May 2011 Encore Magazine features “art & advocacy” exhibit

May 26th, 2011

From the Streets of Africa:

Lisa Albert brings photos and life lessons from Uganda

by: Lauren Hodges

Advocacy and Art:
Street Kids Have a Voice
5/20, 7 p.m. • Projekte
523 South 3rd Street

Uganda, a landlocked area in eastern Africa, has been making frequent though unattractive appearances in the headlines as of late. Gay-rights activists are horrified by David Bahati’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which will include the death penalty for “violators” if the evangelical lawmaker has his way. The Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan-led rebel group known for attacking civilians and kidnapping children to train them as soldiers, reportedly forced 300,000 people to flee from the Congo’s northeast border last week. On May 12th, Ugandan police hurled tear gas into a crowd to silence protesting during President Yoweri Museveni’s swearing-in ceremony.

At a glance, it does not appear that the Ugandan people have much of a voice in their own country. Ironically, they are about to have one here in America—at least, the children will. Documentary photographer Lisa Albert will make sure of it.

“I see the photos as an advocacy tool for child rights,” the artist says, “to get the word out about street children; to show how investment of one’s time, talents and energy can be such a huge encouragement to children.”

Albert spent six months in Uganda last year and obtained permission to teach a photography class to the Ugandan street children. Yet, that wasn’t her first trip to the area. In 2007, the Duke-educated photojournalist visited Uganda after learning about the growing orphan population due to HIV/AIDS epidemics and a two-decade-long rebel war. She says her deep commitment to the area began when she spent a night in an Internally Displaced Persons camp.

“Talk about a life-changing experience!” she says. “At that time, the LRA rebel army was sporadically attacking the northern parts of Uganda. There was even a cattle raid in the camp that very night, which usually is done by armed rebels or villagers trespassing and stealing cattle.”

Albert was in for more surprises thereafter, too. When she first arrived, she assumed that most of the street children had families who couldn’t afford to send them to school, so they spent their days wandering the villages. As she soon learned, most of them didn’t have families at all, much less homes where education was discussed.

So she returned in 2010, this time with her camera. “I felt my photojournalism could be used in a meaningful way,” she says. Albert did research and found the organization Child Restoration Outreach (CRO), which worked with the street kids. They agreed to let her teach a photography and storytelling workshop at their facility.

“They were all very excited about learning photography because most of them had never held cameras before, and because someone was giving them a space to tell the world their stories,” she remembers. CRO provided a translator for Albert, despite the fact that Uganda’s official language is English; only educated children are taught to speak it. Albert attracted 10 students and taught them to use a disposable camera, and she shared with them the basics of using storytelling and photography as a livelihood.

“With their permission, we used their interview transcripts, their artwork and their photographs to make collage posters with their stories, which were hung at nine venues around Lira, Uganda, as an advocacy campaign on child rights,” Albert recalls.

The artist wasn’t just a teacher during this time; she quickly became a student of these extraordinary children. Primarily, she discovered the root causes of the mass homelessness.

“Due to the abuse or lack of provision of basic needs, some of these children would rather live a life on the streets,” she explains. “I also learned that children’s rights are violated and their voices are underrepresented since no one is there to advocate for them. Even the police treat them as criminals, sometimes beating and raping them. The street children fear the police and hide from them, which creates an underground network of street children, so they are difficult to find.”

Though the reality was startling, not all of her lessons were disturbing. “One thing was confirmed to me,” she says. “These homeless street children have very strong dreams and desires to be a part of society and to make positive contributions, probably more so than a child who is already integrated with a home and community. They had dreams to return to school one day so that they could learn to read and write, with hopes of becoming teachers, artists, small business owners and great leaders. These same children were digging through trash to find metal and plastic Jerry Cans to resell so they could get 25 or 50 cents to buy their food that day.”

Albert explores her findings in the latest exhibit showcased at Projekte in downtown Wilmington. Her desire is to encourage action in the community.

“I want people to get involved,” she says, “like mentoring a child through the Boys and Girls Club or other similar organizations; even volunteering at your child’s school or for the city soccer team.”

Individuals can also donate financially. Along with her photographs, Albert will be selling the children’s photos and artwork, with all proceeds being sent back to CRO.

“It will be allocated for education and vocational training,” she says. “I want people to see that the same children in the trash dump deserve to experience joy and happiness. Meeting a child’s basic needs and investing time in a child’s life, allowing them a safe place to share their feelings and thoughts, is one way to create a healthy environment for a child.”

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