Photographer Thapelo Motsumi is one of many young South Africans who has worked with the Umuzi Photo Club to develop his artistic skills and engage his community. Now this “drop out” has had two exhibitions in London and has been entrusted with Mandela’s football jersey. By GREG NICOLSON.
In a Johannesburg courtyard hidden behind the corner of De Korte and Melle Streets, Braamfontein, Thapelo Motsumi’s monochrome self-portrait looks over the cafes. His body is blurred and lost behind the frame’s focal point, his face. The words “drop out” are scrawled on his forehead.
“I never thought I’d be where I am today,” says the 21-year-old photographer from Hillbrow, sitting on a brick wall outside Johannesburg’s Market Photo Workshop, one of the country’s most respected schools for aspiring photojournalists.
“To have an exhibition in London and Newcastle, St James’ Park… I never thought I’d go there,” says Motsumi. He’s thoughtful but careful of running late. Between photo shoots, school and community work, our meeting was repeatedly postponed and he has to return to class in 30 minutes.
His Braamfontein exhibition is part of the Umuzi Photo Club’s I Am An Activist campaign. In 2009, the organisation started handing out disposable cameras to high school students and teaching basic photography skills.
“In the beginning it was just like, ‘(Let’s) give kids an opportunity to tell their stories’,” says the organisation’s founder, David Dini. Umuzi began when Dini left his finance job in New York and wanted to start something that combined the youth work he’d done in the past and his passion for photography.
He rolls his office chair over from another desk and offers sweets in between answering questions and working on his laptop. Working in communities such as Diepsloot, Alexandra and Hillbrow, the photo workshops “emerged into a lot more than just kids taking pictures,” says Dini. “It’s emerged into this whole youth development and activism movement.”
For the I Am An Activist exhibition, Motsumi took photos of students involved in the workshops. Posters of the Johannesburg youth, standing firm and looking directly at the viewer, adorn Braamfontein. A gallery on Melle Street features the students’ photos, focusing on issues affecting their community.
Dini describes the organisation’s focus: “Working with young people and teaching them that it’s really cool to care about development issues within their communities, it’s cool to be a responsible citizen and it’s cool to talk to your friends about teen pregnancy and service delivery. We use photography and multimedia to make it cool.”
By teaching young South Africans the basics of photography we get an “unedited view of what’s happening in South Africa,” says Dini.
“The images you see of Hillbrow are just crime and poverty,” says Motsumi, “but I can bring something different. I can bring images of a circus within Hillbrow, rehabilitation in Hillbrow, not just the bad side but actually the good side.”
Motsumi participated in one of Umuzi’s first workshops and has been with the group ever since. He was passionate about fine arts and signed up for the programme when he heard “these white people were coming to school” for a photography course.
He was studious and dedicated, says Dini, but he didn’t matriculate on his first attempt. Umuzi’s Emily Coppel interrupts, saying the organisation’s volunteers and employees work dedicated hours.
“Some fundamentals weren’t there but there are also some fundamental problems in the education system,” says Coppel. “It’s the story of a lot of learners in South Africa. Even though you’re an enthusiastic learner, maybe your teachers don’t care as much or for whatever reason you’re just not taught well.”
Motsumi continued to work with Umuzi to build his skills as a photographer while taking another shot at matric. Alongside Dini he helped establish a commercial photo agency that now provides all of Umuzi’s funding. The organisation hasn’t needed to take donor funding since last year.
Motsumi’s work with the agency helped him win a fully funded spot to study photography, but he first had to pass matric. With Umuzi’s help he was able to pass and take a bursary at the Market Photo Workshop, a one-year course after which he hopes to go to film school to study documentary making.
He’s just returned from London after receiving a Newcastle United jersey to give to Nelson Mandela. Along with other students, Motsumi got to shoot at World Cup matches and he’s been to London twice to exhibit the work.
“Through Umuzi I’ve had those opportunities… I really don’t think I’d be here (without them). Maybe I’d be in the street parking cars,” says the young man, needing to return to class soon. “Basically they’re like my parents.”
For others Umuzi is a way to get active within their communities. In collaboration with organisations such as SECTION27 and Love Life it offers training in how to engage local government or tackle local concerns.
In essence, it tries to document and encourage South African youth, even “drop outs” like Motsumi, to say, “I am an activist.” DM
Photos: Students participating in Umuzi Photo Club workshops are encouraged to capture scenes from their communities. All photos have been taken by students involved with the organisation.
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