Arkansas Sketchbook

John David Pittman | 2016

Upon arriving at the school in Nairobi, Kenya, in July 2016, photographer John David Pittman introduced himself to the students. He explained that he was there with Blue Door Sponsorship, an Arkansas-based non-profit whose mission is to connect sponsors with disaffected children in Kenya. He was a photographer, he said—a storyteller. The next day, he was there again and felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning around, he found a shy young man, the Kenyan equivalent of a high school senior, standing there behind him.

The young man said to John David, You tell stories? I wanted to share mine with you, and handed him four sheets of notebook paper: his life story, written out in blue ballpoint pen, everything that he could remember. At the top of the first page, there was a heading that read: The Past Me / Name: Victor Ombati Keera / Venue: Kenya Loitoktok / Nationality: Kenyan / Tribe: Kisii / Age: 18-23 / Birthday 11: Feb. 1993 – 1998.

If there were any question as to why a young man about to finish high school wouldn’t know his birthday—could only give a ballpark answer with a range of five years—it was addressed in the first line of the story: “I Victor, I was born in the year 1993, in the slum of Nairobi called Sinai. But my birth certificate it is written that I was born in the year 1998, my parents tells me that I was born in the year 1995, and 1997 am not sure of my age.” In the next 3 1/2 pages, he’d laid out his story, explaining how he’d grown up on the streets, lapsed into “bad company” and eventually, after many years, found stability in education at the ABC Kenya High School.

More than six months later, sitting at a restaurant bar in downtown Little Rock, explaining how the experience photographing these children and their country changed him, John David says there’s a reason he’s going back—that he almost has to go back. There’s a rawness, he says, that lingers long after you’ve gotten back. But eventually, it starts to fade.

“It is so easy to look at this and not realize these are real kids enduring these hardships and stuff on the other side of the world. It’s easy for us to watch the news and be desensitized,” he says, referring in part to the current refugee crisis. “But that realness—like anytime I pull up these photos and look at ’em … that’s what I feel. These kids are real. And that’s what I hope people feel when they see these images. That there’s enough in them that they can understand these are real situations, and the horrors these kids have been through—that’s real. That really happened.”

John David’s photography for Blue Door Sponsorship will be featured in the Key Connections of Humanity exhibition at Matt McLeod Fine Art Gallery in Little Rock, along with work from Angela Davis Johnson, Bryan Massey and David Clemons. The exhibition runs through March 23.