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With a Nikon D60, a Flip Video camera and a Marantz in hand, Emily Coppel moved to a slum in South Africa in 2010. Coppel, a recent graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism at that time, wanted to empower the youth in Johannesburg by teaching photojournalism. During her two-year stint with Umuzi Photo Club, a nonprofit dedicated to educating youth about photography and activism, she says she learned much from her students.

A native of Portland, Ore., Coppel, now 24, says Africa fascinated her since she was a child. She grew up listening to stories of her father backpacking through Kenya in his early 20s. In high school, she read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and met a teacher from South Africa. When Coppel was in college, she took a political science course on the impact of power and money in South Africa.

Coppel first visited South Africa in 2009 for a study abroad program. When she returned in 2010 as a recipient of McIntyre Postgraduate Writing Fellowship, she wanted to cover the widespread xenophobia South Africans held toward African nationals who worked in their country during the World Cup. She documented her experience in a 2010 Global Journalist article.

The raw hatred she witnessed there did not drive her away but drew her to work with the youth in Johannesburg. She joined the Umazi Photo Club, first as a volunteer, and then as a program manager. She worked closely with 40 students in their late teens and early 20s, to photograph developing communities such as Diepsloot. An informal settlement of about 150,000 north of Johannesburg, Diepsloot has a murder rate about eight times greater than the United States’, according to a 2009 New York Times article.

Despite the constant stress and fear, Coppel’s heart was won over by her students. She says one of them, Morgan Faku, influenced her particularly. Soft-spoken with two missing front teeth, Faku pulled his hat down and averted his eyes when Coppel first met him. She, however, sensed a passion in the then 16-year-old teen.

“There’s something about him that got to me,” Coppel says. “I really wanted to empower him through this program.”

Raised by his sister, Faku rarely saw his mother, who gave birth to him as a teenager. An alcoholic, she could not find work. Faku’s background gave him a desire to photograph the impact unemployment and high school dropouts had on the community. Little did Faku and Coppel know that his photos would draw positive responses from around the world.

Impressed by Faku’s work, a woman in the Bronx borough of New York contacted Coppel to show the young photographer’s photos to her students in the States. Coppel says it was also powerful for the youth in Deipsloot to see one of their own fight against apathy and injustice. The photos inspired them to illuminate other poverty-related topics, such as HIV, she says.

“He’s not the type of student who is the top of his class,” Coppel says of Faku. “He’s struggling to get by, but he is trying to do good things.”

Coppel says stories such as Faku’s have personally changed her. Although she hopes to see systemic change in Johannesburg, she says she is happy to witness the change in one person’s life, which she hopes will slowly grow to have a positive influence on society. Most importantly, the transformation needs to come from South Africans themselves, she says.

“I do believe in empowering young people and bringing change,” she says. “I really strongly believe this generation of young South Africans can make this country what they want and hope to be — if they are given the tools to make it happen.”

By Regina Wang. 

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