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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 November, 2003, 11:22 GMT
Slum children's lives through a lens
Claire Marshall
By Claire Marshall
In Guatemala City

Image taken by Guatemalan street child
The children's work has been exhibited around the world
Jessica Montenegro sits on a dusty track overlooking a slum in Guatemala City. A sea of crooked grey tin roofs stretches out beneath her feet. Nearby, raggedy children run around chasing each other in the dirt.

A woman scrubs a pile of clothes in a gutter running with fetid brown water. Around Jessica's neck hangs her first and her most prized possession - her camera. She is 11-years-old.

Already she sees beyond the slum where she lives. She looks out towards the green hills on the horizon. "I like to take photos of the mountains because this is a very beautiful country."

Children taking photos
For the children, the camera is a tool, it's a means of expression
Nancy McGirr
Jessica's family is penniless. The only reason she has a camera in her hand is through a project called "Fotokids". This charity is picking children out of their lives of poverty and giving them the chance to earn a creative living.

Along with giving them a camera and teaching them about photography, each child who is selected is given a scholarship to finish school.

Former war photographer Nancy McGirr set up the charity 12 years ago. She was working with drug-addict children who were living in the vast rubbish dump of Guatemala's capital city.

She laughs when she says: "I didn't think I would do this for more than six months".

Slum in Guatemala City
Tough conditions in the slums
Now she shows off the stunning photographs mounted on the walls of the project headquarters. Some of the images were taken by children as young as nine. Their work has been exhibited all over the world.

"The intimacy is really interesting. The younger they are, the less self-censorship they have - they take photos of everything, including problems in the family. For them, the camera is a tool, it's a means of expression."

Guatemala has a huge youth crime problem. Only one in six children finish primary school. The harsh conditions in the slums breed vicious teenage gangs which steal and kill.

Nancy believes that having a creative alternative stops these children from getting involved.

Photo taken by Guatemala street child
Photography provides a creative outlet for the children
"You have to start with them pretty young, from about the age of seven, before they join the gangs. I asked one boy why he never became a member, and he said: 'Well, I guess I had something else to do.'"

Eighteen-year-old Linda Morales flicks through her impressive portfolio of photographs. Nine years ago, Fotokids gave her her first camera.

"I do photography because I have a need to express myself. I need to say something to someone - to show how and where I live, and what my country is like."

Nancy hopes that one day, Linda and the others will take over the running of the project.

However, funding is a constant worry. The current estimate is that the money will run out in April. Nancy's worst fear is that these children could have to be sent back to the slums.

The BBC's Claire Marshall
"With funds due to run out in April these children could soon have to go back to the slums"

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