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|| News Item: Posted 2011-10-14

Picturing Success
By Shelley Cryan

Photo by Shelley Cryan

Photo by Shelley Cryan

A photography student documents the Starfish graduation ceremony in The Gambia, July 2011, using skills learned in class.
I’ve taught photo workshops before, but this one was unique. Usually, lessons are primarily artistic, aimed at transforming snapshot shooters into image- makers. I’m a working videographer and photojournalist, based in Connecticut, and I love to share my craft.

Yet the two-week photo class I volunteered to teach this past July had a different, and decidedly singular goal: Helping the students make money.

The students were 15 high school girls living in an impoverished village in the Gambia, West Africa. They needed a way to produce a steady income so they could stay in school. They needed a way to avoid the teen-marriage-and-marriage-andpregnancy trap that sucks so many girls into the vortex of an impossibly difficult existence. In a society that’s hard on women, they needed a way to be empowered.

The challenges were steep: In addition to losing electrical power daily (for those that had power at all), and having onerous chores such as hiking a few blocks for running water, the students faced two other hurdles: First, the 15 cameras I brought them, with a little help from some friends, were low-end point-and shoots; it’s what I could afford after paying for the trip itself and forgoing a couple weeks’ freelance work.

Second, none of the students in my class had ever used a camera before. Ever.

This was going to be interesting.

The students did, though, have an intense desire to learn. They were enrolled in the approximately 100-member Starfish International academic enrichment program. Students are admitted to the overall program based on hard work, leadership potential, and academic achievement. The 15 girls in my class had shown an interest in entrepreneurship and were selected by the school codirector, Mam-Yassin Sarr.

Three summers ago, Yassin and her husband, David Fox, had started donation- fueled Starfish International ( to help encourage leadership among young Gambian women. It’s truly a labor of love. In past summers courses included writing, math, and self-esteem-building. This was the first year photography lessons were added and the first year the program offered focused instruction in entrepreneurship. I had free reign to develop the curriculum.

Even before we met, Yassin, who grew up in The Gambia, had dreamed of offering a photo class. She holds advanced degrees in education from colleges in the U.S. and had returned to her hometown to start the Starfish program. She knew there weren’t many photographers, yet there were plenty of photo jobs -naming ceremonies, weddings, and portraits. She knew photography could be a viable career path. No matter that no one there knew of any women photographers in the entire country; the Starfish course would change that. (By example, it helped that I’m a woman.)

Photo by Shelley Cryan

Photo by Shelley Cryan

Starfish International co-founder Mam-Yassin Sarr grew up in The Gambia. She earned advanced degrees in the United States, and returned to her hometown to establish a program to educate young women.
The story of how I got hooked up with Yassin and David’s Starfish program and why I agreed to volunteer is too circuitous for a short article. Suffice it to say I enjoy sharing my love of photography and feel a couple weeks of my time was a small price to pay to open up possibilities to a group of young women, if even just a little bit. It’s a proven recipe for social change: teach someone a trade and provide startup materials so people can help themselves. I was in. provide startup materials so people can help themselves. I was in.

We had to start with the basics: This is the lens, this is the screen that shows what the camera sees, and this is the button you push.

I came up with a mnemonic for four artistic elements I wanted the students to think about before taking a picture; they copied it down dutifully from the chalkboard. The next day, they recited it back to me perfectly. Wow, I thought, these are really attentive students. I beamed with pride. I beamed, that is, until someone pointed out I had left it written on the board from the previous day.

The students were reading it, straight-faced, acting as if they had memorized it. I turned around to see it and cracked up at my mistake and their joke, releasing a torrent of laughter from the students. From then on the girls realized I was a goofball, and we were in this together.

The weeks flew by. We concentrated on the moneymakers: individual portraits, group portraits, and candid event photos. They were getting good. They took the cameras home and to the local market, capturing personal images that only they could make.

