From Mundane to Muse


In the afternoon we do a wonderful project with the kids, each pairing off with a child for a mini-lecture on photography and the workings of the digital camera.

Lucy is the  Director of Partnerships at Spark Ventures, and also a very accomplished photographer in her own right. She presents a number of best practices and techniques, working through a stack of kid-friendly visual aids.

Teacher Daisy does some translating in Bemba to ensure we’re perfectly clear.

“Anything God-made,” she says, expounding on Lucy’s examples of photos using the Nature theme.

Heads bow studiously over the cameras, fingers work the buttons. Each child draws three photography themes or techniques to practice from a plastic bag.


Now, creativity—the creative outlet, the pursuit of self-expression, the artistic impulse, whatever—is a defining and driving influence of my life. It’s a hobby, sure, but for me it’s more: it’s the key to the exploration of both my truest self and the world outside.

I began figuring this out as a kid, when I housed some fervent scribbles in a little pink paper fortress secured by a tiny gold padlock and later, when I chronicled the injustices of junior high against the neon blue backdrop of WordPerfect 5.1 in my parents’ basement.

So. Am I excited to stand by and watch some digital cameras transform a dusty schoolyard from setting to subject, from mundane to muse?


I’m excited for the kid who feels that little charge when he tips the viewfinder just so, getting the exact life slice he wants to serve. I’m hopeful for the kid who, challenged to find art in her every day, finds she’s just a little more secure, or content, in that place—in herself—for the effort. The opening.

For in my experience, art is a brawny thing—a protector amidst the hard things that threaten to overwhelm or destroy us. When I sit down to write it, murk can come clear. Power is recovered, or found.

And I’m learning, there is no shortage of hardship here. When dodging poverty, hunger, and disease, I imagine it’s difficult to identify or coddle the creative spirit.

All that is why, to my mind, today is a remarkable opportunity. So off we go.

Teams fan out across the Hope campus, climbing up things to shoot from (High Perspective) or squatting down to capture, say, a skittish chicken at eye level (Low Perspective).

Kids pull each other into door frames to demonstrate Framing, while others discover Patterns in the grey bricks of the wall, the three arches of Hope House, and the checked fabric of their school clothes.

Tons of Portraits are taken, of course—this may be our specialty—and sneaky Candid shots, too, some of unwitting photographers shooting a subject.

This is Teza. TAY-zah. She is my reading partner and also my photography partner.


She is in Grade 6, and she is beautiful.

Teza has the Nature theme, so we crouch by a bush. I unfurl a leaf and hold it so she can get a close-up.

She stands to go and I say, Wait, what about one more?

So we lie beneath the bush and photograph the sky poking through the leaves.

We do the photography project for two days. On the second, the sun blazes in a cloudless sky and long shadows stretch across our pictures. My nose burns steadily until it’s an angry red.

The Spark team arranges for us to venture further afield, outside the school grounds. Some teachers serve as guides, taking small groups in all directions into Twapia.

Today Teza drew the Colorful theme, and she snaps this clothesline as we walk along.

She also drew the Funny Faces theme—I suspect much to her shy disposition’s regret. So we mug for the camera and go around and ask others to do so, too.


Here’s a Zambian interpretation of a funny face. It occurs to me it’d be a fine project to go around the world asking different cultures to make funny faces. I mentally file that under Ideas for Winning the Turner Prize.

“Teza,” I call, looking in this direction.


She sees it immediately and comes over to shoot this kaleidoscope of color, experimenting with different angles and proximity.

This and the next are two of my favorite Portraits of the whole trip. En route back to school, I come upon these boys.

This little guy suddenly strikes a rockstar pose when I turn on him with my camera.


Look at that clenched fist!

I love the contrast of the respectfully clasped hands and meek expression at left with the chutzpah in the middle.

Afterward, back at school, we assess the afternoon’s work with our budding photographers.

Lucy assures the kids she will download and collect all their photos—some appear in the slideshow below—which will be tagged with their name. She’s also leaving all the cameras behind for future projects.

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The above is excerpted from my photo essay and travelogue A Groupon to Africa, the creation of which fueled my own creative muse for an entire year after I returned home. Not yet ready to leave Zambia? 
Give it a go.

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