When she was 12, Evelyn Mansilla lived at the edge of a garbage dump in Guatemala City. Her job was to scavenge for food for her family’s pigs. Every day she waited for trucks to discharge loads of trash and then scrambled to compete with other children and vultures to snatch the best morsels.
One day she encountered Nancy McGirr, an American news photographer who had grown demoralized after years of filming war and poverty in Central America and had decided to open a free photography school in Guatemala. The young garbage scavengers were her first recruits, and Mansilla became one of them.
That was 23 years ago. Today Mansilla is the college-educated administrator of McGirr’s program, Fotokids, which has helped more than 1,000 poor youngsters finish school and learn marketable skills in photographic arts and graphic design.
Lately, the non-profit program has developed a more urgent mission — to help prevent desperate youths from joining gangs or trying to flee illegally to the United States. Last year, a mass exodus of unaccompanied minors from Central America triggered a humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We are on the front lines, and our whole focus now is gang prevention,” said McGirr, who is visiting Washington this week with Mansilla to promote Fotokids. Both women described how the current epidemic of criminal gang violence has transformed Guatemala, making their work far more dangerous for both students and staff.
The worst incident occurred at a basketball court near the school several years ago. One student’s older siblings had joined a gang and began robbing stores at gunpoint. One night they were watching a game when rival gang members arrived and started shooting. The student was unharmed, but six people died and eight more were wounded.
The threat of violence is so pervasive, McGirr and Mansilla said, that parents are afraid to let their children take buses to the school and students taking photographs on assignment fear being robbed or mistaken for gang extortionists. Even at the city dump, where students once felt free to photograph other scavengers, things have changed.
“I remember when I was taking pictures there and it was normal. Now kids are scared their cameras will be stolen, and they can’t be spontaneous because people don’t trust them,” Mansilla said. She said she tries to be a role model to new students, telling them her personal story and helping them to see life through a different lens.
“They can’t believe I came from the dump,” she said with a laugh. “I tell them if I could do it, you can too.” She met her husband when they were both teenaged students at Fotokids, and he now teaches web design there. “We share the same vision,” she said.
McGirr said she and the staff try to recruit vulnerable youngsters before gang members can, by offering them an anchor in a chaotic world and a counter-narrative to the gangs’ promises of money and protection. Some drop out and are lost to the streets, but others stick with the program, finish high school and go on to college.
Fotokids, which currently has 215 students, is supported largely by private donations and has been actively promoted by some of McGirr’s former journalistic colleagues in Central America. It provides partial college scholarships and has expanded to include branches in Honduras and California’s Central Valley.
“We try to get hold of kids as young as possible, at least by the 6th grade,” McGirr said.”We make them part of a photo gang, we give them something to do and a path out. We tell them that staying here and getting a good job is much better than spending all the money and risk all the danger to try and get to Mexico and the U.S.”
As the environment in Guatemala has changed, so has the nature of the skills Fotokids students learn and the art they produce. For one thing, photography techniques have been revolutionized since McGirr started the school in 1991 with a few battered cameras. Students now study video production, web design and graphic acts.
The most successful graduates have moved on to professional work with TV camera crews or design agencies, and many have been sponsored to attend training programs in Europe and elsewhere abroad. In the process, McGirr said, some lose interest in photographing the gritty, impoverished reality that was once the school’s trademark, preferring abstract subjects like schools of fish or artistic dancers.
“Some of the kids still live with poverty and hunger, but they don’t photograph that,” McGirr said. “They have moved outside themselves. You pull up your socks and you go on. It’s an escape.”
In other cases, though, students feel driven to chronicle the violence that has ravaged their country, their neighborhoods and even their families. One riveting image from the new Fotokids brochure and website shows a somber woman in a traditional Guatemalan costume, sitting on a sofa next to a photograph of a boy and bouquets of flowers. The scene was photographed by the woman’s 12-year-daughter after her brother was slain by a gang.
Despite the persistent hazards of her work and the seemingly unstoppable scourge of gang violence that has ravaged Guatemala, McGirr said she has no plans to leave the life and mission she has built there. She declined to give her age, saying she did not want to be “pigeonholed.”
“This is my vocation,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “This is my family. As a journalist I was photographing problems. Now I try to solve them. If it doesn’t always work, at least you are still putting positive energy into something.”
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