Local photographer Lisa Marino believes in the power of her medium.

According to her, photographs are a “universal language” in which people from a variety of backgrounds can experience commonality.

“Eight different people from eight different cultures can all look at the same picture and understand it,” says Marino.

As such, photographers can be, among other things, effective storytellers. It is this belief that led Marino to become involved in a project known as Through an African Lens.

Through an African Lens was originally developed when photographers Tracey Wallace and Robertson Bales took camera equipment to a rural village in Swaziland, and encouraged a group of eight teenage girls, who had formed their own anti-AIDS peer support group, to express themselves through photography.

According to Marino, this represented a substantial shift in the way Africa and Africans are usually portrayed in photos.

“Often westerners will travel to Africa and take picture of babies with flies on their faces and then they come back and tell us to care. But these girls took pictures according to how they viewed their community and their life. They are the storytellers, rather than the subject.”

Wallace and Bales returned from Swaziland with photographs taken by the group of girls and exhibited those photographs in Victoria, B.C. and Whitehorse. Marino was lucky enough to see the exhibit, and felt personally called to action.

“I was inspired to continue and expand what had been started with these young women and before long I had booked my flight,” she says.

So with an assortment of digital camera equipment in tow, Marino moved from her comfortable life in Canada to KaPhunga, a small town in rural Swaziland, where she lived from January to April of 2009. Instead of launching into the photography project upon her arrival, Marino decided instead to work in the local preschool.

She was blown away by the community’s reaction to her: “It was a dream come true,” she says. “All these incredible people who accepted this red-headed white woman into their community to live in a mud hut.”

When she did start meeting with the group of eight photographers, Marino found herself in awe of the commitments placed upon these girls. “Many of them, with at least one parent deceased, are living with their grandmother.

“Often, with the younger siblings needing more assistance than the grandmother can give, the girls assume the caretaking role. This can mean rising at four in the morning to bathe, feed and send younger ones off to school.”

And yet they still found time to completely engage in their photography project. “It was pretty easy to fall in love with these girls,” Marino adds.

For Marino it was particularly gratifying to see young women beginning to feel empowered. “Swaziland is a polygamist country so girls don’t have the same rights. But it was exciting to see their self confidence grow as they began learning new skills.”

When she began working with the girls, they were excited just to use the cameras, but by the end of the sessions they had become sophisticated artists in their own right. “Their photographs developed into stories of their lives, culture, country and future dreams,” says Marino.

Now, Through an African Lens is being exhibited again. The photos on display were taken during Marino’s stay in KaPhunga and feature both her work and the work of her protégés.

The exhibit runs in gallery 22, above Triple J’s Music and will continue until Aug. 14. All proceeds from the show will be returned to the photographers in Swaziland to help with their education.