A Venezuelan school taken over by parents, students and teachers is the exciting subject of a new photographic exhibition.
The pictures reflect the enthusiasm Jason Harris feels for the people he met, and the changes they are trying to bring about.
They also demonstrate the potential for deepening and widening the process of transformation.
The Juan Bautista Alberdi school is in a barrio called Manicomio, a suburb of La Pastora, in the west of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.
In December 2002, the local authorities closed it down in support of the national oil bosses’ stoppage, which was designed to bring the country to its knees and drive out the democratically elected president, Hugo Chavez.
Instead of meekly giving in to the right wing or waiting for the people at the top to sort everything out, ordinary people reacted by taking charge of their own lives.
Workers occupied factories, bus drivers continued to run services and local communities began to run schools. The Juan Bautista Alberdi school is one example of what happened.
“The director of the school was against Chavez and for the bosses’ shutdown, so together with some of the teachers, he closed the school and said it would reopen only when Chavez had been forced out,” says Jason.
“The children’s education was under threat from the actions of some of the wealthiest and most powerful members of society.
“But they hadn’t reckoned on the people of La Pastora. A group of parents, students and other local people — just eight or nine at first — got together and said that they were determined for the children to get a proper education. They formed a committee and involved more people.
“They decided that providing an education meant taking over the school. So on 9 January 2003 they marched to the school, broke the door down and took it back.
“They found it was in a terrible state. It had been very poorly managed, and the conditions inside were shocking. The building itself was a run-down wreck with no proper toilets or running water and the classrooms didn’t even have desks, blackboards or books.
“The local community set about renovating the building. It took them over three weeks, but there was a great sense of people working together for a common goal.
“One of the aspects to stress is that everything that has happened round the school has had the effect of bringing people together.
“Only six of the former teachers were prepared to help at the new school, so parents became teachers, people in the community became teachers and organisers and cooks and volunteer helpers of all sorts
“This wasn’t people doing what they had been told to do from the top. It was all about energy and hard work from the community.
“Once reopened, the Alberdi school was run by a committee. It is an amazing project which is open seven days a week for what often seems to be 24 hours a day.
“The children start at 7am and go on to about 2pm. Then they hang around until four or five or six.
“It’s great to see children who are enthusiastic about being at school and who don’t want to run away as soon as it ends. There are sports and other classes to do.”
Many of the best pictures in the history of photography have a sense of connection and partnership between the photographer and the subject. Jason’s photographs sum this up perfectly.
There is a real empathy with the school, a celebration of its achievements.
“The fact that the teachers are part of the community, and are often learning at the same time as teaching, has changed the atmosphere,” says Jason. “It’s much less ‘us and them’, more people learning together.
“There’s great confidence about the children, which I hope you can see in my pictures.”
The main objective of the school, according to Gabriela Leon, one of the committee members, was “to make the children’s rights valued. This place was now open to everybody, and for the first time the parents could actively contribute to their children’s education.”
The school has done more than teach children. “It also has free classes for adults open to members of the community who missed out on their own education,” says Jason.
“The school committee went through original enrolment papers and found that many of the parents were actually illiterate themselves. Some hadn’t finished primary school and a big majority had not finished secondary school.
“The adult classes range from 15 year olds up to people in their seventies and eighties. It’s brilliant to see young and old together.
“The canteen provides meals to whoever needs a meal, whether they are part of the school classes or not. There’s always a packed canteen, always new people to meet and talk to.
“The committee managed to renovate previously unused sections of the school, transforming them into areas that have been used to benefit everyone. The school is a focus for all.
“A group of older homeless men were found accommodation in one part. From being on the outside of everything they have been given a role and purpose in life. They have somewhere to stay, food and a social life.
“The school is one of the centres of Mission Barrio Adentro. This programme, which provides free health care for the children as well as the local community, consists of a medical and dental service developed through links with Cuban doctors based in the school building.
“The community committee, with the help of one of Venezuela’s national television channels — Vive! TV — created a media department within the school.
“They produced a newspaper for the children and a special facility entitled The Popular School of Latin American Cinema, with the assistance of a group of French journalists.
“It consists of a media lab in which the children are taught how to produce and direct their own documentaries, which are then broadcast weekly on Vive! TV.”
At the Alberdi school they also introduce students to the Venezuelan government’s Mission Sucre. This aims to take 400,000 undergraduates through university.
“So far, more than 1.5 million people have been taught to read and write as part of the drive to eradicate illiteracy in Venezuela,” says Jason.
“The Alberdi school is a living part of this process of creative self-empowerment, but above all it expresses one community’s desire to give their children the chance of a brighter future.
“The school has recently been closed by the local authorities of La Pastorato so it can have major rebuilding work that is expected to be completed early next year.
“Once reopened the Alberdi children will be taught by a mixture of original committee members as well as professional teaching staff. The school will be officially recognised as a Bolivarian school, part of the state system.
“That has great benefits — it is important that someone pays the teachers! But maybe there are losses as well because it will not be possible to play the same community role, such as housing the homeless in the school.
“Some of those who set up the school in the first place are now moving on to another closed school to repeat the process. Some people say that what happened at the school is an example of what’s been called ‘the revolution within the revolution’. I think that’s interesting.
“I want to share these images with as many people as possible as an example of what can be achieved when communities work together for a common goal and as a tribute to the dedication and energy of the children and teachers that I met.”
The movement around the school gives a glimpse of the initiative and energy from below that will be so crucial in pushing forward the revolutionary process in Venezuela. When matters hang in the balance, it will be the organisation from the base that will be crucial.
“It was almost an accident that I arrived at the school,” says Jason.
“My background is in magazine design. I was the art director of Holiday Which? but then became interested in photography.
“I went to Central St Martins College and then decided to go on holiday to South America.
“My original intention was to go to Venezuela for two weeks and then move on. But I never got further than the school and stayed in Caracas for three months.
“I had been told that the barrios were dens of violence, and I’m sure there are some places like that, but it was bullshit about the areas I went to.
“There was an incredibly warm welcome from people, who invited me into their homes. And this continued all the way through my stay.
“I was there last Christmas and four separate families asked me to stay the whole holiday period with them.
“When I came into contact with the school I found it so inspiring that I volunteered to help by teaching photography.
“I can’t speak Spanish and the children couldn’t speak English! But we got on very well somehow.”
Jason Harris’s exhibition Labour of Love is at the Bolivar Hall, 54 Grafton Way, London W1 (Warren Street tube) until 5 December, Monday to Saturday, 10.30am–6.30pm. For information phone 020 7388 5788.
For more on the exhibition, go to www.jmharris.co.uk