Camille LeBlanc - Brazil

March 26, 2013

At a Stanford cafeteria table back in August, I had my first meeting with my Team Leader, Sol. I had thirty minutes to express my interests and passions and to explain exactly what I wanted out of this year. Although I probably made very little sense at the time, art was at the forefront of my mind. I wanted to spend this year exploring the influence art has on empowerment, human potential, and economic development, for despite my lack of direction, the way these concepts floated around in my head made my face burn with excitement. I imagined myself immersed in an African, European, Latin American paradise, of cobblestone streets, painted alleyways, and drum circles on every corner. I pictured myself working with an organization that inspired me by its authenticity and approached change in an artful and impactful way. “I want to feel like a part of the beat and rhythm, the dance and drums, the unity and collective energy, the exposed potential and empowerment,” I wrote in my journal that night. Totally over-the-top, perhaps, but no one could have told me that this year wasn’t going to be perfect.

When I heard of my apprenticeship placement, that excitement intensified even more. I was going to be spending my year working at Bagunçaço, a youth community space that uses art and culture to empower at-risk kids. I couldn’t have arrived at a better placement. But when I showed up on the ground, in person, reality hit. The place was a little less organized than I had imagined. The kids were a bit more difficult and the guidance slightly less constructive. I didn’t expect to be breaking up rowdy eleven-year-old fist fights or battling pre-teen sexual advances. Where was the art?

At the time, the only art-worthy activity that existed was a doodling class. Kids sat in broken desks drawing hearts or coloring in pre-drawn smiley faces. Every few minutes, a child would have to be dragged back to his or her chair after starting an argument with a friend across the room. This was not the environment of meaningful and affecting art that I dreamed of–but that’s all the more reason to start something myself, I resolved. I decided to teach a photography class to girls. I wanted to use the girls’ photos and the power of photography and story-telling as a springboard for discussion about the issues of their daily lives. But after putting together a presentation for my first lesson, I few roadblocks became clear: a) Cameras. Realistically, how can I run this class without cameras for the kids? b) I’m teaching 6-10 year-olds–how am I possibly going to keep them seated, much less focused on photography? c) I’m not a teacher, a professional photographer, or a native Portuguese speaker. How do I make this work despite my own shortcomings?

So I got overwhelmed. I freaked out and shied away from the idea. After all, I was sensing some mixed messages on the part of the organization anyways. But instead of pushing the idea, convincing Bagunçaço of the project’s vital importance, and forcing myself to step into the realm of inexperience, I allowed uncertainty to pervade my once so eager attitude. I shifted my focus away from gender inequality, art, and story-telling, and only now, in March, has a stroke of luck brought me back to these passions.

Girls With Cameras is a project that empowers marginalized Afro-Brazilian women and girls to speak for themselves and to advocate for their communities through photography and digital storytelling. Due to multi-layered societal norms, women, particularly of Afro-Brazilian descent, often believe that their lives are destined for only a scarce number of outcomes. But with a camera and some publicity, these women can replace inaccurate images of themselves with true representations of their realities, creating more balanced local and global conversations. With the resources to speak at the same volume as the powerful, they can define their futures, advocate for lasting social change, and raise entire societies out of poverty.

Although still in its beginning stages, the project is already connected with two Salvador-based organizations, the Pierre Verger Foundation, an artistic center with a focus on Afro-Brazilian culture, and the Steve Biko Institute, which empowers Afro-Brazilians through the pursuit of higher education. Photo diplomat Gabrielle Williams laid the foundation for all this brilliance, and together, we are fine-tuning the vision, raising funds, and getting this project up and running. Stay tuned. It’s happening, and every night, as I’m lying awake in bed thinking about how to make this initiative more impactful, I’m reminded that this is exactly the kind of work I came here to do. What could possibly be more satisfying than that?

Camille LeBlanc