The article (at the time) was unwritten so there was no precise shot list, and even if there was, it’s impossible to be precise as you don’t know the location or the circumstances. But I do have a few personal rules about how I conduct myself.

1 I don’t walk around randomly photographing everything.

2 I am respectful and polite.

3 I listen to people, and that means not always raising a camera to my eye.

4 I ask if it’s okay to take someone’s photo. I mean, sometimes you can’t literally ask a whole group, but smiling and gesturing gets across what you intend to do. Anyone who doesn’t want to be involved has time to exit.

5 I try not to invade people’s personal space.

6 I spend some time observing without photographing.

7 If I do need to ‘direct’, I am clear and friendly.

8 I always thank people for their time.

I suspect for most of you, these basic rules would be the least you’d set for yourself too. However, over the years I have come across photographers with a bull in a China shop mentality that means that once the camera is to the eye, all basic politeness goes out of window. I want to leave people having enjoyed the experience as much as I have.

Now to a few images from the school visit. I’ve already showed you one of my favourites from the trip when I first returned, of the headmaster in his office here, but I’ve selected six more, each with information about how they were shot.

I’ve started with this one because we needed an opening shot for the article, with the headline sitting to the right. The headline, Books aren’t enough is, I think, helped by this image because of the environment and various elements within the frame. Firstly, the teacher and the kids are all smartly dressed, but this is in direct contrast with the state of the classroom’s walls, blackboard, and floor. One of the problems is lack of desks, this is highlighted by the two boys at the front huddled together and the girl standing up. The images was taken at 23mm on my 17-40mm wide-angle lens, and Canon R6 mirrorless camera. It was dark in the classroom, so I’ve used ISO 800 to get a shutter speed of 1/60sec at f/4. My focus point was on the teacher at the front. I’ve agonised about the paper on the floor. It distracts, but it’s part of the scene and as this is documentary photography, I’ve left it in place rather than cloning it out. Here’s what it looks like on the design.

The look
I’m sitting on a tiny plastic chair near the door hoping it’s not going to buckle under my weight. Naturally the kids were more interested in me than the teacher, so for a while I didn’t shoot a single frame because I wanted their attention to be elsewhere. In the end, I actually framed and focused this using the R6’s flip-out screen, as it meant it was much less obvious that I was taking a shot. Even so, there is one child looking right at me, but I rather like the gaze as it conflicts with the others who are looking away. The boy with the book was pure luck. The content here makes this a good opening spread shot too, but there is not enough space for the headline, plus my framing meant the child third from the left would be positioned right down the middle of the magazine (in the gutter). This was taken on the Sigma 50mm 1.4 DG lens at f/5.6 to give me a little more depth of field.

Task force
Classes were over for the day, and it’s one of the tasks of the pupils to clear up at the end of the day. This task force were at work as I walked into this room. There is nothing set up in this shot. I just crouched down and used my wide-angle again to frame the shot. The bright window behind the third pupil wasn’t ideal! I needed +2 Exposure compensation to hold the detail in their faces, but I like the glow and shadows from the backlighting. I also think it’s the size of the broom on the left compared to the girl holding it that I like most of all. When I first saw this image on the computer, I thought something horrible had happened to the image quality before I realised it was just backlit dust in the atmosphere from their sweeping efforts!

Purple four
This is actually a school we visited on a different day. I loved the way they all popped out from the drab wall in their purple uniforms, and I decided to leave a lot of space around them, partly as I thought it had potential for a spread in the magazine and partly because it just felt right to compose that way. I shot this with the Sigma 50mm and as I was framing up, I could see the other child in the background walking into frame, so waited a few second for them to move to the right point. I think the little distant figure helps to give it more depth.

Through the rectangular window
Less ‘documentary’ and more pure fun! As you can tell, the older kids were generally much keener to be in the shot. I’m outside, and they’re all crowded in one of the windows laughing and joking. I am not sure what they’re all looking at to their right, but I like the fact that I managed to grab this unruly crowd as most of them are looking elsewhere, as if I was invisible. It just feels so natural. This was taken on my wide-angle lens at 30mm and f/5.6 to get some extra sharpness through the photo. Focus is on the boy who is leaning out of the window with his elbows on the ledge. The way the light just picks up the hands or faces in the interior behind him, and the sheer joy on their faces, makes this one of my favourites from the trip.

Published in Travel
  1. I enjoyed this article, and yes, I think you have captured the reality. It’s tough for the teachers, kids and I guess many parents too. The sad reality here in the UK is that so many kids don’t understand the opportunity they have and many of their parents don’t care. It makes the African situation so much sadder.

  2. Hi Andrew, your article resonates so well with me as we are currently travelling through rural Africa (northern Namibia, the Caprivi strip and Botswana mainly) and passing many local schools (that is the good news!) where we have little or no chance to photograph the children who on the whole are quite belligerent if they see a tourist carrying a camera. I would say it goes even further – just a non-black face causes resentment. I sense many a tourist passes them by and treats them as camera fodder with little thought as to whether they are willing subjects or not. So again you comments resonate!!
    Each time I return to Africa, having grown up here and having returned often over the past 50 years, I sense a greater animosity towards ‘tourists’ and the divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Most of the children I have seen here have put one hand out begging for money while rubbing their tummy with the other hand. Aid has been poured into African countries but I know from many personal experiences that it doesn’t reach the places it should. There is so much corruption amongst officials …. of all colours. A case in point is the eastern Caprivi where we are now. The local economy collapsed after the S African defence force pulled out in the 1980s and all that was left behind such as schools, clinics etc. were allowed to decay due to lack of support and local corruption. Only recently, with the end of internal conflicts, has developments efforts begun to reach those it should. One can understand why there is resentment towards foreigners. This is the age old story of most African countries.
    So trying to cut a long story short ……sorry for this epistle (!) …. I really appreciate your school photos where you had the chance, in a loosely organised way, to take candid shots with such patience and skill. This is harder and harder to do in Africa! You show very clearly the reality!
    Education is the only way forward for these African children but there is still have a very long way to go and hoping war and greed don’t intervene.

    • Interesting observations, Rosie. Undoubtedly education and management of the natural resources they have are positive ways forward, but there’s such a long way to go!

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