Meet South Sudan’s Future Photojournalists

April 2, 2015
Aspiring photojournalists in South Sudan participate in a photo camp with photographers from National Geographic.

(Internews and National Geographic teamed up to conduct this photo camp depicted in a video posted by National Geographic.)

Seasoned National Geographic photographers join aspiring South Sudanese photographers, empowering the youth to tell the story of their country as only natives can.

Watch the video:


Catherine Arona: Through the cameras we can view South Sudan as, not only a country that has weapons and this AK-47 and all this stuff. But we also have a future. There's life

Matt Moyer: I'm really honored to be here. I've been involved with Photo Camp for quite a long time. And have taught over a dozen camps and what we did in South Sudan was go out into the communities in Juba, specific areas, and look at areas in which individuals from different ethnic groups, different tribes were actually interacting in peaceful and positive ways. Some of these groups, perhaps had been in conflict with each other, up to relatively recently.

So, one of the things that we did is to go and look at a few different areas. The students photographed at a kickboxing program. Where young men come together from different ethnic groups and different tribes in a peaceful and loving manner and beat each other up. So, Duku, it's great to see you. I haven't seen him since, since I was in South Sudan. And it's been great to spend some time. During the kickboxing training, you know we saw all of these young men come together and participate. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience in going and photographing there and what it meant to you to see these different groups, and ethnic groups and tribes, people from different ethnic groups come together and participate.

Thank you. It was actually great to see my fellow countrymen trying to participate in, in kickboxing. It gives me hope that they are, these different tribes coming together to fight for peace. It's showing me that we are not for war but we can make our country live in peace. And that's it.

Matt: I remember you telling me that you saw an individual and he had, he'd sewn flags on his shorts. Tell me a little bit about what caught your eye, why it did, and sort of what it meant to you, to you to photograph it.

Duku: Yeah. It's a really good question.

Thank you.

Yeah, actually, it's so amazing to take a picture of these guys training. And the flag this guy was wearing on the shorts, it's telling something that this country is somebody from far made this country to be, like United States. United States has been one of the great country that supports the referendum for South Sudan. In order for South Sudan to get independence. This guy is wearing United States in the other side and the other side is South Sudan flag. It is showing that United States and South Sudan, United States is like seeing South Sudan, it's a younger country you need to protect it. Yeah. Last question, you had mentioned a little bit, when we were talking before about power, you talked about your belief in the power of, of telling stories through photographs. Tell me a little bit about your thoughts on that. Yeah, actually, my thought about telling story. It gives me hope that in the future, I need to document these stories that generations of people who are coming beside me, will get it. This country has been in war, but now it's getting okay and, I feel-- it's a great moment and I really like to be a photographer I enjoy it and I want to improve my skills in photography, as I got from Photo Camp, it was great, but I need to get on and improve so that I will be a professional photographer in the future.

Matt: Alright. Well, thank you so much for sharing with us and I'm looking forward to chatting some more. Thank you.

Amy Toensing: So, I was lucky enough to travel to Juba this last September and meet Catherine and I'm just gonna ask her a couple of questions about our time there. And, I first want to ask you about your assignment, which was in the orphanage. So, could you tell us a little bit about your assignment and how that tells people about South Sudan. About the images and the work that you did there.

Catherine: Alright, actually in the Photo Camp, we were divided into groups. And I happened to be in the group of CCC. That's Confident Children out of Conflict. The assignment we had to do was to humanize the life of the children who are in the orphanage. And it happened to be a girls orphanage. So, we went there for a consecutive three days to just have different aspects of what they do every day. Definitely they do the same thing but that's what I thought at first. I was like, “okay, what are you supposed to do in this three days like, it doesn't make sense. The first day I will just get everything. I have all the pictures and it's perfect.” Yeah, and then I remember I asked one of the trainers. I was like, “okay, will I be doing this for three days? I will not be changing locations?” So, he was like, “yeah.” I said, “but I'll be having the same pictures, and it's kind of boring.” He's like, “No, try it out and you will really like it.”

Each day like I really tried it out and I figured out that, the first I had different kinds of pictures because I was focusing on environmental pictures, landscapes. I was having the whole thing in the picture, just everyone is there and I'm happy. And then... we used to have reflections on the pictures. And, I, one of the trainers was like, okay, this is very nice but maybe you want to think of how to play with the camera and how things may be more detailed than just the landscape. And then the second day I was kind of having pictures in the rooms, in the dorms, in the corridors, at the playground, in the kitchen. I was having pictures in more specific or in a smaller circle. And then the third day, I was having pictures of how the children are... their steps, how they catch the ball, how they play with each other so it was getting more and more, smaller circle and I really enjoyed that.

