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Brussels non-profit puts cameras in kids' hands
It’s a romantic notion to travel across the world to help children in developing regions, and certainly to fall in love in a far-away place, but An-Sofie Leenknecht has done both. Though she didn’t plan it, her trip to Argentina two years ago has led to Light of the Children, a non-profit that she founded together with her partner, Ariel Pascuali.
Light of the Children has brought a photography project all the way back to Brussels, linking pupils in Molenbeek with their counterparts in Argentina and Bolivia.
Leenknecht met Pascuali two years ago in Jujuy in the north of Argentina. Pascuali is from Baradero – about 150 kilometres northwest of Buenos Aires – and travelled to Jujuy for the first time in 2009 to help deliver basic supplies to four boarding schools. After returning home, he couldn’t stop thinking about the people he’d met – especially the pupils.
“I wanted to share with the children in those schools something that would last longer than food and clothing – something that would build their capacity to express themselves creatively,” he says. An avid photographer, Pascuali decided to give the children analogue cameras and teach them how to use them.
The project was such a success that he continued visiting Jujuy and working with the children, teaching them about camera settings and how to frame shots. Once developed, the photographs became talking points for the kids, helping them to understand what’s important to them and to each other.
From Brussels to Bolivia
Originally from West Flanders, Leenknecht works as a lawyer for the European Disability Forum in Brussels. During a trip to Argentina, she met Pascuali and was immediately taken with the project – and with him.
The rest, as they say, is history. The couple now live in Brussels, where they founded Light of the Children earlier this year. They are currently in Bolivia giving photography workshops to schoolchildren there.
“Our work focuses on children who have fewer opportunities to express themselves,” explains Leenknecht, “such as those from minority groups, refugees, children with disabilities or those who are living in remote regions.”
They focus on children between eight and 12 years old because “they are in a period of their lives where they become more independent from their parents and develop their personalities and personal choices,” says Pascuali. “In this process of choosing directions for their lives, photography can become a way of expressing themselves.”
In September, the couple worked with youngsters from a school in Molenbeek. “Most of them had never seen a camera that works with film,” says Leenknecht. “They were born in the digital era and are only aware of phones and digital cameras.”
But analogue cameras are an important part of the process, explains Pascuali, whether in South America or Europe. “It forces the children to reflect on what they want to say with the picture before they take it,” he says. “In these times where everything goes very fast and certainly when digital photography allows you to take many pictures without thinking about it, we are trying to teach them to take a moment before the ‘click’ – to be more present in the moment, to act and create from a place of tranquillity.”
One thing that has become clear: Kids all have the same priorities, no matter where they live. “Irrespective of the environments where the kids grow up, what they take photographs of is, in most cases, the same,” says Leenknecht. “They like to show you their daily lives – the streets and buildings, their schools and the landscapes where they live. And there are a lot of pictures of their family and friends.”
Light of the Children has a board with nine members but no structural funding. They have had several invaluable donations and grants, including receiving cameras from Kodak UK and a subsidy from the Brussels-Capital Region’s Imago fund.
The latter went towards a recent exhibition of photographs taken by the pupils in Brussels and Jujuy in the Brass’Art Digital Cafe in Molenbeek. “It was a success,” said Leenknecht, “and the young photographers were so proud to see their photos in the expo.”
The pupils in Molenbeek were also quite interested in what kids their age were photographing on the other side of the planet. Leenknecht: “When they become more aware of how children live in other countries and cultures, they develop empathy and feel a solidarity with them.”
Donations to Light of the Children can be made to BE20 5230 8091 5556 (BIC TRIOBEBB)