The center was nothing more than a couple of rickety wood shacks strung together.
It was nestled in an overcrowded slum in Nairobi, Kenya, neighboring muddy paths and shambles of homes and a dirty stream. I looked wide-eyed at the center, asking myself whether this really could be where young girls received proper care in their recovery from sexual violence.
I didn’t want to pull out my camera when I saw the center.
I feared being yet another poverty tourist, showing off pictures of these girls and making them feel insignificant, even exploited.
But taking photographs is my job. Right now I’m on a 12-month journey around the world with a creative media non-profit I co-founded called Join the Lights.
Each month we visit a new country and create a short documentary film for a different organization, from those helping victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia to the Maasai tribe in Tanzania.
On the last day with the organization, Wangu Kanja, a local leader, showed me one of the care centers she partners with that provides victims of or those at risk of sexual violence the care and support they need.
Over a dozen girls buzzed around the center, fixing their hair and doing laundry and staying busy.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the center’s humble nature. How could this be doing any good? Are these girls really in a better situation than they were before? After a few minutes of exploring, I pulled the camera out to take a few photographs of the girls.
In the developing world, pulling out a camera can be a dangerous and difficult thing to do.
It’s not dangerous because it will be stolen, but rather because a horde of children may mob the photographer and scream mzungu! with each click of the camera.
And it’s difficult because photographing strangers, especially those in less fortune circumstances, can feel invasive of someone’s home, someone’s humanity. As a photographer working in marginalized communities, I always stay acutely aware of the atmospheres where I take photos.
I don’t want to take advantage of someone when photographing them; I don’t want to publish their poverty.
But there was something subtly different about the girls at the center in the slums of Nairobi.
As soon as I pulled out my camera, their eyes lit up as they began making silly faces and poses.
Underneath their wide grins and silly poses was confidence. They seemed happy to be who they were, proud to be silly and pose in front of a mzungu with a camera. They had a sisterhood that united them and made them strong.
Sometimes it’s hard as a photographer and traveler to step out of my Western mentality, and maybe I never will be able to.
There is plenty to be said for a clean, well–built, and well-staffed facility.
Yet that doesn’t mean that my Western, bigger is better mentality is actually better. Sometimes God wants to shatter our image of what we think is right and trust he can work through the small things—or even that he doesn’t need any of those things at all.
I judged the center’s outward appearance just as we judge a book by its cover.
The houses were not up to any sort of standards. There probably wasn’t a good staff to child ratio. This probably wasn’t the best location and it definitely didn’t have the best bathrooms. But these girls were indeed different and changed.
They exuded confidence. They held onto hope.
With every click of the camera, I’m learning that outward appearances often mask the beauty inside. I’m beginning to understand what I judge as proper and right may not be so. And I’m gaining the courage to hold onto hope, too.
[Photo: Brendon Burton, Creative Commons]