giving a face to work

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is a phrase often heard during any discussion about photography. And it is a phrase we were also happy to quote at the end of the 1990s when sitting in the office of Fekadu, our Ethiopian associate, in the Ministry of Education, Addis Ababa; Ethiopia, at an altitude of 2300 metres. In many education-centred societies parents do their utmost to send their children to university. Indeed, the economy needs well-qualified skilled workers too. Yet vocational education is usually the second or third choice career path in many countries.

 

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The basic idea was to bring vocational education out of the shade and make it attractive. Numerous drafts were drawn up and then rejected. A never-ending supply of fresh Ethiopian coffee was brought to the office. We gave our ideas and imagination free rein, the aim being to inspire enthusiasm for vocational training. We wanted some good pictures of young apprentices and teachers involved in practical vocational training. Our role model was the great German photographer August Sander. We wanted to build on his idea of social documentary photography and use pictures to give young people a closer understanding of vocational education. At the start of the 20th century August Sander created “People in Germany”, a work in which people proudly presented the positive aspects of their occupation and their social status on camera. We worked on implementing our idea of having vocational students present a photographic display of their jobs and the skills and aptitudes involved. We found plenty of success stories: graduates of vocational colleges who now have well-paid jobs or who even run their own businesses and provide a good standard of living for their families in the process. Photographs were taken and conversations were held – a few failures were even slotted in – but we learned a lot and found that we appeal to young people, their parents and teachers with these shots. And, above all, that we manage to arouse keen interest in practical vocational training. The pictures convey an impression of a “dream job” together with a routine working day and they illustrate career prospects.

 

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Now, some years later, we are sitting alongside our Vietnamese colleague Trang in the Ninh Thuan Vocational College in Vietnam. A photography exhibition on vocational training is due to open here in the college today. Two weeks have been spent working with teachers and students to transform the college into a gigantic photography studio. All the walls were painted and cleaned up to start with, then the equipment was moved into the right light and set up in compliance with safety requirements. The final step was to set up our photography lights. Cheered on by their fellows and trainers, the trainees presented their jobs in front of the camera. There was also a small element of critique when the students asked their teacher to pose for the picture of the model of a “perfect teacher” – and then gave him tips on camera as to how he could become a better teacher.

We are sitting in the schoolyard and observing pupils from local secondary schools, parents and industry representatives as they view the exhibition. The college’s training workshops have been turned into a gallery.

 

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“… become a metalworker”, “… become a welder”, “… become an electrician” say the slogans on the photographs, which display the workplace activities of the skilled workers of the future. With the help of the photographs, vocational college graduates proudly describe their promising careers to the visitors. Final-year students explain their own pictures and occupations, since they actually appear on the photographs in the exhibition. They are the face of vocational training!
All of this, and the enthusiasm with which students and teachers joined in, was once beyond our wildest dreams over cups of Ethiopian coffee. We have also learned a great deal down the years. Photography exhibitions have been used to initiate discussions on the quality of vocational education among teaching staff, school management, policy makers and parents. … We’re now sitting together and drinking lots of green tea…

Vietnamese-German „Programme Reform of TVET in Viet Nam“
RALF BAECKER, Photographer, Berlin
HORST SOMMER, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH, Hanoi
Article firstly published on “internAA”, the staff newspaper of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 2013, page 19.