A new photography exhibition explores the stories of Kenyan girls living in poverty
Appreciating your own self-worth is something everyone struggles with now and again, but for some of us, it’s a much bigger challenge than for others.
Take, for example, many girls living in Kenya. Despite increasing development and rapid urbanisation, almost half of secondary school-age girls are still not enrolled in secondary education. It is estimated that 25% of these girls are married before their 18th birthday.
In an attempt to explore the self-esteem and self-image of girls living in the vulnerability of poverty in Kenya, photographers Jeremy Tan and Ella Dickinson travelled there to try and capture a snap-shot of their lives. This project evolved into ‘Any Girl’, a poignant portrait of life as a Kenyan girl.
The ten girls photographed for the exhibition are residents of the Mathare and Gatina slum communities in Nairobi and rural Mashuru, which sits 130kms south-east of Nairobi in Kenya’s rift valley. The various effects of urban and rural poverty are a mundane reality for these girls. They face long walks to fetch water, social pressures to endure Female Genital Mutilation, the prospect of early marriage and the threat of sexual violence.
‘In one sense, these girls are just like any other girls, anywhere in the world. They have best friends, teachers to please, homework to do and chores around the house,’ reflects 26-year-old photographer Ella Dickinson who captured many of the photos. ‘But in another they are completely extraordinary. They display an astounding resilience, strength and courage in the face of pressure from their communities and circumstances.’
In an attempt to explore the girls’ idea of self-image, the photographers adopted a collaborative approach to their shots. ‘We wanted the girls to choose their poses and have some direction over the images. We asked where they would like to be photographed and we wanted their portraits to reveal something of their characters,’ explains Australian-born photographer Jeremy Tan.
The result? A series of extraordinary portraits that show the life-changing impact an education can make.
‘There’s actually a very big difference between girls in the project and the girls who are not –they have a high self-esteem because they are getting an education,’ says Francis Mbore, director of a Compassion UK project in Mathare Valley, Nairobi. ‘They have been able to discover the potential inside them, despite what is all around them.’
‘When I asked Beatrice what came to mind when she thought of the past she said, “I don’t like life in the past.” And the future, I asked? “I have a good future” she replied.’ – Ella Dickinson, photographer
14-year-old Esther understands that true beauty runs deep. ‘It is important for girls to feel beautiful. If someone tells you that you are ugly you can tell them you are beautiful – only if you know in your heart that you’re beautiful. True beauty comes from education.’
‘Too often girls, especially girls living in poverty, can be portrayed as weak or dependant. But to me, these girls were the opposite. Every human being has their personal, unique voice and is capable of using it to share their story. This project has just become a channel for those voices.’ – Ella Dickinson, photographer