They even took on assignments for the first-ever Starfish newsletter, produced by the journalism class, taught by my son Kevin (yes, I am proud of him) and Donna, another volunteer. So not long after picking up a camera, the students were published photographers. How’s that for a confidence booster?

All along, I had been showing images from my portfolio, to work on developing the students’ visual literacy. That helped a lot, as they didn’t seem to encounter too many photographic images in daily life. Billboards, magazines, and newspapers have nowhere near the saturation in their Gambian village that they have in the U.S.

When I reviewed their work, I was astounded. They were truly remarkable. The images were not only technically good --the students had followed the mnemonic carefully --many were emotionally resonant, offering a window into their lives. It was, for me, a stunning exercise in what can be accomplished when you’re working with no bad habits to break, serious motivation, and have the highest of expectations.

While I was starting to set up the Starfish graduation photo gallery, a father of one of the students stopped by early, saying he couldn’t stay for the ceremony. I told him, truthfully, his daughter was a very good student, an excellent photographer. I might as well have said she walked on the moon; I could tell he thought I was just being nice. After spending weeks immersed in the

empowering Starfish program, I was jolted by his reaction --a stark reminder that the culture outside of Starfish wasn’t accustomed to accomplishments of girls. jolted by his reaction --a stark reminder that the culture outside of Starfish wasn’t accustomed to accomplishments of girls.

Then I asked if he’d like to see some of her work. When I handed him three of her prints, his entire demeanor softened. He held the prints gingerly and stared at them a long time. Searching my eyes, he asked, “My daughter did these?”

“Yes,” I replied, “she is very good.”

Looking back at the prints, he said, “It looks like we might have a professional in the family!”

Gently, I corrected him, “You DO have a professional in the family.” He nodded and smiled, then went off to work, carrying himself a little taller.

A half hour later, I ran into his daughter as she walked into the courtyard for the graduation. “I talked with your father this morning,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, and looked at the ground.

“I showed him your work,” I said. She looked up at me. “He is very proud of you,” I said. I saw the same smile I had seen on her father spread across her face.

Since I’ve been back home, print sales have been brisk. We stay in touch by Facebook (there’s an Internet cafe in the village) and have even Skyped. I’m now working with David, the school co-director, to set up an online interactive course to help the students continue to improve and help us stay in touch. The day I left, the Starfish library had gotten electricity and a handful of Smithsonianworthy laptops that we’re hoping will be just powerful enough to enable us to conduct the online course.

I had left them with a photo printer and a good supply of ink and paper. As small business owners, each student is required to repay Starfish for all supplies they use ---eliminating friends and family freebies, which would torpedo a fledgling business in a close-knit community with large families ---and price the prints so they make a profit. Some things are the same the world over, right? I’m hoping to have the very good problem of needing to figure out how to ship more paper and ink soon.

The name of the program, Starfish International, comes from one of the favorite stories of Yassin (the school co-director). It’s about a little girl, who at low tide walks along the beach among hundreds of stranded starfish, tossing as many as she can back into the safety of the water. An adult approaches her and says,

“Why do you bother? There are too many to save.” Then she picks up another and puts it in the water, “But I made a difference for THIS one.”

Yassin dreams big ---she wants to build a year-round academy and include an early-learning center. I’m also thinking the students may outgrow the low-end point-and-shoots soon. Soccer --- err, I mean football ---is very popular in The Gambia, and I’d love to bring them cameras that could help them expand into sports photography.

To help raise funds for all that, I’d like to publish a book or mount a traveling gallery show in the U.S. of the student photos. Stay tuned (and toss me a line if you have any connections that can help). In the meantime, next time a student asks for help with their photo or business skills, think about saying yes. For me, it opened up a whole new world.

Shelley Cryan work from Gambia can be viewed on her Sports Shooter member page: For more about Starfish International, visit Short YouTube videos I put together of the students: Starfish Pledge: Starfish Anthem: You can view more of Shelly’s work on her personal website:

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