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leeannolwage.com

Duration: Three years.

Location: Cape Town, South Africa.

Education: BFA in film directing and screenwriting, AFDA Film School, Cape Town, South Africa. Attending both the Blink Portfolio Review in New York, sponsored by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) Howard G Buffett Fund for Women Journalists, and the IWMF, Native and WAN-IFRA Women in News’s Women’s Media Leadership Bootcamp in Kenya were also influential in my development as a self-taught photographer.

Career path: I’ve always been creative and a storyteller, but didn’t know that I would go on the path of photography. I worked in film and the commercial industry as a props master and set decorator for nine years before I got into photography. While my partner and I were traveling in the East, we bought a camera, and I immediately fell in love with photography. Towards the end of my time in the film industry, I felt unfulfilled and despondent, and longed for more meaning in my life. So just before I turned 30, I traveled to the opposite end of the country with my camera and spent a week with the Black Mambas, an all-women anti-poaching unit changing the face of conservation. I was so inspired by these fierce women and the work they were doing that I documented their work and told their story.

Then, as I turned 30, I decided to quit my job and pursue a career in visual storytelling. I pursued personal projects while assisting commercial photographers. Although a lot of my work stems from documentary practice, it is very much shaped by my experience of working with commercial photographers. Instead of just documenting what I see, I also think a lot about lighting and conceptualizing. I never know how to describe myself, and am constantly evolving. I’m somewhere between a documentary photographer and a fine artist.

Cultural influences: I’m inspired by the human experience and often fascinated with the resilience of the human spirit. A lot of inspiration comes from my beautiful country of South Africa and the unique, wonderful people with whom I share this space. I’m equally inspired by contemporary photographers and by my peers, as I am surrounded by so many commercial photographers. Depending on the work I’m developing, I’ll draw on different visuals for inspiration, but mostly, it comes from daily interactions with the world and my subjects. It’s often the simple things, like a conversation or a feeling, that become the basis of inspiration for new work. I’m also very inspired by our African aesthetic and strong, contrasty light. I want to use my work to celebrate who we are.

It is a privilege to be allowed into someone’s world, and even more so to be given the opportunity to photograph them.”

Favorite projects: My most recent work, #blackdragmagic, tells the stories of Black queer, gender-nonconforming and trans people who grew up and live in the townships of Cape Town. The project is about augmenting the power of daily township-spatial navigation, migration, culture, gender and sexual identity. I wanted the project to serve as a platform for Black queer bodies where they were invited to co-create images that told their stories in a way that is affirming and celebratory. We shot in Khayelitsha, a partially informal township in Western Cape, South Africa, located on the Cape Flats. While the township is their home, it is also a place where they are subjected to harassment, violence and discrimination on a daily basis. The process of creating the project became a radical, progressive act to reclaim the township and to stand up against the overwhelming climate of discrimination Black queer people face.

Also, the work I did with the Black Mambas; my work with Ceasefire, an organization that works with reformed gang members to act as violence interrupters within communities plagued by gang violence, and the work with organization SevaUnite to look at how yoga is helping with offender rehabilitation in Pollsmoor, one of South Africa’s most notorious and overcrowded prisons.

Work environment: South Africa is a beautiful place that you have to experience for yourself to truly understand. We are a complex, diverse nation still in the beginning stages of celebrating our identity. I’m interested in challenging the perceptions the Western world has of Africa, and to challenge our lack of representation globally. The spaces I create excite me. Photography enables me to engage more deeply with the people I photograph and lets me spend time in their world. It is important to be aware of and acknowledge your privilege as a photographer; just because I have a camera, that doesn’t give me the right to photograph anyone I want to. Therefore, I always treat these relationships with the utmost care and respect.

Approach: Working closely with subjects has shown me how great storytelling can be shaped by working collaboratively. When you let people play active parts in the co-creation of their images, you can tell a story that is far more authentically and multifaceted than just your limited perspective of their story. As I make space for my subjects to co-create with me, I’m adding a nuanced way of storytelling to my images.

I’m interested in using the medium of photography as a mode of celebration. Building close relationships with my subjects has let me form long, ongoing bonds with the people I have worked with. Because most of my work is created over extended periods of time, I’ve had the luxury of getting to know my subjects very intimately. It is a privilege to be allowed into someone’s world, and even more so to be given the opportunity to photograph them. I always treat this privilege with great care, which comes from being able to work intuitively and knowing when to put the camera away. I love spending time in other people’s worlds, and photography enables me to do this.

Philosophy: All voices deserve a platform to be heard and represented, especially those who have been pushed to the margins of mainstream society. Photography has the power to start a global conversation with local voices. It also presents an opportunity to start conversations among viewers for its ability to challenge stereotypes and prejudices. But photographers have to be able to look at their own work critically and honestly. We need to be able to constantly learn and unlearn, and acknowledge our own position in our image-making process.

Anything else? Photography is the hardest mirror I’ve ever had to hold up to myself. The camera reflects your state of mind, and the photograph is a manifestation and reflection of your own psyche. That kind of honest self-observation takes a lot of courage. It takes time to peel back the layers of yourself and to show that to the world.

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