I’m sure we’ve all done it. Travelled to a country poorer than our own and taken photos of local people in a bid to capture the ‘real’ spirit of the place. But did you ever think to hand your camera over to your subject? Give them the opportunity to show their country through their own eyes? Maybe it just never occurred to you. Maybe you thought your camera might get lost or – worse – stolen.
It was this realisation that inspired Dutch entrepreneur Janneke Smeulders to start FairMail, a social business that puts cameras into the hands of teenagers in deprived areas of world and gives them the opportunity to fund their education by selling the images they take.
Janneke was working as a volunteer with street children in Peru, many of whom scraped a living selling recyclable materials they collected from the local rubbish dump. It was poorly paid, dangerous work that made it impossible for the kids to attend school… their families simply couldn’t cope without their income. One day, Janneke was watching some of the other volunteers taking photos of the street kids and saw the joy on their faces as they were shown the back of the digital camera and saw the pictures of themselves. That was when the idea came: what would happen if you put the cameras into the hands of the children and empowered them with the chance to take photos of their world as they saw it? And what if you gave those kids free photography training to enable them to take better photos and make an income from the images they took?
It was a simple idea. Each month, Janneke chooses the best photos the teenagers have taken to be printed onto greetings cards and sold all around the world. Each photographer earns 50% of the profits generated from the images they take. The money is put into their Education Fund to be spent on school or university fees and other things they need, such as glasses, a rucksack or books. If they want to, the teenagers are also allowed to spend a quarter of their earnings on improvements to the family home, such as installing electricity or buying themselves a bed or desk. This means they still contribute to the family income, alleviating pressures that could be placed on their household as a result of their participation.
Since starting in 2006, 55 teenagers in Peru, India and Morocco have earned €100,600 between them, from the sale of two million cards.
The benefits of being part of FairMail are more than just financial though. The teenagers are encouraged to take an entrepreneurial approach to their work. In their quest to take photos they are encouraged to see their communities with fresh eyes, seeking out the beauty in the people, places and experiences that surround them. And, because they understand that there is a direct link between FairMail’s profits and their own personal earnings, they embrace the responsibility that comes with their role. In nine years only one camera has been lost and the lights and computers in the office are never left on at the end of the day.
FairMail cards are available in ethical gift shops all around the world (click to locate your local stockist) or via the FairMail webshop. Each card has the name and a photo of the photographer on the back and you can read more about them and how they’ve spent their earnings in a special photographer’s section of the website. The video below shows exactly how the project helps the teenagers in their own words. FairMail is a perfect example of how trade – not aid – can transform the prospects of the next generation and give disadvantaged people the tools they need to take their destiny into their own hands. Brilliant work FairMail, you have well and truly secured a place on The Good List!
[Photographs all courtesy of FairMail: 1 Anil Kumar | 2 Anidela Rios Pizan | 3 Juan Carlos Cabellos | 4 FairMail | 5 FairMail | 6 Badre Boukhris | 7 Dante Juarez Avila | 8 Hajiba Bahrame | 9 Jose Luis Reyes Flores]