Fotokids – Out of the Dump

How an organisation that attempts to bring young people in Guatemala out of poverty by providing training in the visual arts began life, and why it is still spreading into the most dangerous areas.
Ana Caistor-Arendar
13 November 2009

The photograph is titled “The Prisoner.” In it, a girl stares pensively from a window with no glass, gripping its metal frame with both hands. Her house is like a patchwork quilt knitted from shards of wood and metal. Crooked lengths of grey tin form a decrepit and leaking roof. She is reminiscent of a fairy-tale heroine, locked away and dreaming of the world outside the walls that surround her.

Avina Logo

The photographer, Marta Lopez, was six-years-old when she captured this image of her friend who lives - like thousands of others - among piles of waste in Guatemala City’s vast rubbish dump. Marta was one of the first participants in Fotokids, an organisation that aims to lift children out of poverty by giving them the opportunity to earn a creative living.

Originally called “Out of the Dump”, the organisation was founded in 1991 by Nancy McGirr, a former Reuters photographer who covered many of Central America’s civil wars during the 1980s. After two of her colleagues were shot by members of the US-sponsored military forces in El Salvador she decided to move to Guatemala to take a look at how the conflicts were impacting human life outside of the fighting.

Even by Latin American standards, the social indices for Guatemala are alarming, with an estimated 55 percent of the country’s population living below the poverty line. Over half of the country’s population is under 18-years-old and its dilapidated public education system is only able to serve 20 percent of the country’s children. The result is an oversized and extremely young workforce with limited employment options.

This grim reality partly explains how Nancy ended up strolling through Guatemala’s largest rubbish dump. Spanning forty acres, this pit of decomposing waste is one of the largest and most toxic in Central America. Here household rubbish and recyclables rot alongside discarded medical supplies and deteriorating animal and human remains. Nancy was drawn to the lives of the approximately 1,000 children living in the landfill.  Many of them worked alongside their parents, searching through the waste for items such as clothes, cardboard and glass, to resell to middlemen at a phenomenally low price.

“I was walking around with my camera,” Nancy recollects, “and it suddenly dawned on me - why not give the children cameras and see how they would photograph the dump. How it would be reflected through their eyes.” She formed a photography class, giving an instamatic camera to each of six local children attending a school run by nuns on the edge of the dump. In the class the group were taught about composition, lighting and subject matter. For assignments they were encouraged to document their lives. “The pictures astonished me,” she says. “I knew I had found a way of letting them express themselves and giving them confidence in their own creative inspirations.”

In a picture entitled “My Dad Throws Clothes Around When He’s Drunk”, Adelso Ordonez, 10, photographed his younger sister standing in their bedroom surrounded by the clothes that their father had flung around the night before. Adelso later told Nancy that he took the photograph “as a record”. Another image by Benito Santos, 10, titled “The Glue Sniffers”, shows two local boys aged no older than eight, who have been rummaging through the dump, staring boldly and wide-eyed at their friend taking the picture.

The Gluesniffers, Benito Santos, 10

Nancy initially intended the classes to last for just six months, at which point she would resume her role as war photographer. Instead, the project took on a life of its own. “Suddenly we were getting funding opportunities and exhibition offers,” she recalls. “I started to become attached to the kids and no longer

The Gluesniffers, Benito Santos, 10wanted to leave.” The group moved from their initial base above a mechanics shop in the dump to a local church with space for two classrooms and a dark room. The organisation also started to generate additional funds from the sale of students’ photographs, with profits split evenly between the photographer and the organisation. By 1996, as Guatemala’s 36-year civil war drew to a close, they began expanding to other locations in the country and opened a project in neighbouring Honduras. The funds raised permitted them to begin to employ the older students within the organisation both as teachers to the younger ones and in administrative roles. In this way the organisation’s impact is three-fold, helping its students develop employable skills, giving them a means for self-expression and discovery, and creating secure job opportunities.

Guatemala urgently needs these things. The country emerged from the civil war profoundly scarred. The systematic problems that had sparked the left-wing rebellion in 1960 remain intact. Although a country with the potential to be one of the strongest economies in Central America - due to the strength of its sugar, coffee and banana industries - social indices have steadily declined. Guatemala is now the most unequal country in the world, after Brazil. Income tax remains frozen at a meagre 10 percent, yet most of the country’s elite systematically evade payment, arguing that in paying they are losing their money to a corrupt government. This goes some way to explaining why Guatemala continues to have among the lowest levels of government social investment in the region (representing 1.7% of the GDP). This makes up only 12 percent of the revenue needed to cover bare minimum social spending on public services, health care and education. The elites’ accusations of corruption are not unfounded, although ironically they are responsible for perpetrating it. Guatemala is ranked in the top four most corrupt countries in the world. The police service is corrupt to the core; crime is committed with near impunity, with only 2 percent of homicides resulting in a court sentence.

