Karen O'Hern Photography | The World Is Not Without Color

The World Is Not Without Color

July 30, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

More and more I see images published in black and white, and so I thought I’d join the crowd in this post as I share with you the story of the Lawrence House, a place of safety and care - a home - for abandoned and orphaned refugee children, aged 8 - 18, in South Africa. But upon inserting the images, I look over my post and I am left feeling agitated. I am fighting the urge to redo the photos in color as I shot them, but instead decide to write about what is at the heart of this agitation for me and integrate it into the overall story.

Project South Africa 2012 - Momenta Workshops - Karen O'Hern

The Lawrence House. Cape Town, South Africa

 

As a humanitarian photographer dedicated to sharing the stories of non-profits, their recipients and the overall human experience with integrity, authenticity, and clarity, I honor the setting I am invited into and do my very best to translate what I see accurately through my images. For me, it’s about seeing what is real - what is happening in that moment never to be experienced in quite the same way again. My job is to share that moment with you, to move you in a personal way, to make you care if you dare.

Everywhere I look, I see color.

Project South Africa 2012 - Momenta Workshops - Karen O'Hern

 The brushes and paints found in one of the Lawrence children's art studio

 

The above personal philosophy applies to my storytelling as well. Often when I approach a non-profit, the first thing they request is that I capture images depicting happy recipients of their work. Certainly important, but isn’t there more to the story? We inevitably end up discussing the importance of telling the story from start to finish – illustrating the need they are trying to tackle, and the hope that results from fulfilling their mission. If we are blessed to have the time, we can tease out the rest of the story and explore in-depth the content in between those end points - the beautiful variety of colorful hues.  

 

It is in this frame-of-mind that I fly to Cape Town, South Africa, very enthused about working with the Scalabrini Centre and its affiliated Lawrence House as a participant in Momenta Workshops. As the plane soars high above the vast continent of Africa, I try to imagine what’s happening on the ground in the countries that lie 36,000 feet below me - specifically the six countries the majority of the children living in the Lawrence House have come from: Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa. I wonder what their lives were like , what were the circumstances that led them to migrate to Cape Town and take up residence as one big multi-cultural family in this renovated convent they now call home?

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It's Monday and the children have begun their exam week the afternoon I arrive. As my taxi pulls up to the curb, I am greeted by many faces peering out the windows, wide smiles accompanying their wildly waving hands of welcome. I immediately feel at home myself and am anxious to spend the week with the children. I am greeted by Giulia Treves, the warm and caring House Manager and she introduces me to the children who are in separate rooms appropriate for their grade and age for "study groups" that meet every weekday afternoon in the House. The children politely greet me but then immediately get back to their studies.

Project South Africa 2012 - Momenta Workshops - Karen O'Hern

Brother and sister work together to help speed up the learning curve and ensure success on exams

 

Schooling is an important part of life here at the Lawrence House. Because of their life circumstances, children often arrive with significant skill gaps in math, reading and writing; the education programme aims at addressing these. Especially for refugee youth, school represents the primary and crucial channel for success. As I get to know the children, I appreciate the realities of this so much more. One boy came to the House and was placed in the 2nd grade and struggled as he became overwhelmed with trying to learn while having not even the basic understanding of English. With the help from tutors, he persevered and  moved up each year in his class rank until Grade 7, when he won a prestigious scholarship to attend one of the top high schools in the country. 

Project South Africa 2012 - Momenta Workshops - Karen O'Hern

Excelling in school despite the significant hurdles to overcome

 

Learning and role modeling extends throughout the day with every interaction with their Child and Youth Care Workers (CYCW) who stay at the House with the children. "Uncle Jeff" takes the kids back and forth to school each day in the House van, discussing topics that are  on their mind, giving them tips to help them in their school and after curricular activities, and offering gentle reminders about respect and manners. Respect is always demonstrated as a two-way street, shown constantly between the adults toward the kids, and the kids toward the adults.

Project South Africa 2012 - Momenta Workshops - Karen O'Hern

"Uncle Jeff" uses the drive time to provide adult perspective and guidance to the children

 

While school is certainly an important focus, extra-curricular and physical activities are as well. The children have a busy daily schedule after school with the young boys attending soccer practice while the older boys take part in a Brazilian martial arts, Capoeira.

