Looking Back: On Assignment with Photographers Without Borders in Uganda

September 13, 2018

Five years ago, in the summer of 2013, I left on a great new adventure - an assignment with Photographers Without Borders (PWB) to document the work of Raising Voices, a wonderful non-profit based in Uganda.

Raising Voices SignA sign pointing towards the Raising Voices' main office in Kampala, Uganda.

At the time I was in the middle of a photography studies program at Ryerson's Chang School for Continuing Studies, and about a year and a half into my role as a stay-at-home Dad. Prior to this, I worked with World Vision Canada for close to eight years, and took many trips to Tanzania and Rwanda as part of my work. So when the opportunity with PWB presented itself, I was quite ready to apply my photo skills in a region of Africa that is close to my heart.

After receiving the news that I was accepted for the assignment, I launched a crowd-funding campaign (the video is still available to be viewed) to raise the costs needed for me to go. By the end of the campaign I received all the support I needed to cover my trip and program expenses. I remain deeply thankful to all who got on board to help make the trip possible. Raising Voices StaffA few of the very kind Raising Voices staff that I had the opportunity to meet and work with during my time in Uganda.

I was welcomed by the very kind staff of Raising Voices and introduced to all the staff of their three story building in Kampala.

Raising Voices' Office in KampalaThe main office for Raising Voices in Kampala, Uganda.

My goal was to document the impact of Raising Voices' Good School program. The Good School Toolkit is a comprehensive program that involves all levels of a school - students, teachers and administrators - that aims to reduce violence in schools and deliver positive educational outcomes. It takes two years to fully implement and shifts schools from punitive methods towards more positive methods of discipline. Student voices are encouraged and their ideas incorporated.

Good School muralA portion of a mural on the wall of Raising Voices' main office in Kampala, Uganda. Murals and signs are in frequent use at schools as a method for sharing concepts found in Raising Voices' Good School toolkit.

I was taken to many schools by Hassan, one of the excellent staff of Raising Voices.

Hassan, speaking to a classRaising Voices staff Hassan speaks to a class at KCCA Primary School. Hassan would often address the class and introduce me before I would take document the teachers and students at work.

Visiting the schools was a real joy, as I hope these images make clear...

(c)Henry VanderSpek culturesnap.ca

I won't share every detail of my time in Uganda, but will instead offer an excerpt from one of the emails that I sent supporters, as a sample of my experience:

I am now in Luwero, Uganda, about 45 minutes to an hour north of Kampala. We arrived yesterday and visited two schools, visited two more today, and will visit one more tomorrow morning before returning to Kampala. The weather has been mostly overcast here, with the rare sun breaking through. Both yesterday afternoon, later last night, and again today there were heavy rainfalls. Hearing the rain pound on the steel roof of a school yesterday while in a class was quite something.

Visiting schools here has been really incredible. At each school we first visit the headmaster or headmistress and meet for a while, sign the visitor's book, and then are brought into classes and introduced. The students stand, often clap in rhythm, and recite in unison replies to greetings from the head teacher or from the Raising Voices staff. The Raising Voices staff introduces why we are there, I share a few words, and then we are free to take photos of the students and teacher at work. There is a lot of giggling from the students. The teacher usually says a few words to the students during the giggling, and the word "muzungu" (white man) stands out as one I recognize.

At each school I am meeting teachers and hearing their stories of how the Good School program has been making a difference to their school. I am capturing their quotes on video and will try to use these with the portraits I am taking of them at the door to their classroom. Hopefully these together will help Raising Voices promote the Good School program as well.

I am also meeting the student committees and student courts at each school that we visit. The committees are students who help implement the Good School approach at their schools. There is some overlap between these students and the ones on the student court. The court is a peer-to-peer approach to school discipline, which helps students show leadership while caring for the social dynamics of their school's. The students are sharing their stories as well on what is making a difference, as well as what is challenging.

A Teacher and His StudentsA teacher speaks with his students at Kagana St. Jude Primary School in Uganda.

I was so impressed with the work of Raising Voices. Their program of involving students, teachers and administrators in a program that encourages student voices and positive forms of discipline is clearly making an impact in Ugandan schools, and beyond.

Here are a few more images showing how the Good School Toolkit messaging and approach is present within partnering schools...

(c)Henry VanderSpek culturesnap.ca

The Best InvestmentA teacher at Zirobwe Primary School looks out of the school's office doorway.

I am very pleased that Raising Voices staff were able to use the images that I created for them in their print, social media and online publications, including in a special report entitled "Is Violence Against Children Preventable" which may be downloaded here.

Upon my return to Canada I had the opportunity to exhibit my images at Vistek stores throughout Alberta and Ontario. This was a real privilege and provided some great exposure to the excellent work of Raising Voices.

Later, Vistek used one of my favourite images from Uganda in a magazine ad as well. Many thanks to Vistek for their support!

One of my images from Uganda was also awarded with an "Excellence in Photo Art" award at Ryerson University's Chang School's 2014 photo exhibit.

The View From HereThis image received an award for Excellence in Photo Art at Ryerson University's Chang School's 2014 photo exhibit.

Five years later and I am still deeply touched by the experience of working with Raising Voices. I am especially thankful to their staff, particularly Hassan and Mastula, who each did much to show me around and introduce me to the staff and students of schools that they partner with. Many thanks to Dipak, the co-founder and co-director of Raising Voices, as well as their many other staff, who each showed me such warmth and hospitality.

Thanks and CelebrationRaising Voices staff share cake and a gift as a kind gesture at the end of my time in Uganda.

My sincere thanks also to Danielle DaSilva, the founder of Photographers Without Borders, for giving me the opportunity to work with PWB, and to all my friends and supporters who helped make it happen.

If you are considering applying to work with PWB, I highly recommend it. Click here to learn more.


P.S. Near the end of my time in Uganda I had three unique experiences:

  1. Visited the Source of the Nile and the Equator
  2. Learned about the Bwaise "slum" area, thanks to Kisirisa Muhammad, the co-founder of AFFCAD (a non-profit serving that region)
  3. Met the child, and her family, that my family and I had been sponsoring through World Vision Canada

Each of these could be a single blog entry, so I'll save more for another post or three!

Culture Snap Photography features the work of Toronto-based photographer Henry VanderSpek. Henry specializes in documenting the work of local and international non-profit organizations, special events, live music, street and art photography. To hire Henry for an assignment, please click here to get in touch.
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