Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898 | SUBSCRIBE

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898


Shootback Nairobi

November-December 2001

Lana Wong '91, who arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, with her British husband in 1996, cannot forget the smell of her first walk through Mathare, Nairobi's largest and poorest slum: a "dense mingling of exhaust fumes, burning rubbish, sweat, sewage, and roasting corn," as she writes in Shootback: Photos by Kids from the Nairobi Slums (Booth-Clibborn Editions, London, 1999). Wong, a fine-art photographer trained at both Harvard and London's Royal College of Art (, got Ford Foundation support to give $30 plastic cameras to 31 Mathare teenagers aged 12 to 17. The boys and girls, all players in a youth soccer league, had never held a camera. Each got one roll of film weekly, and on Saturday mornings the group critiqued their photographs with Wong. Their visually arresting, often heart-wrenching pictures are now on view in a traveling exhibition as well as in the book. Photographers have often documented the developing world, but as its name implies, the "Shootback" project turns the lens around. Many of these photographers live in one-room shacks near open sewers, without running water or electricity, on family incomes of about $1 per day. Yet their images are powerfully moving, and sometimes shimmer with beauty. Amid desperate conditions, they can be doggedly philosophical, as in one 17-year-old's cartoon man, who speaks three words: "Laugh when alive."

~Craig Lambert