Down in the dump: Reuters journalist Nancy McGirr handed out instamatic cameras to eight Guatemalan children. Jane Richards views life on a rubbish tip

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Adelso Ordonez has taken some heart-rending pictures of children living in terror of a glue-sniffing, alcoholic father who beats them up and regularly turns their home over. One picture shows a little girl standing among the clothes her father flung around the night before, another has a tiny boy crying as he watches his parents fighting. But the most extraordinary thing about these candid photographs is that Adelso Ordonez is one of these same children.

In 1991, American photographer and journalist Nancy McGirr gave cameras to eight children who live with their families and thousands of others like them on Guatemala City's municipal dump. An exhibition of their work, Out of the Dump, will be on show at London's Photographers Gallery from 7 June, and a two-part documentary will be screened on 11 and 18 June on ITV.

Nancy McGirr came to the dump in August 1991. She was a news photographer for Reuters who had moved to Guatemala to find 'something that was more than just taking photographs'. Then an Australian journalist asked her to take some photographs to illustrate his article on Guatemala's municipal dump.

Half the Guatemalan population is indigenous and because the indigenous people (almost 90 per cent Indian) are the poorest, they are the ones who finish up at the end of the line - on the dump. Whole families scavenge to find shoes, cardboard, tin and glass to sell to middle men who come down from the city and buy at phenomenally low prices.

'I was walking around with my camera,' McGirr says, 'and it suddenly dawned on me - why not give the children cameras and see how they would photograph the dump. How would it be through their eyes.'

McGirr became involved in a school run by nuns on the edge of the dump. She took over a literature class one day when one of the nuns became sick and gave the children cheap instamatics. From there, she gradually integrated her lessons into their educational programme. She operates the project on a profit-sharing basis generated from donations and sales of cards and prints. Profits pay for educational facilities and photographic equipment, and the rest is split among the children and their families. 'One of the things they have to do to stay in the programme,' McGirrsays, 'is to stay in school. When we started out, some of them had never been to first grade. Now they're all enrolled.'

Of all the young photographers, Rember Ramirez is the one whose photographs will now stand out with greater poignancy. The 14-year-old was drowned earlier this month and McGirr has felt his loss all the more for the fact that 'he really knew he wanted to make it'. His photograph, 'Vultures in the Trees', is a strikingly stark image.

It is testament to all the children's artistic and imaginative powers that the photographs are moving, witty and vibrant. Poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism and violence are rife, and the children's pictures inevitably reflect this: 'The Gluesniffers', a photograph by Benito Santos, is especially revealing - his aunt reaches for glue to inhale while her lover looks on. But Rosario Lopez chose to capture her sisters and friends dancing and laughing (see picture), Benito Santos captured a sly wink from a scrap dealer, while Mirian Esquivel and Marta Lopez chose to focus on their beloved Barbie dolls (rescued from the dump).

'They all have different talents,' McGirr says, 'but the really important thing is that by taking photographs they have gained confidence. When I first met them, their ambitions extended to being cleaners, selling fruit and working on check-out tills. Now they talk about being doctors and lawyers.'

Photographers' Gallery, Gt Newport Street, London WC2 (071-831 1772) 7-18 Jun

'Guatemalan Children of the Dump' 11 Jun, 'Guatemalan Photography' 18 Jun, ITV

(Photographs omitted)