Amy: So, you realized how much work it is.

Catherine: I realized, yes. At first I was thinking it doesn't make sense. Why do I have to do this. I mean—

Amy: But, here's the cool thing, Catherine, is what you're talking about is, you went in and you realized that it actually takes work 'cause you're studying your subject. You are studying somebody but then you look at this picture.


Amy: And, you... it's not just about an encyclopedic look at who, what this place is, right?


Amy: You captured an emotion. So, can you talk a little bit about that 'cause I have a feeling that maybe you wouldn't have taken a picture like this before Photo Camp and so how was that, moving in so closely, and capturing somebody in that emotional...

Catherine: Well, actually, this is one of my favorite pictures at Photo Camp. I loved it and I never had a picture like this. And, I just look at it. I look at the quality, the eyes I look at the tear, that small drop at the end of it. And the shape of the child's lips. And I was actually thinking so much about this picture and it's just amazing how we all have the same emotion. Everybody cries, everybody loves, everybody smiles everybody gets depressed, wherever you are in, every, any point of the universe, we all do that. So, it's kind of like when you take pictures like that, you start to think about how we are all the same. How we are all uniform, how the whole world is just about the simple things that connect us together. And it doesn't necessarily mean that this kid is miserable because it was at a certain point when he was really mad at a toy that he wanted so bad. Yeah, he wanted that toy so bad and then the other kid was kind of, I don't know, stronger or he was quicker and he just picked up that toy. And I was there, I was just there. And I don't know why I didn't help out then because I felt that-- I felt like, OK, I'm on a mission, I think I need to take this picture. So, I took the picture first and then I solved the problem.

Poor kid.


Amy: So, you caught a universal language.

Catherine: Yes, it's a universal language. I love it.

Amy: What's going on here at the orphanage?

Catherine: Well, yeah, when you hear orphanage, it makes you feel like these are the most unfortunate people but I love this picture because it reflects the nice side of what they are doing. I mean, they are living, there's life, they have daily things that they do. And in this actually they were having fashion show. And I love the idea because sometimes you just feel like okay, I have too much to worry about maybe food and all that, and school. But then they have that sense of fun, fashion, colors, cat walking and all these nice things. Put on some heels And everything's okay.

Yes, Put on some heels.

Yeah. I'm a girl.

Amy: Catherine is a law student. And so, her friends were like “Why, what are you, why are you going to spend your time doing photography?” So, why did you?

Catherine: Well, actually, I think... law and journalism, they are kind of, they're linked. Me personally, I'm a law student. And, I understand the law enforcement, I understand the bill of rights, the bill of freedom to talk freedom of all these things. And then in journalism when I take pictures of things that I don't like in society, then I would be able to present those pictures and, view it and probably the law people, me I am also in that, they would see these pictures and it moves something in them like, there's a responsibility or a legal responsibility towards this. So, I feel like initially I am contributing to solving some of the problems in the society, through my camera. Through the pictures that I can take.

Amy: So, it's an activist side of you.


Amy: Nice, I like that. So, we have an activist. Yes! So, I'm going to ask you one more question. And I'm going to read something that you wrote. Because sometimes at the camps we do writing exercises. And so there was something that really caught me and I wanted you to, I wanted to highlight it and I wanted you to elaborate on it. You wrote, “The world views South Sudan as only a war zone, which is absolutely wrong.” So, I want you to speak to that and tell us why is that wrong and what you want this group of people to know about your country.

Catherine: Before I answer that question, I just want to, just say something small. This morning as we were having our tea and breakfast, the waitress actually she came and she served us and then she said, “Where are you girls, guys from?” We said, “South Sudan.” She was like, “Oh, how is the war over there?” I was like, “Seriously?” I was like, “Seriously?” I mean, I am a South Sudanese and I am here. I'm in the middle of, like, okay, this is not the middle. I'm in Washington. I'm happy, I'm holding my camera, I have pictures, I have a future, I'm a law student, I go to university I'm living in Juba, I'm not living outside Juba. So, seriously, with these pictures, it's quite amazing and I feel it is such a great opportunity for me that I attended the Photo Camp because through the cameras we can view South Sudan as not only a country that has weapons and this AK-47 and all this stuff.

But we also have, we have streets we have children who cry, we have washings. We have, we have a future. We have life. We are a true Photo Camp and, now we have formed a new collective called South Sudanese Photographers' Collective. We are just trying to continue with what Photo Camp has done there. So, we are still humanizing the life in South Sudan. There are markets, there are parties, we have weddings every Saturday in the churches and everywhere. There's life.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Lynn: Right. Akout.

