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Through the looking glass: Rio's favela photo school

A dozen children holding tin cans rush out of school in a shantytown in Rio.

In a moment, they are screaming as a dog lunges after them.

But then one of them stops to place his can on the ground, and in a matter of moments the cylinder, modified to be used as a simple pinhole camera, has captured an image of life in the city's gritty favelas.

"I've taken my photo!" exclaims Jonathan, as he picks up the metal container. A tiny hole lets light through to imprint an upside-down image on film.

The device was made in the first photography school established seven years ago by an association in Mare, a slum, or favela, in Rio that counts among the city's most violent.

The aim of the organizers of the school was to encourage creativity among the favela's kids, and to have them capture moments of daily life beyond the guns, drugs and danger that the place is more often known for.

"We put photo paper inside the can which reacts to light. There's no need to focus or to set the aperture," explains one of the amateur photographers, 13-year-old Julia.

With the errant dog now tied up by its owner, the boys and girls of the class gather around to take pictures.

"It's a camera that's easy to use and it's cheap, everyone can have one," their teacher, Tatiana Altberg, says.

She started the "Project Pinhole" school in 2005 for pupils aged nine to 16. Funding comes from Globo TV, Brazil's biggest private television network, and the Rio de Janeiro state government.

"The biggest problem is that they lose attention easily. They only think about the computer. Amateur photography is a counterbalance to the unbridled use of digital photography," she said.

Taking a pinhole photo demands patience. Whereas a digital camera can snap several images per second, to be immediately looked at, a pinhole camera demands standing still for seconds or for minutes, and only seeing the result once the film is developed.

"They have discovered another era, before that of immediate photography. They are taken by this other notion of time that is the opposite of the speedy world in which we live," she said.

After a 10-month course, they pupils are shown how to digitize their images and do basic touch-ups, and how to scan photos. They are also taught the history and techniques of photography.

Fagner França, 20, studied under Tatiana and now he works with her as a tutor.

"I studied photos, I'm a photographer and I want to keep going. I want to show the perspective of someone who's always lived in the favela. It's very different to the stereotypical photos you see in newspapers that show what people want to see, the poverty and the violence," he said.

"Newspaper archives are a far cry from the real variety of the community," he said.

Some 200 students have gone through the school since 2004, and 40 have continued to work as photographers.

Founded by Joao Roberto Ripper, a photographer with ties to human rights groups, the school has also started its own photo agency and photo library, called "Images of the People" which contains 8,000 photos, nearly half of them online (www.imagensdopovo.org.br).

"Ripper believes the people in the favelas should be producers of images, with political training to know their rights. One of the guiding lines of the project is to distribute photos as artistic products," said the coordinator of the library, Joana Mazza, even as she complained that sponsorship is difficult to find.

"We are well-placed in the photo network but we are lacking photographers at a cultural level. Nobody can train photographers who think. They (stock photo agencies) want laborers, handymen in the favela. As we're a school aiming for excellence they don't want to sponsor us," she said.