 

Project South Africa 2012 - Momenta Workshops - Karen O'Hern

The swirling kick of the Capoeira attack requires agility, power and speed

 

I learn very quickly that one of the girls' favorite activities is to model the latest fashions. They can't bear the thought of having a photographer with them for a week without putting on a show! One evening when the boys are busy outside the House, the girls strut their stuff down the upstairs hall which converts to the "runway". With a lot of laughter and sassiness, the girls put on their attitudes, their clothes, and their smiles, and I serve witness to their confidence and bold personalities. 

Project South Africa 2012 - Momenta Workshops - Karen O'Hern

Huge attitude. Great look!

Project South Africa 2012 - Momenta Workshops - Karen O'Hern Whether you're 8 or 14, you are "on" tonight

 

The House is run with a set routine, strong values, and solid guidance, but with an amazing sense of ease and fluidity that feels so homelike no matter what is taking place. Mornings here are similar to those in a "typical home" with schoolchildren, with the kids coming downstairs in different states of alertness depending on their constitution. They are expected to get their breakfasts that have been prepared and set out for them on the long counter in the dining room.

Project South Africa 2012 - Momenta Workshops - Karen O'Hern

It's all very organized, despite 25 children needing to be fed their hot breakfast before school

 

Every child is assigned age appropriate chores to do as part of their daily routine. All of them working together help keep this busy home running so smoothly!

Project South Africa 2012 - Momenta Workshops - Karen O'Hern

It's the older boys' turn to clean up after breakfast 

 

Project South Africa 2012 - Momenta Workshops - Karen O'Hern The little one helps get the floor swept up in the dining room

 

Project South Africa 2012 - Momenta Workshops - Karen O'Hern The youngest girl must get her clothes to the laundry room before the van leaves for school

 

Religious education and practice is part of the children’s upbringing. They can follow any religion of their choice, but they join together multiple times throughout the day to give thanks, collectively and genuinely expressing their gratitude for what is bestowed upon them each day .

Project South Africa 2012 - Momenta Workshops - Karen O'Hern

The children join together to give thanks

 

When the dinner dishes have been cleaned and homework has been completed, the children are free for an hour to relax, play games, or watch TV before heading to bed.

Project South Africa 2012 - Momenta Workshops - Karen O'Hern

Taking some alone time to check up on the latest sports scores

 

In this tranquil, supportive and loving environment it is easy to get caught up in the present and forget what past circumstances these children faced. Three of the teens are siblings that came to the House after fleeing the DRC with their Uncle in 2005. Leaving another three siblings at home with their parents, they made their way as refugees across Africa and, after 6 months with their Uncle’s sister in Zimbabwe, landed in Cape Town in 2006. Lacking resources, they lived in their Uncle’s car for a number of months until the state’s social services placed the two boys at the Lawrence House in 2007, the sister in 2008. Each of the children have an equally heart wrenching past, but the hope and optimism they exhibit as they live each and every day with gratitude and perseverance is what stands out.

 

The adults in the House are always available to offer an understanding ear to the issues that might be on the mind of one of the children. And the extended family also offers unending support and love.

Project South Africa 2012 - Momenta Workshops - Karen O'Hern

 Pros and cons of various career decisions are discussed this morning after breakfast with the CYCW

 

Project South Africa 2012 - Momenta Workshops - Karen O'Hern A pair of loving arms are always available to help ease fears and settle young minds

 

While the Lawrence House provides a wonderful home environment for the children, providing them the support, guidance, and opportunities to best prepare them for productive, happy and successful lives, it is with the philosophy that the goal is always reunification and reintegration into their family of origin whenever possible. So when sending the children on to the next stage of their life, it is with confidence they will be the best they can be.

Project South Africa 2012 - Momenta Workshops - Karen O'Hern

Stepping out into the world with new found hope

 

As I wrap up my week, having been touched in such a profound way, I am more committed than ever to accurately portray the vivid and varied hues of peoples' life experiences. While I journey down this path of learning to see the world better myself, my hope is that I can help your visual acuity and humanitarian awareness as well.

I see in color. The world has color. You can expect that, going forward in my work, I won’t mute that. 

I invite you to comment on this post and also spend the time to learn more about the Lawrence House.

~ Karen

 

 


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