The situation has been rapidly deteriorating under the government of President Alvaro Colom who came to power in 2008. The past year has seen lack of food resources causing chronic malnourishment among half of the country’s children; a situation most analysts blame on government distributional failings. The murder rate has increased to almost 50 per 100,000, a level higher than during the civil war.

“This year there are 800,000 new poor people in Guatemala”, explains Francisco Tavico of the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) in Guatemala. “The government are not investing in education or employment… Where are this new poor population going to go? What are they going to do? They dream of having opportunities in their life, a lot of them are young, what will happen to them?” Guatemala has again found itself at the precipice.

Raising aspirations

Amidst the chaos and dangers proliferating throughout the country, Fotokids provides a haven of order and security. Today, the organisation works with approximately 150 young people. It is largely run by those children who began taking photographs in and around the rubbish dump almost twenty years ago.

“We do classes in a range of creative topics”, explains Vivi Louis, 23, who started at Fotokids when she was seven-years-old. At the time she was living with her family in one of the corrugated iron shacks that sit on the edge of the train lines that pass through the dump. Now the organisation funds her university degree in Business Administration, and she teaches photography twice a week. “We begin by giving classes on how to develop photographs, how to develop film, how to print in the darkroom and move on from these basics,” she explains. In an attempt to encourage the children to transcend their immediate circumstances and explore the opportunities open to them, one of the first assignments new students are asked to carry out is based on the theme: ‘What I want to be when I grow up’.

The Storekeeper, Alitlano Perez, age 16

 The Storekeeper, Atitlano Perez, age 16

“When I first started out those kids’ sueños (dreams) were: ‘I want to work in the mercado (market), ‘I want to mop floors’, ‘I want to be an ama de casa (housewife)”, explains Nancy, unconsciously slipping into the Span-glish that has become her native tongue. “They knew nothing of what other professions were, other than what they saw right in front of them… So we started to talk about different professions. I would take them on trips and show them different things that they could be doing. We would visit people who worked in different careers, a TV cameraman, a librarian… and they would photograph them and ask them questions about what they did. They would also photograph themselves in that person’s role”. Before long there were students who wanted to become photographers and designers, and as they began to share their photographs and ideas among themselves their ambitions grew. “All of a sudden we had somebody that wanted to be an archaeologist, somebody else wanted to be a writer and someone else a lawyer.”

Nancy acknowledges that not all of these opportunities are open to them, “but I think you have to have a dream,” she adds. “You have to imagine yourself out of poverty first, before it can become a reality, and that is what art helps you do.”

“Seeing things differently”

Evelyn Mansilla, 27, grew up living by the rubbish dump and as a child worked with her mother searching through the waste for items to sell-on. “I started at Fotokids when I was ten years old,” she says. “A friend of mine was going to classes there… I would watch him out by the dump taking photographs with his camera and I became really intrigued”.

A new intake of children starts at Fotokids every couple of years. They are largely selected through recommendation by local community leaders such as teachers, charity workers and church leaders who identify those that are most in need and who would benefit most from the experience. Those joining the organisation must commit to attending the project three to four afternoons a week and in return must complete their formal education, for which Fotokids provides grants to make this possible.

Fotokids Headquarters, Fotokids Headquarters, 18th Anniversary Celebrations

Fotokids Headquarters, 18th Anniversary Celebrations


Evelyn’s mother, Hermelinda Castro, 50, was told about the organisation by a neighbour in the dump. “It really interested me as we are a family of few resources,” she says, “and I was told me that not only do they teach photography but they pay for your child to do their formal education too, something that I could not afford.” When Nancy began looking for new students Evelyn put herself forward. “I went to an interview with Nancy,” recalls Evelyn, “nothing too formal, she just wanted some family details and to talk to me about photography. Then I attended the project for a year on a provisional basis to see how committed I was, and then they offered me a grant to pay for my formal education and I was properly integrated into the group.” Evelyn was the first Fotokids student to complete a university degree (paid for by the project), she was also the first member of her family to finish primary school. She now works full-time for Fotokids where she runs a series of lessons and is in charge of much of the administrative work.

