Childhood scenes

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The Independent Culture
FOR THE children who are born on, grow up in and eke a living from Guatemala City's huge municipal rubbish dump, death is often the only ticket out. Rember Ramirez was 14 when his bruised body was found in the dump last year, but at least he'd been given a chance to dream.

Rember was one of two dozen scavenger children, some as young as six, participating in "Out of the Dump", a project by American photographer Nancy McGirr. In 1991, weary of photographing death and misery in Central Amer-ica's conflicts, she decided to do something concrete for the region's poor children.

"I'd noted they'd always crowd round me on an assignment, wanting to touch my camera, as if it were from another planet," said McGirr. "Helped by local nuns, I chose a group of dump children, gave them cameras and training and at the same time put them through school."

First, in 1991, she bought three autofocus cameras and recruited some half-dozen children. "Initially, I'd expected older kids, but it was the younger ones, aged six to 12, who showed most interest," she said. Later, in 1992, Konica of Japan heard of the project and donated a sturdy 35mm "off-the-road" automatic camera to each child. Some have graduated, as the project has progressed, to more sophisticated single-lens reflex models and even develop their films under McGirr's guidance.

"I wanted to pass on my skills, but it was also a healing process to alleviate anger I felt for the atrocities I'd seen," said McGirr, originally from Michigan but now based in Guatemala City. "Part of the idea was to give them a chance to go to school. Postcards of their photographs, and exhibitions, helped pay for school. The only conditions for getting on the project were: you must go to school; and you must not sniff glue. I wanted to give them the ability to dream; to show them they could get out of the dump, rather than the idea that you live in the dump, and get tossed into the trash when you die. They were so small that some of their earlier pictures were of adults from the waist down," she adds. "But they learnt fast." Rember Ramirez, 11 when he started, captured the lurking danger in the dump, photographing the ever-present dogs and vultures.

There were pictures of mothers sifting through rubbish for anything that would fetch a few cents; aunts sniffing glue; a body being discovered: all telling vignettes of the misery of life in a dump that covers an entire city district and receives 1,000 tons of rubbish a day.

Children develop their own style of photography. "Some do landscapes, some photojournalism," McGirr said. "I point out to them that photography's not easy, that if they can do this, they can do anything. Reuters news agency has expressed interest in hiring some of them as photographers when they are of legal working age."

Now, four years on, the original half-dozen has expanded to 23, mostly girls. Others, mainly boys, have dropped out. "It's hard to keep boys interested when they get to 13 or 14 and can make money as cheap labour riding garbage trucks," McGirr says.

Most still live in the dump, helping their parents sift out anything that can be sold. But it has become increasingly dangerous. Drug gangs have moved in, weapons are common, outsiders dumping rubbish are regularly assaulted. From a hut on the dump's edge, McGirr has moved her courses to a church hall in a safer area.

Rember Ramirez, one of her favourite pupils, never made it. McGirr and friends found his body after he had failed to turn up at school. He had drowned in a sewer, but was badly bruised and his clothes were found elsewhere.

He may have been killed out of jealousy. Rember had a reputation as a cocky lad who kept pointing his camera. And, he insisted, one day he would get out of the dump. !