Pure Joy

You might remember that I recently participated in a Help Portrait photo shoot in the township of Diepsloot, right here on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Read my previous post about how we labored for hours to take the pictures of over a thousand students if you’d like to find out what it’s like to participate in one of these events.

But I hadn’t yet told you about the best part of it. The handing out of the portraits, and getting to watch the pure joy radiating from these kids’ (and teachers’) faces.

The big day came at the beginning of August. Once again we drove on those dusty and rutted roads to Diepsloot Combined School, hauling a few heavy boxes full of photographs mounted onto white cardboard. I must give credit here to my friends Karen and Lauge, who were the main organizers and fundraisers for this event and spent countless hours printing and mounting these photographs, a part of the event I wasn’t involved in (you might remember that at the time I was a bit preoccupied with sewing beanie hats, and teaching others the virtue of sewing straight seams).


We found an empty classroom, laid out the photos in neat rows, and waited for the kids to come. Or, rather, waited for another one of our organizers, Lotte, to scout out all the classes tirelessly and lead them our way. She might have had the hardest job that day. Interestingly, she said that trying to organize this on a schedule, i.e. telling a teacher to bring his class in 15 minutes, virtually never worked. It was either right now, which never seemed to be a problem, or it would be forgotten. At least until the time we were finally packing up and ready to leave, when a deluge of stragglers who’d heard about the pictures showed up to claim theirs.

The grade 11 boys in the picture above had been some of my toughest “customers” during the photo shoot, roughhousing and jostling and jeering and somehow always managing to give me their sternest look whenever I pressed the shutter, depriving me of the wide smiles they flashed to their friends whenever I put the camera down.

I think it’s safe to say they were nevertheless happy to receive their pictures.

Everyone, in fact, was happy that day, but in different ways. The older kids were incredibly loud and unruly and swept through our classroom like a flash flood, always leaving us slightly rattled afterwards with the urge to take a few deep breaths. The little guys, on the other hand, would line up hand in hand and inch silently past the pictures, brows furrowed in concentration.

Then you could see their faces transform as they caught a glimpse of themselves. Pure joy radiating in all directions as if the sun had suddenly broken through clouds after a rain, drenching everything in its magnificent power. And then the urge to share it with their friends and see their pictures in return. And the urge to have another picture taken of them holding their picture. Often right in front of their face.

We were kept very busy snapping away yet again.

The sweetest thing I watched all day was when one little boy couldn’t find his picture, even though he had wandered past it a couple of times already, and a little girl found it, tugged at his sleeve, and handed it to him.

It was only then that I realized what should have been obvious: Many of these kids grow up in homes that might not contain such a luxury as a mirror, and therefore don’t have a good idea of what they look like.

But now, thanks to Help Portrait, I hope they do.

And they’ll have a chance to realize just how beautiful they are.


To find out more about Help Portrait and how to become a volunteer, please read The Gift of a Picture.

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