Being Samoan, through a child's lens

These photographs give a glimpse of the Samoan community of Oceanside, Calif., through its children's eyes. Last fall, 17 middle school and high school students who signed up for the Samoan Youth Photography project began toting disposable cameras around town. For three months, they met weekly with Leland Foerster, a professional photographer who taught them to compose, develop, and critique their work.

The Monitor asked if some of the participants would like to write about what the project meant to them, and one student agreed. Mr. Foerster offered the accompanying images, by two of the writer's peers. The group's exhibit opened in February at the Oceanside Public Library.

***

My name is Macy Pegina Faumuina. In Samoan, Pegina means "pearl." Faumuina means "in the way of the food and drink." My grandpa calls me Lafo ga ula. In Samoan, it means to give leis, to offer welcome.

Roughly 4,500 miles southwest of San Diego lies the heart of Polynesia, the small islands of American and Western Samoa. Imagine Hawaii - the warm nights, crashing waves, and swaying palm trees. From San Diego, Samoa is twice as far as Hawaii, and has twice the beauty.

Oceanside, Calif., contains an enormous population of Samoan people. Most of us have only heard of Samoa, but have never seen it. We are tied by the roots of our elders and are planting our own roots here, in the States.

In the fall of 2000, a group of Samoan youths met photographer Leland Foerster, who gave us expression, who led us to answers.

We were given a task to take one disposable camera each week and capture important parts and people of our culture in pictures. Everything that would spell Samoan.

In the beginning, the appeal was free cameras. The downside was having to regroup once a week on a school night to comb through everyone's pictures. We identified what makes a composition strong in relation to our purpose. We also talked about the artistic improvements we could make on the next roll of pictures.

By the end of the project, the appeal was our newly gained knowledge and skill, and the only downside was that the project was coming to a close.

We sorted through picture after picture every Monday night, trying to find the ones that could answer, "What is Samoa? What is a Samoan?" This project meant identity and understanding, sharing and thought.

I saw what I see every day: pictures. I realized what I never knew, what makes me who I am, what makes Samoans Samoans, and what makes me Samoan and proud.

In the back of our community library, kids and young adults, even some parents, met on a common ground to decide what we wanted to show the rest of the world.

Some common concerns were, "People are afraid of us," or "People assume all we do is eat and sleep." So it was then solely up to us to decide on the pictures that most honestly represented our culture.

Some families consist of loving parents with 16, 17, 19 kids. Family is a pillar in the Samoan culture. Samoans take in aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews. Everyone is family, by blood, by marriage, by recognition.

We are people of simple ways of life. We have smiles and huge hearts, which may explain our larger-than-life servings of food. Life is to be enjoyed any way it can be. Samoans ask for nothing - just stay awhile, have a good time, smile.

The project not only taught us the technical functions and art of photography, but what composition and content mean when they come from the photographer to the person enjoying the picture. We want people to understand the beauty and tradition of our culture, the pride and history, and the future we are making.

Look at the pictures. A picture is worth a thousand words. Ours are worth two thousand - two thousand faces, two thousand families, but one culture.

Macy Pegina Faumuina is a 12th-grader in Oceanside, Calif.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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