VilIage Galleries began, in 2005, as a group of secondary school teachers/amateur photographers who believed in the power of photography to transform culture. As a group, we had all been heavily influenced by the 2004 film “Born Into Brothels”; using 35mm photography workshops with the children of prostitutes in the brothels of Calcutta. We were dazzled by the beauty of the photography and as teachers, were encouraged by the successful teaching techniques in the film.
We began to throw around the idea of using digital technology to the same end. Digital cameras and printers would allow us to get the photos into the hands of the photographers very quickly. As teachers, the idea of storytelling from photography seemed a natural.
We connected with Chanel Croker who worked in international aid, in Tanzania with AMANI ECCD. Chanel was to be in Toronto in the next couple of weeks. When we met, she told us that in 2002 the Maasai elders had put out a call for “technologists” to help them preserve their culture. To help combine ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ education. The elders had expressed a deep need for cultural preservation of the Maasai. Chanel agreed that the idea of photography could effectively be a cultural preservation enabler.
Chanel went ahead with the arrangements in Africa. Soon, we had invitation from Erasto Sanare the head of The Monduli Pastorist District Initiative(MPDI). MPDI’s mission is to effectively improve the standard of living of the Maasai in Monduli District, while preserving the rich culture of the Maasai people.
In September 2006, Dave Morris, managing partner in Vesta Networks, came on board. Dave and his wife Nancy committed to our fundraising. We decided we would go in July 2007, a very short ten months away. Dave assured us that the money would be there.
Dave and his team moved ahead on fundraising. They planned an event in June 2007, called COMEDY FOR CAMERAS. The evening featured a silent auction, a number of stand-up comedians, singers and dancers.
Our team of teachers began planning the logistics for delivering our workshops in the villages. Everything would have to run on batteries (cameras and printers), we would need adapters to recharge at night, and we would have to create two ‘kits’ of gear that could easily travel to and return from the villages. At the same time Chanel was busy arranging trucks, accommodations, translators and schedules for our two weeks with the Maasai.
We decided on 24 point and shoot HP cameras and 16 printers, rechargeable batteries and alkaline backups, and power converters.
Our strategy for the workshops was embarrassingly simple: take a photo of the things are important to your heart, come back to the circle and tell the story of your photo. Our philosophy was grounded in the education technique of starting from where people are. In the Story Circle, participants would be able to reflect on their own memories and life circumstances as well as on those of others in the group, thus building connections and solidarity. We worked with villagers to explain how the photograph related to their emotional experience.
In our workshops met energetic, smart, and progressive thinking Maasai people, who were happy despite living conditions that are unimaginable in our part of the world. They wanted progress, but not at the cost of burying strong and long-standing traditions.
A typical day would involve driving off-road to a small village and setting up the battery-driven equipment on a hot, dusty hillside. With the assistance of our Maasai interpreters and local teaching staff, we’d teach basic photographic skills, and tell the villagers to go take images of things that were important to them. In a matter of minutes, the villagers were off snapping pictures of cattle, each other, and often, us.
When handed their digital prints, the villagers would stand and talk about their pictures, which they believed to be precious, magical possessions. One young man took a picture of a community toilette, a large partially covered hole. As he passionately waved the digital print, he spoke with equal passion about how he was going to show it to all the villagers and encourage them to use the toilette to prevent the spread of disease.
We spent time in nine different villages and a high school. In total, digital story telling was taught to close to 500 Maasai with a resulting 5,000 photographs! 15 teachers from the local school system were taught digital story telling and the skills that were transferred to these teachers should enable the Maasai to teach other villages and sustain the project well into the future.
Jeff is a veteran high school teacher responsible for designing and implementing the Arts York Intensive Arts Program for The York Region Board of Education. In 2010, Jeff worked in Benin, Africa with the Big Books Project resulting in the printing and distribution of 8,000 indigenous pre-kindergarten textbooks. In 2011 Jeff was the Project Manager for In My Own Eyes (www.inmyowneyes.ca) which taught digital story telling to 7 first nations communities in Ontario, resulting in 55 young peoples telling their photo-stories on the internet and in a travelling photography display.
As a teacher in the Arts York Intensive Drama program since 1991, Rob has been involved in educating young performers, developing curriculum, and directing a multitude of productions. In the summer Rob has been acting as the director of The Markham Theatre Summer Drama Camp for the past 10 years. Rob is busy these days exploring the art of seeing, armed with a digital camera and Photoshop. Rob’s clients include: MokshaYoga, Silver Elvis, and Motus O. In his spare time, Rob likes to photograph James shearing sheep.
Originally a sheep shearer from Australia, James came to Canada to study dance, theatre and mime.After completing his training he joined the Academy of Performing Arts College, Cambridge, Ontario, performinginternationally throughout Israel, New Zealand, Australia, Western Europe, U.S.A. and Canada. In 1990 James Co-Founded and is currently Co-Artistic Director, Choreographer, Teacher, Prop Designer and Performer for MOTUS Odance theatre(www.motuso.com.) To date he has created over 25 original works or 7 full-length productions for the company and has toured them throughout Australia, the U.S.A. and Canada. In his spare time James still shears sheep.
"David is Managing Partner of Vesta Networks (www.vestanetworks.com). During his 25 year career in the technology industry, David has proven his entrepreneurial abilities by successfully launching and growing 3 companies. It is David's passion for start-up business, his ability to drive growth through internal development and acquisition, and the building and managing of strategic alliances that keeps him inspired. David is thrilled to be part o fthe Village Galleries team, where his business skills can be fully utilized in the success of this wonderful project. "