After education, family is one of the most integral components to a healthy childhood. In between walks through hallways and bus rides home after school, youth constantly seek out additional networks of compassion and support, either through peers, teachers, administration, or others who serve as human resources for young people. Ka Joog is a community of Somali adults and young people who work together to build and maintain healthy environments for youth to thrive in during critical times of their early adolescence.
The organization views their participants as “little brothers and sisters,” and “peers,” developing intimate bonds and relations with, as well as educating, young people. As any family only hopes for the best from their kin, Ka Joog uses education as a vehicle “to inspire [youth] to pursue higher education, and to let them know that their community is here for them.” With an emphasis on cultural identity, belonging, familial structures and mentorship, the organization felt more like a family than a non-profit. Inspired, I began to rethink my approach to my evening’s photo shoot with the group for the McKnight Foundation exhibit.
Traveling alongside Mrs. Wokie Weah, President of Youthprise, in the passenger seat of her SUV on our way to the organization’s second headquarters in Eden Prairie, I felt stuck between concepts I wanted to use to capture the essence of Ka Joog and how to adequately represent Somali culture. A community of rich cultural customs and practices, I grew nervous about how to portray the organization without exoticizing my subjects, while still maintaining my creative edge and vision as a visual artist. How can I capture family without perpetuating stereotypes about the conventions of family in Somali culture? What if the youth don’t feel comfortable being photographed by me, especially the young girls? My anxiety slowly melted once I entered the building and saw a room full of young Somali boys and girls, wide-eyed with excitement and bubbling with enthusiasm to be tutored by the organization’s adult partners, who were also Somali. Greeted by Mohamed Farah, Executive Director of Ka Joog, further soothed my nerves once we began the shoot. I wanted to make sure that both genders were represented properly in the photographs I took, to contradict the common misconception that cultures rooted in Islam are believed to be sexist and misogynist. I actively reduced these possibilities with my stark contrasts and witty juxtaposing of images that would help make the portraits dynamic and engaging.
Positioning Mohamed and Ka Joog youth in a family-style portrait was more natural than I thought it would be. Mohamed and the youth sat stoically on handmade chairs made from cardboard and painted with brilliant color, staring into my lens with a comfort that communicated trust. The energy in the room was warm and flowing, familiar and family-like. While we spent only an hour together, I left with a new perspective on the definition of community. Whether it is an American or Somali flag, the subject still holds the agency to incorporate many types of cultures into their own and develop individual identity while challenging others on how they, too, can imagine themselves in a community. And with community, Ka Joog consistently empowers young people to strive for the best versions of themselves by serving as a home away from home.