In a world where phone cameras are the norm and lives are freely documented for social media, it's hard to imagine that for others, owning a camera could mean changing the outcome of their life. The Brighter Times chats to FairMail directors Federica Micozzi and Kira Beck about how they are shaping the lives of underprivileged children in Peru through photography.
Firstly, thank you so much for taking time to RISE with The Brighter Times!
How would you describe FairMail in a sentence?
FairMail is a social enterprise that produces fair trade cards using photographs taken by underprivileged Peruvian teenagers. 60% of the profits go to said teenagers, and invested into their education. On a more sentimental level, I would say that FairMail is a place that encourages our photographers to dare to dream. We show them that dreams can come true, if you work hard to achieve them.
Very good advice! How long has the enterprise been running, and how did it start?
FairMail was founded in 2006 by Dutch social entrepreneurs, Janneke Smeulders and Peter Den Hond. At the time, they were running a vegetarian restaurant in Huancacho, and in their spare time started volunteering in El Milagro, a very poor neighbourhood of Trujillo, home to the city landfill.
Here, a community of thousands, children included, survive by separating garbage (by material) and selling it to recycle companies, for a few cents a bag. Working conditions are inhumane, they breath toxic fumes, and deal with toxic materials on a daily basis.
During her volunteering experience, Janneke realised that the other volunteers were bringing their cameras to the landfill to take pictures of the kids, but they would never allow them to handle the cameras, afraid that they'd get broken. This is when she had the idea to change people's mindsets, and give the children working on the landfill the possibility to use the cameras instead.
So is this how the idea of photography classes began?
Yes. The challenge was BIG: mainly trying to find beauty to capture in such a desolate place. 13 years later though, and this is what we’re still doing. Finding free resource, capturing its beauty in pictures, and creating a source of income for the FairMail photographers.
How did you get involved?
Kira and I actually met in 2015, we were both FairMail volunteers! We immediately fell in love with the project and became good friends with the original founders, Janneke and Peter. We went back in 2016 and 2017, but it was in 2018, that Peter and Janneke decided to step back from FairMail, and we were asked to take over. How could we say no?! We’ve been running FairMail since January 2018 and we now spend 4 months a year in Peru.
So judging by your voluntary experience, Fairmail doesn’t depend on external aid at all?
FairMail was created to offer underprivileged children the chance of a better future through photography. The idea of funding FairMail as a social enterprise, and not as an NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation), instils the funders’ intention of breaking the donor-recipient mentality that is widespread in developing countries.
To date, FairMail hasn’t depended on any external aid, and it exclusively relies on the sales of the cards, created with the images taken by our photographers. We have great support from various selling platforms across the globe, such as "Love from the artists", to which we're always grateful!
The message we’re trying to convey to the children in our program, is that nothing is more important than commitment and motivation, and the fact of being born into a disadvantaged environment shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to work hard, and do anything in their power to reverse the situation.
That’s really empowering, to instil a more deep rooted message of courage and determination; to be self sufficient, rather than be given a hand out… You mentioned you were a volunteer, tell me more about the FairMail volunteer program.
We welcome volunteers from all over the world, all year round, to help the photographers during the photo sessions. Volunteers are a unique asset for us because they create an inspiring international environment, and provide a unique contribution to the program on a technical, cultural and human level. We require a minimum commitment of 6 weeks, and we offer the volunteers to stay in our office/flat for a very reasonable price. Volunteers lead the photo sessions and they are in charge of the first selection of the pictures.
That sounds amazing for everyone involved. You can check out how you can volunteer here)
Are you able to share a success story?
We have several, but when asked to share one, we like to share Gabriel’s story. Gabriel is now 20 years old, he left FairMail last year. (All photographers leave the program when they turn 19, but they continue to receive the earnings from their card sales when they sell.)
As a young child, he lived with his mother and his siblings in the Andes, but they moved to Trujillo hoping to find better life conditions. Adjusting to life in a big city wasn’t easy, Gabriel ended up singing at road junctions to earn money but soon ended up hanging out on the streets with the wrong crowd.
In a fortunate turn of events, Gabriel came across FairMail in 2013. He has been, without any doubt, one of the most successful photographers we’ve ever had. He’s so far earned nearly 4000€! (and counting!) With this money he’s paid, and still paying for his studies. He’s currently on his 3rd year of communication sciences!
Yay Gabriel! That’s so amazing!!
He’s also a member of the most prestigious photography school in Trujillo, and working as a freelance photographer with two former FairMail photographers. He also keeps coming to Sunday classes because he just loves being in FairMail, and helping out the younger photographers. He’s such a role model! (more on Gabriel here.)
How wonderful he was able to find you and turn his life around!
It is, we want to teach our photographers more than technical skills, we want to teach a way of life. This is also why we organise two photography trips a year to give the kids an opportunity to travel, something they solely couldn't afford to do. Here they are able to take pictures in beautiful areas, rather than the desert coastal line where Huanchaco is. To cover the costs of the trips, we welcome travellers from all over the world who want to combine authentic tourism and social responsibility - the price they pay, includes the costs for one of our teenagers. In other words, thanks to them, one of our photographers can travel off the beaten path and explore!
Incredible. Finally, any general advice for humanity?
I’ll partly repeat what I said before. We strongly believe that motivation and commitment are the two most important ingredients to achieve one’s dreams, and nothing, not even luck, is more important than that. When you truly believe in something, there is nothing that can stop you from achieving it.
A technical note:
FairMail gives the photographers 60% of the profit of the sale of the cards, or pictures. Each photographer has his /her own fund which is divided as follows : 80% of the money goes for education, 10% for clothing and 10% for the family. We also provide the photographers and their direct family members with health care. Additionally, we offer guidance, counselling and support in general.