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02 Oct 2015 00:00
Masixole Feni's 'Crossing over the unbearable canal'
Masixole Feni, an activist-photographer and the 2015 recipient of the Ernest Cole award, lives on the Cape Flats and his winning
photo series, A Drain on Our Dignity, documents the lack of proper sanitation
in the area.
Of the series, Feni says: “I live at the back of an RDP
house in Mfuleni. I experience issues like poor sanitation, access to clean
water and flooding first-hand.”
The annual photographic award, given under the auspices of
the University of Cape Town, is named after Ernest Cole, a South African photographer who worked in the 1960s and was among the country’s
first black freelance photographers.
The award helps a photographer to pursue
or complete a project from which an exhibition and a book are produced.
These are goals most photographers yearn to achieve but for
many they remain an elusive dream.
“I feel quite lucky to be working on a photo book without a
proper qualification in photography,” Feni says.
He did not study photography formally because he could not
afford it. Everything he knows on the subject he learned from the online Icon
Photography School and Iliso Labantu, a photography collective whose members
include Sipho Mpongo of the Twenty Journey photographic project that documented
South Africa two decades into democracy.
It was while Feni was involved in these projects that he
sold his first image, aged about 18. On the day he took the photograph in question, he had been in Mfuleni at the Sakhumzi orphanage,
where he had spent much of his younger life. An acquaintance who knew he took
photographs dragged him to the scene of a murder. He took the image with a
disposable camera and, in a moment of tragedy, he became a photographer.
He wears his heart on his sleeveMfuleni is about 40 minutes on the outskirts of Cape Town.
To get there, one must drive away from the highways and traffic and just keep
going and going. On the way there, the city topography of tall buildings and
electricity pylons rising to the sky gives way to hilly mounds and clear skies,
prompting one of the taxi passengers to remark that it resembles the Eastern
Cape more than it does Cape Town. It is once one is inside Mfuleni that it
becomes clear that the knolls and clear skies are a façade: like any other
township, Mfuleni functions with systematic pandemonium.
’Chrystal fine reflection in the deluge after the rain’ (Masixole Feni)
On the day we meet, there was no trace of wind until a
plastic bag floated past, having taken all the air currents for itself. Though he has won the Ernest Cole award, Feni wants to work
far away from the limelight, documenting what he sees as an abyss camouflaged
by democracy and the rainbow nation. He is a photographer who wears his heart
on his sleeve.
His favourite photographers include Santu Mofokeng, Paul
Weinberg, Cedric Nunn and Themba Radebe. Looking at his photographs, one could
have guessed it.
Feni works as a photojournalist for GroundUp, a news website
that reports on social justice issues in townships and immigrant communities. His
images that accompany the news stories highlight his storytelling skills more
than his photographic ability, which is better showcased in his photo essays.
A Drain on Our Dignity, the project that won him the Ernest
Cole award, is a testament to his commitment to tell stories about
underprivileged people. Sidestepping a question about whether he will ever take
lifestyle or fashion photos, he tells me about his plans to give back to his
community and mentor children on how to tell stories through images.
“One thing I would like to do is maybe teach photography to
other children from vulnerable backgrounds who might find it hard to discover
the arts in their hearts,” he says. “Like me — I was never aware that I could
be a storyteller.”
Feni takes selfies, but not in the conventional sense. When
you encounter the photographer in the images he takes, he is inserting himself
into a photo dissertation of class division and what he sees as the spectacular
failure of democracy. Masi, as he is known to those close to him, points his
camera at himself in the style of Mofokeng or Mozambican photographer Mário
Like the photographers whose work he admires, his pictures
reflect a deep caring for the subjects and the stories he is telling.
Feni first found photography at the orphanage. It came to
mean so much to him that, when they stopped offering photography classes, he
saw no reason to stay there. He has never wanted to do anything else with his
life, and it is his unwavering love for photography that has seen him through
some tough times.
If nothing else, a difficult life teaches one patience and
resilience. Losing his parents when he was young, growing up in one orphanage
after another, getting kicked out of two of them, sleeping on people’s floors,
renting a shack with a friend in Nyanga, smoking weed, doing drugs and
subsequently finding himself — these trials have informed much of his
Feni’s photographs showing the lack of sanitation in Cape
Town townships do not reveal anything new to us; they point out the everyday
reality of the poor. We are aware of the country’s class divide, with the poor
having to contend with burst sewage pipes, leaking roofs, young children
playing in foul water and shacks standing on the edge of polluted canals.
But it is clear that his images are a form of protest,
constantly poking a finger at the neglect of the poor while others live lives
In one of his photos, young children walk past a filthy
water canal that separates a dense row of shacks. In another image, which
captures what Feni’s photography is about, a man throws excrement at the convoy
of Helen Zille, then premier of the Western Cape.
Feni speaks with assurance, saying what he needs to without
wasting a word. His images, too, are considered and measured; nothing is in the
frame that need not be there — though some could be better framed.
The Ernest Cole award comes with prize money of R150 000,
with R100 000 going towards an exhibition and R50 000 to logistics.
Feni plans to travel around South Africa to document the
living conditions of the poor. “I will be going to the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and possibly KwaZulu-Natal, to
take images that speak to service delivery,” he says.
Feni admits he is far from where he wants to be. He would
like to own a better camera as well as a “point-and-shoot” camera, so as not to
draw attention to himself when he is taking photos in dangerous areas. He also
wants to study filmmaking, “because there is a much broader audience in
television than in print and online”.
When we meet, his camera is in for repairs. When he speaks
about it, his expression is the same as when he is talking about his newborn
son. Considering the role photography has played in his life — much like a
protective guardian angel — this love for his camera is understandable.
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