Discussing Development Through Photographs

The photographer Barbara Luckhurst writes for PhotoVoice on her participatory photography project with geography students in Tanzania. The students document the development of their town after a new road links local people to new businesses. 

A hundred and fifty miles of dirt road provided the only access to the town of Sumbawanga in the fertile agricultural region of west Tanzania. Transport, including the bus to the nearest large town of Mbeya, was unreliable in the rainy season. This meant that the town was remote for people, business and services.

I first visited the area in 2011 with PiXL International, a small NGO that works with secondary school head teachers to improve student attainment. Our Tanzanian colleagues talked to us about a new project for an improved road that would link Sumbawanga with the main road to Mbeya and Dar es Salaam. Returning each year as the road works progressed, it has been fascinating to discuss with teachers and local education staff their hopes and predictions for development in their town and region. In the last couple of years it has been astonishing to see the rapid rate of urbanisation as the road was completed.

One of my roles is as photographer for PiXL International, so some of my photos show changes in Sumbawanga. However, as we work with local schools, I began to think about engaging some of the older students in a photography project to show their perspective on development in their town. As the PhotoVoice project Development Progress asks What does development look and feel like from the perspective of those who live it every day?’ Over 50% of the population is under nineteen so the students’ viewpoint is significant.

'This picture shows the development of National Housing'

‘This picture shows the development of National Housing’ ©Msakila School Students

I visited Sumbawanga in February 2016 and had a busy schedule so I knew that time would be tight for the photography project and its aims would have to be modest. Because we have good links with Msakila Secondary School in the centre of Sumbawanga it was easy to ask the head teacher whether a dozen Advanced Level geography students would like to work with me on a photography project about development in their town. On previous visits some of the older students have enjoyed challenging us visitors with questions on topics such as colonialism, poverty and democracy, so I was quite confident they would engage with the aim of the project.

I met the students in their break, we discussed what development meant to them and looked at ways in which their perspective on change could be shown photographically. We agreed to meet again after formal school sessions a few days later, giving them some time to think through their ideas. At our next meeting we set off in three groups with compact digital cameras, notebooks and a tight deadline.

'Street vendors are selling clothes and other commodities. This is new fashion of shoes.'

‘Street vendors are selling clothes and other commodities. This is new fashion of shoes.’ ©Msakila School Students

We returned to download their photos and discuss which aspect of change each image represented, selecting about thirty images to keep. We finished just as the school building closed for the day so I used the notes and captions from students’ notebooks to put together a slide show of their chosen images. This was shown next day to the whole school, using a laptop and small LED projector. Their fellow students watched in total concentration. I left a copy with the head teacher, and with his permission, took a copy for use in UK schools.

This was a very small project, but had some positive aspects:

The students engaged thoughtfully and were able to present their perspective on change and development to everyone at their school and to other young people in UK.

We all enjoyed the discussions and the photography.

Now I am reflecting on how I might include a participative element in my next photography project which is about sports coaching sessions for East London primary school pupils with disabilities.

Feature image © Barbara Luckhurst ‘Students set off to photograph changes in their town’