Evelyn believes that the creative education Fotokids provides makes her students excited about learning in general and pushes them to think productively about the employment options open to them. “We use photography as a hook”, she explains, “it serves to interest the kids, as it offers them an opportunity to try something out that they don’t get the chance to try at home or at school. We then help them use photography as a way of expressing themselves, in order to give them a chance to explore their worlds and to see the alternatives that are out there and open to them.” This emphasis on using the camera as a tool through which to open young people’s eyes to different possibilities is stressed by all those working at the school. “Poverty is a vicious cycle often because people conform to the lives they were born into,” explains Evelyn. “That is how it was with my parents; they were brought up not to challenge the assumption that they were born poor, they will live their lives poor and they will die poor. That sense of inevitability is partly due to the fact that they don’t have another way of seeing the world.”

‘The day we found a dead man in the dump’

The Fotokids headquarters is a large, two-storey house, boxed in by a tall black fence and barbed wire. Inside, the walls double-up as an exhibition area to display the students’ photographs, which vary widely in terms of subject matter and style. Intimate and candid portraits of family and friends hang alongside perfectly composed landscapes of Guatemala’s wild, verdant panoramas.

Manglares, Luis Yanez, age 15

Manglares, Luis Yanez, age 15

According to Nancy the younger students often begin by using the camera to document their families and surroundings, “and then once the self-documentation stuff is done they develop their own particular styles and techniques,” she says. Titles are often literal descriptions (e.g., “Finding Corpses In The Dump” and “My Aunt Sniffs Glue”), the innocence and simplicity of which make the images all the more impacting.

Finding Corpses in the Dump, Benito Santos, age 10

Finding Corpses in the dump, Benito Santos, 10

In recent years the courses have expanded to include graphic design, film-making, ecology, web-design and digital imaging, reflecting both the students growing interests in new digital media as well as an attempt to expand their creative skills and employment potential. Yet, according to Evelyn, the main obstacle faced by children living in poverty in Guatemala is that their parents often fail to see the long-term benefits of education - both creative and formal - instead insisting that their children work in order to contribute to the family income.

This may serve to explain the low levels of school retention in the country. According to a recent report by UNICEF only 60 percent of students who start the first grade complete the sixth grade of secondary school - only 39 percent of which complete it at the right age. As a result, the literacy rate stands at 69.1 percent, making Guatemala the most illiterate country in Central America, despite the fact that it is significantly richer than some of its neighbouring countries.

A history of violence

Ten-year-old Diego lives beside the train tracks in the centre of Guatemala City. He has two older brothers, who belong to rival gangs. A year ago one of Diego’s brothers was shot in the stomach by a member of the other brother’s gang. Diego is not in a gang. He had dropped out of Fotokids, claiming the lessons in photography were too much hard work, but returned shortly after he left.

“He came in one day and said to me, ‘I’ve been thinking about it, this is a really good project, would you accept me back?’” Nancy recollects. “He is now here every other day, without fail, and not only is he doing his work but he is enthusiastically involving himself.”

Most students have had encounters with gangs. Despite renewed optimism that the end of the Civil War would bring an end to years of ceaseless violence, a decade on spiralling gang related crime has seen politically motivated violence replaced by more widespread social and economic violence. In Guatemala the murder rate soared to over 6,000 deaths last year.  How many of these killings are gang-related is impossible to determine as little effort is made to categorise the murders. Yet the public clearly attributes the rise in deaths to the increased presence of youth gangs.

Berlin Juarez began going to Fotokids fifteen years ago when the organisation selected ten people from his neighbourhood to take up classes. Now aged 27 he is employed as a teacher at Fotokids. He says that although gang violence has since escalated, it was still very much prevalent when he was growing up.

“I lived in Zona 12, a part of the city where there was no running water, no electricity, just houses made of tin and wood. Before I joined Fotokids I would go to school during the day but in the afternoons I had nothing to do except hang around my neighbourhood. I knew nearly all the there: lots of my friends joined them and lots of them were killed, but I wasn’t involved in what they were doing. When I started at Fotokids it took up all my time”.

Berlin says that youth involvement in gangs extends largely from a desire to “escape to a different world,” one far from the depravity and worries of poverty. “The make their members feel special, they make them feel famous because of the bad things they do.” Berlin believes organisations like Fotokids can have the same effect on young people but by encouraging them to do positive things. “If you make a kid feel special, feel famous, for doing good things, if you make him feel like that by teaching him about photography, by having his photograph in an exhibition, then it produces the same result.”

