Documentary

Inside a Sierra Leone Orphanage

Main image: Backflip © Stefano Klein, 2016. All images © Stefano Klein, courtesy of the artist

Stefano Klein was born to travel: Raised in Vienna but graduating from Imperial College London, he embarked upon a voyage of self-discovery that took him through the remote hinterlands of Ethiopia, Venezuela and Trinidad & Tobago, alongside stays in the USA, Japan and South Africa.

But unlike many who binge on travelling after university, Klein did not subsequently settle down to a career somewhere in the vicinity of his degree – an MA in public health and epidemiology.

Instead, he developed a life-changing passion for photography that would propel him on yet more adventures.

Since then, his travels have delivered several distinctive collections; covering grassroots musicians in Haiti and Jamaica for Against All Odds and Alpha Boys respectively, whilst honing his style in more straightforward travel photography with Salvador, Bahia (Brazil) and Calais (France).

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Human Pyramid © Stefano Klein 2016

The first half of 2016 was spent in Africa, and a new collection covers a selection of educational establishments in Freetown, where young boys struggle to find their way back into society after a youth of disorder. He was inspired after discovering Fernando Moleres’ Free Minor Africa project, which details the wretched plight of Freetown’s borstal-bound delinquents, and attempts to offer solutions for them upon release.

However, after spending time on a follow-up project, Klein looked elsewhere. ‘I wanted to show a different picture of Africa’, the mohawked photographer suggests over coffee in Central London, ‘not so stereotypical. Usually you just see starving people or you see warzones or other horrible things, but you don’t really see the daily life and the happiness that poor people have.’

Many of the most revealing shots are taken from five weeks spent in the Don Bosco Mission in the heart of Freetown – a Roman Catholic institution that offers 11-month educational programs to orphans, delinquents and other youngsters who have fallen out of the system. These homes were initially founded in the mid-to-late nineteenth century in Italy, France and Argentina, quickly spreading to Africa, Asia and beyond. It remains, by some counts, the third largest missionary organisation in the world, operating over 2,500 houses.

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Two boys cleaning the school floor © Stefano Klein 2016

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Two boys cleaning the school floor. © Stefano Klein 2016

The images often cover the day-to-day playfulness of teenagers together, with Klein keen to keep the potentially fractious colonial past of Sierra Leone out of the spotlight. Additionally, the recent history of the country; a diabolical civil war that raged between 1991 and 2002 is kept at arm’s length, with reference to this generally remaining out of frame. Here the photographer is not seeking to whitewash a bitter, complex legacy, more trying to present an alternative picture of Sierra Leone – one with a future instead of a past.

‘Usually when I go somewhere, I just carry a camera around, and I don’t have a plan, and if I see something that makes me stop, I start shooting as many pictures as I can in a short time. I visit the same places over and over again [until] they don’t really care about me any more because they have seen me so many times.

‘They see me as invisible and they don’t look at the camera any more. That is the goal.’

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The classroom at the Don Bosco mission, Freetown, Sierra Leone © Stefano Klein 2016

This ritualistic element in Klein’s practice is mirrored in the imagery that appears to interest him most: dance classes, the daily cleaning programmes and playground assemblies, alongside the lessons themselves. It’s clear that in a country like Sierra Leone – which ranks 181st out of 188 countries on the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Development Index, the kind of commitment to becoming ‘invisible’ is hard to come by.

Indeed, any Westerner who has visited the global south can probably appreciate the curious huddle that often occurs when a stranger enters town – especially one armed with a camera.

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© Stefano Klein 2016

Continues Klein: ‘I studied sociology and anthropology so my work is about the social environment; how it affects people and their behaviour. I don’t really have a political message but I want to show what’s going on. If the society of Sierra Leone is corrupt, then this is difficult to show in five or ten pictures.’

‘I don’t know if it’s changing anything but maybe people are [becoming] aware of what’s going on – maybe seeing a different picture of Africa. They have nothing, but they have much more than some Western people who have lots of material things.’

For more information about the photographer, visit here.