Nancy McGirr, a Guatemala-based American photojournalist and veteran of Reuters news agency, one day surveyed the burning plastic, cardboard houses, gardens of sewage and thousands of people scavenging for food at the 40-acre dump in Guatemala City. Many of them were children who pursued her, eager to look through her camera lens.
"The thought occurred to me: If they had the camera, what would they see through that lens?" McGirr recalled.
That was more than 20 years ago.
With a handful of cheap, plastic cameras, McGirr armed a program known now as Fotokids (and originally as "Out of the Dump") and taught children from the dump to photograph their surroundings, taking in everything, censoring nothing.
The Times first wrote about the project in 1993, shortly after it was launched. "The dump is a place where the stench is nauseating and inescapable, where vultures darken the sky and where disease breeds uncontrollably," The Times wrote.
The children's photos, it continued, "the result of something between creativity and serendipity, show the dramatic horrors of life at the dump -- the drunken scavengers, the wretched landscape of trash, the roosting vultures. But they also capture private moments of poignancy and joy, of young Indian girls dancing, of a wedding of an elderly couple, lifelong residents of the dump."
Today, the remarkable thing in a region of dashed promises and debilitating violence is that the program continues strong after achieving worldwide acclaim.
"I originally thought the project would last six months to a year, but it just took off," McGirr said.
McGirr, a San Francisco native who has also taken pictures for The Times, said her goal was to use photography to break the cycle of poverty. She soon realized the kids' snapshots could also be used as a teaching tool: showing them that they didn't have to be a part of a gang to be in a group and that cameras are a more effective weapon against poverty than guns.
From an initial six students who entered the after-school program in 1991, hundreds have passed through, receiving a camera, food, photography classes and education scholarships. One of the early sponsors was the Japanese photo giant Konica, which donated supplies, and the kids have had exhibits the world over.
"Of course they don't all go on to become photographers," McGirr said. "Photography just gives them a face and a platform" -- a tool that they might use to escape lives of perpetual poverty, drugs and gang violence.
More of the kids' snapshots can be seen at the Fotokids website.
-- Anna Bevan
Upper photo: One of Nancy McGirr's young students, Marta, takes pictures in Antigua, Guatemala, alongside a professional news photographer from the Prensa Libre daily. Credit: Fotokids
Lower photo: A student poses with her camera. Credit: Fotokids