San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

How to take kids from a Guatemala dump and turn them into photographers

GUATEMALA CITY – Surrounded by 40 acres of toxic garbage in the middle of Central America’s largest and most dangerous landfill isn’t exactly where most people gain inspiration. However, for former Reuters photojournalist Nancy McGirr, the smell of burning plastic, combined with the sight of cardboard houses and gardens of sewage, is where Fotokids first began.

Originally called “Out of the Dump,” the project was founded in 1991 with the aim of using photography to break the cycle of poverty.

“I first went to the dump to photograph a story for an Australian magazine,” says McGirr. “There were 3,500 people living, working and scavenging for food. and 1,500 of them were kids who followed me wanting to see through my camera lens. The thought occurred to me: If they had the camera, what would they see through that lens?”

Armed with three cheap, plastic cameras, the first group of six students aged 5-12 began their enrollment process: taking photos of everything and censuring nothing. The students, who all lived in Guatemala City’s sprawling garbage dump, took pictures of whatever fell beneath their lens: drugs, violence, death.

McGirr soon realized their photographs could be used as a teaching tool to show the kids they didn’t have to be a part of a gang to be in a group, and that cameras are a more effective weapon against poverty than guns.

By taking snapshots of their everyday lives, children from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city began to express themselves. Children who at the age of 7 had been exposed to more pain and suffering than anyone should witness in a lifetime could start to dream.

“I originally thought the project would last six months to a year, but it just took off,” McGirr says. “We started in July, and by September we had already appeared in The Washington Post.”

A couple of months later, Konica Minolta Japan sent supplies and asked the kids to exhibit in Tokyo. The Fotokids became cover stories in several magazines around the world, and even had a film crew from London come out to record two TV episodes for a children’s arts show.

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By taking snapshots of their everyday lives, children from some of the poorest neighborhoods in Guatemala city began to express themselves. Courtesy of Fotokids

From the initial six students who entered the after-school program, hundreds have now passed through it, each receiving a camera, food, photography classes and educational scholarships – while having their work displayed in exotic locations in the process.

From meeting the Dalai Lama to working on the set of “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones,” and exhibiting alongside Brazilian master photographer Sebastian Salgado, Fotokids has created a future for many underprivileged children and is a tool with which they can escape their lives of perpetual poverty, drugs and gang violence.

“I never imagined going on a plane,” says Evelyn Mansilla, who first started with Fotokids 20 years ago. “But at 15 I went to Spain, then to Australia and San Francisco.”

Evelyn, who grew up near the garbage dump, now works as the administrative director of the project and believes the experience changed her life: “Without it I’d never have finished school, gone to university or been able to give back to my community.”

Giving back is an integral part of Fotokids’ philosophy. Many of the students later become the teachers and work in the school in Guatemala City or in outreach programs across the capital or further afield in Santiago Atitlán and Honduras. The staff is made up of Fotokids graduates who often go back to their own communities, mentoring children and showing them what can be achieved if they work hard at school and stay in the program.

“We all want to branch out and take the project to more places in the city. There are so many children of all ages here that need our help,” says Mansilla. “Around 7 years old is a good time to start – that’s when gangs start recruiting.”

As well as dealing with the threat of gangs, one of the main challenges Fotokids faces is convincing parents to let their children stay in the project. Parents often fail to see the long-term benefits of keeping children in education beyond sixth grade and would rather they start contributing to the family income.

To tackle this problem teachers have started working directly with communities,  going into some of the most dangerous barrios in Guatemala City and giving classes to children while building relationships with their families.

“Of course they don’t all go on to become photographers,” McGirr says. “Photography just gives them a face and a platform” for other opportunities they would never otherwise have had.

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