Portrait of an Artist: Alex W. Palmer '12

After spending a summer in a Kenyan refugee camp, Alex W. Palmer’s ’12 first photo exhibit facilitates dialogue between art and humanitarianism

Robert L. Ruffins

Alex W. Palmer '12 is presenting his first solo humanitarian photography exhibit, "Children of Kakuma," through November 15.

Alex W. Palmer ’12 is like the quintessential Harvard student in that despite the casual demeanor, he is anything but typical. “I like to run, read, and hang out with friends. You know, the normal stuff,” he says nonchalantly. Yet in a not-so-normal but rather extraordinary vein, Palmer is displaying his very first solo humanitarian photography exhibit, entitled “Children of Kakuma,” in the Fisher Family Commons in the Center for Government and International Studies Knafel building through November 15.

Palmer says that the series of photos he chose to display showcases the artistic culmination of the six weeks he spent teaching and working with the children of the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. With his Canon Rebel in hand, Palmer documented the daily lives of the young refugees, capturing the pride, strength, and hope of these residents amidst the bleak conditions of their domestic situation.

The Harvard Crimson: What brought you to Kenya?

Alex Palmer: I was looking for a different refugee camp where I could volunteer. I found one called Kakuma in Kenya, and they said that I would be able to teach kids and go into the camp and see what it was like. I went primarily for public service, to see what life was like for the refugees and to teach refugee kids, and then photography ended up being this new world, this great side interest that gave me something to do and gave me a great way to meet people.


THC: Was photography something you picked up on your own?

AP: I’ve had a few mentors who have used photography as a way to capture their international experiences. One of them was my [Quincy House] sophomore advisor, Seth Moulton [’01]. He had gone to Afghanistan the previous summer and displayed a small exhibit with his photos about children in Afghanistan. Another was someone I met [during] the summer of ’07. He was a veteran who had had a lot of international experience in college, going to places like Rwanda, the Balkans, [and] Bolivia to work with street kids, and he had used that combination of service and photography that I was looking to emulate.

THC: What is the message behind “Children of Kakuma”?

AP: People often comment about how in the photos, very few people look sad. The most amazing thing was that these people were living in such terrible conditions, yet were so incredibly proud to have someone take their photo. So many of the kids had never seen their own photo before because most people don’t have a camera. I really came to admire just the perseverance and the strength it takes to live like this, and I really wanted this exhibit to capture some of that.

THC: You mentioned that you took about 2000 photos. What were the reasons for choosing the 20 photos out of the other ones you had?

AP: I wanted to do something about children because I had spent most of my time teaching and working with these kids. Also, I think often when we talk about refugees, we don’t picture the effect on the children. A lot of these kids were born in the refugee camp, so it’s a very strange situation when the U.N. talks about sending these refugees home.

What is “home” for these kids who have grown up their entire lives in a refugee camp? Their families have been there for fifteen years, and if you really want to make a substantial change with the refugees, the kids is where you start. This was what I was interested in capturing.

THC: Do you see your photos fitting into this greater conversation of international relations and art?

AP: Definitely. One of the things I noticed from when I worked for the U.N. in Caracas, Venezuela the previous summer and from when I worked much more on the ground this summer is that people in both spheres tend to forget what life is like for the other. It’s very easy when you’re on the ground to say what decisions people should be making, and when you’re making the decisions, it’s easy to discount the experiences of the people on the ground. I wanted to bridge that gap and to give people a way to see what life is really like, and to not forget that when we talk about policy questions there are real people who are impacted, whose lives are changed.

THC: What have you gotten out of your experience in Kakuma?

AP: Because of my time in Kakuma, I decided to start a non-profit that would help pay for kids whose families cannot afford to send them to the local school where I was teaching. The last photo in the exhibit is just a short poster about my organization called, “Hope for Kakuma.” $185 would send a child to school for a year, including tuition, books, clothes and food. I know this is a fair amount to college students, but any amount would permanently change the life of these refugee kids.