Gaining a sense of belonging is clearly a key draw of joining a gang. Fotokids offers a similar sense of camaraderie – albeit by urging its member to point and shoot with a camera instead of a gun. “None of the kids who have been at Fotokids have joined because the project gave them something to do… and a sense of belonging to a group,” says Berlin.

Living with the maras

The question of why gang violence in Guatemala has become so prevalent in recent years is disputed. The proliferation of drugs passing through the country is the most commonly cited explanation. The scale of the drugs issue can be demonstrated by recent claims from US authorities that 75 percent of cocaine smuggled into the US passes through Guatemala. 

Boys, Jonny Raxon, age 16






Boys, Jonny Raxon, age 16

Francisco Tavico, of the UNDP in Guatemala, says the issue is complex. According to Tavico the surge in gang-related crime stems back to the legacy of violence left behind by the civil war, the deep social and economic inequalities in the country and the government’s failure to invest the capital needed to improve education and employment. “Then you add to this situation the drugs issue, as Guatemala is a natural corridor for drugs passing through on there way to the US, and the get caught up in this,” he explains.

Employment prospects

In this way, an organisation like Fotokids manages to provide a way out. Not only do their students have a recreational environment in which to meet and hang out with their peers, they gain a creative education and the possibility of future employment.

“The idea of the foundation is that you get taught and then you teach what you learn to others,” says Linda Morales, 24, who started attending lessons at Fotokids when she was nine years old after being recommended by an aid worker in her neighbourhood. The sense of solidarity for their peers and gratitude towards the organisation felt among the former students now teaching at the school is palpable. Linda says that it was her idea to have the older students start teaching the younger ones, as she thought it would be a good way of demonstrating her thanks to the organisation.

Despite the innovative sustainable structure implemented by Fotokids, their financial self-sufficiency remains elusive. It costs US$10,000 per month to keep the organisation going, with the lion’s share covering staff wages. Around 50 percent of this is generated from the sale of photographs and private donations, with the remainder coming from funding bodies (who include Pura Vida Coffee and the Soros Foundation). Yet money is a constant concern and funding has dropped this year as a result of the global slowdown. Nancy talks of feeling under immense pressure because she has 150 young people relying on her to find funding. This perhaps points to the biggest failing of the organisation, for if it is to expand and survive it must be able to do so without her and it must also harness the creative talent it fosters to develop new and lasting ways of sustaining itself.

The former students have begun expanding the project. Linda is keen to find the funds to develop programmes in rural areas of Guatemala, where poverty is experienced most severely. Evelyn now runs classes for children with HIV and has set up a girls-only class, called “Save our Girls”, which uses photography as an empowerment tool in a country that has the highest femicide rate in the world after Russia. Marta Lopez has completed a degree in Education and this year will open her own Fotokids programme in her neighbourhood, Tierra Nueva, which is considered one of the most dangerous in Guatemala

Evelyn and Berlin are now married after meeting as students at Fotokids 17 years ago. The pair, along with others, have set up a design agency called Jakaramba, which offers video, digital imaging, web and graphic design services. Forty percent of the profits go to the staff members who participated in the project and the other 60 percent goes back into Fotokids, “so that we can offer more kids grants to join the project” Berlin explains.

Nancy estimates that around 40 percent of each intake stay with the project until they complete their formal education, with the majority then continuing on to university. The 60 percent who leave tend to do so after having completed three – five years at Fotokids.  

“There are various reasons why they go,” says Nancy of those who leave the organisation before they finish their formal education. “They have to work to bring money into the house, they want to get married, their mums don’t want them to go to school anymore … it is their whole life they’ve been taking pictures and stuff, and then they are just like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, I want to do something else, I want to play football with my friends’ or what not.”

Still the crucial point remains: each of the 600 or so young people who have passed through Fotokids’ doors in the last 18 years was given a chance.

“Personally, I was given this opportunity and I made the most out of it by learning as much as I could,” says Berlin resolutely. “Now I am putting what I learnt into practice by working with kids and teaching them what I know. I was an adolescent once” he says, sniggering at the thought of his rebellious years. “I also rebelled like some of them do now, so I understand them. I often say to them: ‘Listen, I was where you are, I understand what you are going through, but you have now been given a chance to do the right thing, so do it while you can’.”

Some names have been changed.


Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData