DID YOU KNOW: Despite increasing development in Kenya, 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. It’s hard to even imagine.
Any Girl is a photography exhibition that tells the story of 10 girls aged 10 to 16 years old living in poverty, the struggles they face, and the joys they share. The girls are all part of local Compassion projects in Kenya.
We got the chance to speak to one of the two photographers of the exhibition, 26 year old Ella Dickinson. She’s beautiful and has the warmest smile, but most of all her eyes shine with an insight and understanding of life through the things she has seen and the stories she has heard. We wanted to know more about Ella and the 10 incredible girls in the project, because we think we have something really valuable to learn from them.
Firstly we were curious to know why the exhibition is called ‘Any girl’.
“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.” Explains Ella; “But also, me, you or any of us could have been born in to a different life and different circumstances.”
Ella was born in Wiltshire but 7 years ago came to London to go to the School of Oriental and African Studies. She later went on to study photojournalism at Westminster University and now works for Compassion which is a charity that focuses on ending poverty in the lives of children and their families.
The exhibition is commissioned by Compassion, and Ella first had the idea for the project when she was at work in Haiti in January this year and met a lot of girls that were living in very difficult situations.
“I thought about how the photos that the media often take can be quite undermining or portray them as weak and dependent and not show the flip side of the coin that shows these are really strong, courageous, resilient girls.”
“I brainstormed with a group of friends about how to photographically show that strength, and one of the ideas was asking the girls to direct the photos themselves. We wanted them to have freedom to choose what they wanted to wear, where they wanted to stand, how they wanted to pose so that it wasn’t us flying in and saying stand this way, or look this way.”
Ella continues, “I just met so many girls who feel like they’re not valuable or they’re not worth something, and so to say this is yours, you can do what you want with it, this is your space, your chance to have your picture taken, make your choice of how you want it, is really empowering.”
Interestingly enough, this ended up being one of the biggest challenges the photographers faced whilst doing the project.
“Poverty completely removes that sense of ‘my opinion matters and my opinion is worth something’. But to actually encourage the girls to take the lead a bit and to make the decisions and direct us was probably one of the hardest things. They all did a good job in the end though!”
There were the other obvious challenges too, like cultural and language barriers, but Ella, although never a fan of studying languages at school, now speaks Swahili!
“I think because it was the right context and I wanted to learn it and had a really strong motive, it just gave me so much more focus to use it! So even though I was rubbish at it at school I now do it!” She explains.
As you walk around the exhibition, you not only see incredible photographs of the 10 girls, but you get to read a bit of their story and find out things like what they love, what they fear, and what makes them laugh. It is here that you see that they truly could be ‘Any Girl’, but what would they say to any of us girls living in the western world?
“They would ask a question first which is what are you doing with what you’ve got? So they asked me ‘what do you do for a living’ and they want to know if you are using your resources well.”
“Because they have so little and can achieve so much, and they dream for so much, they wonder why we who have so much maybe do so little. And then in terms of advice I think they would probably say work hard at school – without a doubt all of them would say that actually!” Laughs Ella.
“They would say ‘focus and concentrate and give it your best. Everything you’ve got, give it your best effort in school.’ They would say ‘love your family well’. All of them had this amazing sense of love and duty towards their families. And I think most of all, and this is like the point of the exhibition, they would say ‘be comfortable and confident with who you are as a person in your own skin, with whatever resources you have, whatever school you go to. Whether you’re from Nairobi, Mashuru, or London.’”
“I asked one of the girls what it meant to be beautiful, and she said ‘don’t spoil yourself. The way God made you is the best way.’” How incredible!
Ella has seen and heard many of their stories, but one that stood out to her was 14 year old Esther’s (pictured above). When Esther was just 12 she had to sleep outside in the cold after her house was burnt down because of people making illegal connections with electrical wires. She explains how things like robbery and rape are really common where she lives.
“Esther would describe her neighbourhood, and then her hope. There was a real contrast of ‘this is my neighbourhood and this is what I see every day but this is where I want to be’. She really moved me.”
“I think the exhibition will probably speak differently to different people.” Concludes Ella.
Well, we certainly left feeling inspired, grateful, and moved in to action to use what we have to better the lives of others!
If you want to find out more about how to get involved with the work of Compassion you can check out their website and follow them on social media @CompassionUK.