Transforming lives through love

Inspirational photojournalist Stephen Shames talks to Glass about his astonishing career, the power of photography and making lemonade when you’re given lemons

More than a decade ago, photographer Stephen Shames travelled to Uganda to chronicle the plight of children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. The horror Shames witnessed became the impetus for his most challenging and fulfilling project to date: LEAD Uganda, an educational leadership program targeted toward abandoned youth affected by poverty, sickness, and war. Here we meet the man who has not only helped shed light on the most crucial social issues of our time through his provocative images but whose work is dedicated to revealing what we can do to enact change.

From the Black Panthers and child poverty to Uganda and an AIDS epidemic, Stephen Shames’ photographs do not shy away from the big issues. Using photography to explore and expose some of the most important social issues of our time, Shames’ work becomes a tool for, and part of, a dialogue encouraging us to think about social change. Here, he talks about using photography for social transformation, his time with the Black Panthers, his organisation LEAD Uganda and how overcoming an abusive childhood has made him and his work stronger.

Boy - child soldier - with one arm, 2006, pader Uganda. Ronald Okello is a former child soldier who lost his hand and part of his arm now studying thanks to Stephen's L.E.A.D project copy

In your biography you write about growing up in an abusive family. Some children who experience a similar upbringing are negatively affected by it in their later years and yet you have dedicated your life to helping others. How were you able to direct the pain of your childhood in such a positive direction?
I’ve always believed that if life gives you lemons then make lemonade and that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I think most artists come from difficult lives and that one of the things you learn from being an artist is that when you delve into your past you realise that there are no perfect families or perfect scenarios. Being a photojournalist like myself you see terrible things, little girls who have been raped, their parents killed.

You sit back and think, well my situation actually wasn’t so bad, sure my parents were pretty horrible, but I’m not in a refugee camp, I’m in America. What helped me turn my situation around was a number of things: I met people such as teachers who reached out to me and I was able to get out from myself and latch onto something bigger. This is really what cured me: through helping others I was able to help myself.

What has made me a very good photographer is that I have an understanding of the horrible things my subjects have been through, which has allowed me to go into a refugee camp and bond with these people. You see so many celebrities go through the camps and you know that for them it’s all public relations. When I go into these places the people look at me and can say, ok this guy is one of us.

Boy jumping (Ralph Jumps), 1977 Featured in Outside the Dream, Shames' book published in 1991 copy

During your time at Berkeley you became involved with the Black Panther Party (BPP). How and why were you given a carte blanche to photograph the Black Panthers?
My entrée was Bobby (Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Party). He just liked me and brought me in. The Panthers believed that if you were going to fight racism you couldn’t be racist. They wanted to work with anyone who believed the same things as they did, no matter their skin colour or background. They were very strong role models, not only to people in the ghetto but also to people like me, who learnt to believe that you can’t just sit back and feel sorry for yourself.

They often dedicated much of their work to the community, such as providing 10,000 free breakfasts a day to school children. Did the Black Panthers inspire you to help underprivileged children?
They were a huge inspiration to me. The Panthers were really devoted to the children and they were concerned about the community and the families.

Bobby Seale was a mentor and like a father to me. He really took me in, and I felt at home there. Things have changed since the 1960s and I think the Panthers had a lot to do with that. The Panthers were about black power. It wasn’t enough to just have rights, they wanted power as well. And this was incredibly inspirational to me.

Cigarette poto, Cincinnati, 1985 Also feated in Outside the Dream copy

In 1985 an Alicia Patterson fellowship offered you the opportunity to document child poverty in what would become your first book, Outside the Dream. How did you prepare for this project?
My photos are emotional and dig deep into the subjective, but there is always much research that goes into my projects. This is something which is imperative for a photojournalist. I had the idea that I wanted to show poverty through a child’s life.

I looked at homelessness and realised that Los Angeles was the homeless capital of the United States so I went out there; I travelled cross-country and went to cities such as Chicago which is notorious for their gangs whose members run the housing projects. I lived with the families and individuals I was photographing which was the best way for me to immerse myself in this project. People will let you in if they feel you are honest, if they see that you aren’t some arrogant photojournalist but someone who is there to listen and learn.

In a review of Outside the Dream your work is compared to that of Walker Evans and Lewis Hine. But what photographers would you say have inspired you the most?
I love Evans’ work, as well as that of Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein whom I worked for, and Eugene Smith. I also love the work of [Mario] Giacomelli. I have quite an eclectic taste, not only social photographers but those who get to a deeper level in their work. I guess those whom I admire are the ones whose work stays with me.

Your second book, Pursuing the Dream: What Helps Children and Their Families Succeed, was the result of you wanting to not only open people’s eyes to the reality of children living in poverty, but more importantly, to show what can be done to help them. What would you say is the most important factor needed to help better the lives of impoverished children?

A good friend of mine, Mike Forzley, founder of the programme Friends of the Children, said “I don’t know if love conquers all, but it opens their hearts, opens their minds.” What we found with kids of trauma is not only were they abused but that they had made themselves incapable of being loved. Mike’s philosophy that love can transform the lives of troubled children became the basis for the approach LEAD Uganda uses today. Many of the children in Uganda were child soldiers, abducted at a young age. We give them a family, a kind of clan which becomes a source of strength for them.

Panther line up at a Free Huey rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, July 28, 1968 copy

In 2000 you travelled to Uganda to do a story about AIDS orphans, an experience which eventually led you to start LEAD Uganda. How is your organisation different from other non-profit programs?
What aid does wrong is that it supposes that children of abuse and neglect can’t achieve on their own. When we were forming LEAD Uganda the women there sat down with me and said, “we don’t want someone to come and give us another chicken, we want our children to have the education that we weren’t able to receive.”

Hearing this led me to implement an approach which begins with instilling in these youngsters skills to make them leaders. Rather than making them feel sorry for themselves we tell the children in our program that we are investing in them to be leaders of their country. Many of our children go on to out-perform the other students in the top tier schools we place them in.

by Nicola Kavanagh

From the Glass Archive – Issue Seven – Power

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