Akout: Hi.

Lynn: Hi. I think it's important to know we as photographers, we work from who we are from our past, from our life experience and so, I would like you to understand a little bit about how Akout grew up. And it might help you understand his images.

Akout: That's a great question. I myself, I was not growing up in South Sudan. I was growing up outside. My whole life has, I've been a refugee for my whole life. And I was really very happy when Photo Camps comes in, and we are being divided into groups. And I heard that some group will go to refugee camps to go and take pictures. And I said, “Oh, God, I wish I would be among people that go to that place. Nobody has captured my story.” And I say, “Oh, this is the time that I will capture my story I want to document my story.” Because I see those people outside there, they are like me. They sleep, some of them sleep under the trees, along the River Nile. Being bitten by mosquitoes... The trees are not enough for them, to cover them, for the shading. So, I move a lot, until I went inside the River Nile.

I went to find these beautiful girls. They were swimming inside there. So, and actually, it come to mind that when you are in hardship, there's still hope. You still have hope for the best. And these young kids, though they leave their parents at the trees, they go outside, they still find life outside there.

Lynn: So, I understand there was another group from Photo Camp that went to a camp. And, they did not have a good experience. I don't know what happened there, but you were in a different place. And you had a different approach, perhaps. I understand you left your cameras in the car, and maybe from your own life experience of living in camps, you found a different way to be a photographer, or be a human being first, and then a photographer. Can you just talk a little bit that? Was that something you decided upon - or was that instinct or—

Akout: Oh, my God. That's a really interesting question, by the way. I really enjoyed the question. You see, in refugee camps, you know, people are mixed up. There are a lot of people there traumatized, you know that, and there's people that need help. And you, if you are going to something, If you are going to look for something. You need to actually humble yourself, and to have trust with each other. So that you have that if you have that trust, you get what you need. All you need to do first also, you need to get a friendship. So what do you do? There's a group that went to another camp that, those, that group was really received badly and they were almost harassed by those-- But our group, the way we go... I was like, we don't go as photographers, but we go as people that will need to get in touch with them. Live with them, enjoy our life together. So that we'll be, like, we are a community. All we did is to leave our camera inside the vehicle. We go first, we interact with them, we share that moment together until they get us as a part of them. Because we know that it will not for, it will not be for the one day that we shall go and take pictures. It will be for some days.

For example, this among the, I did this child. And the person that is holding it is one our trainees, Jean-Luc. And if you see that they need a real comfort. They need to be comforted. Children are for everybody... outside there. So...

Lynn: And this place... did you talk to this lady before you photographed?

Akout: Because I myself, the way they look at me, they take me as part of them. Because from the first day that I went there I am really, go deeply into their places and I narrate myself my life story, how I was. And here I am. Sometimes I put my camera aside and I go to them, to help them in everything that they did. So, they take me as their child but not a photo, a photographer. They take me as their child. And every day I walk with my camera next to them, they don't mind because they say, ah, this is our child. So, you want people inside of South Sudan to understand how these folks are living.

Lynn: But what about the rest of the world? What about the people here? What about the people in every other part of this...

Akout: That's a good question. A picture is a universal language. It doesn't speak for a particular people. It speaks outside, beyond the wall. Because some people don't know how to read but if you know how to see and you see that picture it tells everything, all about the world. And, we take pictures not for a particular place but we take it so that the whole world will see what is taking place in that location, but not only for South Sudanese. Because everybody around this world, most of us will go. But there's a generation that will come and they need to know more about that time, what was happening at that time, and that's why I love to take pictures. And it is part of my life and it really changed my life. I'm really proud of that. One—

Lynn: So, you said that this is one of your most important photographs. Why? Why does this move you?

Akout: This picture, it moves me a lot. And really this is the moment. This is the moment that I have been going through all my life. Because you see the child there? The child that is sleeping down. Some people might say that this is the end of his hope. He doesn't have hope for the future. And yet, as I am sitting here, I'm a living example, I can say I've been suffering, yet, I never... I never say that, that's the end of me. And I do something. And if I say that that was the end of me I can't be in Washington this time. But I say, “oh, no one can stop my, you know, my vision. I must follow my vision.” So, if there is someone at camp that can hold up my hand and show me the direction that I am going, I can still make it. This is the life that I was. That's so much like that was my life. And this here remind me of my life, back when I was a refugee. And I am really happy for that picture. And I like that picture so much.

Lynn: Yes, powerful picture. Thank you.