While many first year Michaelis art students are still finding their feet, Meghan Daniels (20) is simultaneously running Ilizwi Photo Club, a non-profit organization aimed at imparting photography skills to high school students in Khayelitsha. Established in 2011, Ilizwi emerged out of Meghan’s love for photography and her passion for connecting with other people: “We focus on story telling and expressing your own ideas and your own voice. That’s what Ilizwi means. And all the things that are going on in your mind, and how you are viewing your community in South Africa at the moment.”
Meghan realised that there was an opportunity to connect with the students in Khayelitsha creatively. “I’ve worked for a few organizations in Khayelitsha before. There are a lot of young people that want to express themselves, but they don’t really know how because a lot of organizations will focus on maths tutoring, science tutoring, donations, for example. But those processes don’t really enable people to share their stories. You don’t really understand the people you’re working with on a personal basis.” At 17, Daniels attended Enke, a social entrepreneurship program, which was highly instrumental in the foundation of Ilizwi’s aims. Mindful of the ways in which organizations had been established in the past, Daniels spent a year and half spending time in the Khayelitsha CBD, speaking to young community leaders, sharing her idea and getting valuable input from local residents: “[I| then realised through that, that some of my ideas needed to be twisted a bit. ‘Cause I was quite wrong in some of the things I was thinking. Once you kind of get a package together with what everyone needs in it, then you feel pretty comfortable with your vision and what you wanna do, and because of that, you just have conversations with people. If you go into anything thinking “I know this ish” then how are you going to meet new people, learn from people, challenge yourself? How is your idea going to grow then? It’s so important to just be hungry to learn more.”
Youth Gang Fight in 10 Frames – Sithembiele Mlindazwe
Organising an ongoing photography workshop in Khayelitsha was not an easy task. It took some time for people to recognize the value in the organisation, and the potential it could have for the students. “I was trying to explain to them the impact that something like this could have. It was just like, ‘What are you going do with taking photos? What is that going to do? There are more important things that you need to be addressing.’” The importance of people telling their own story, from their own perspective is fundamental to the goals of the photo club. Generalised ‘township life’ is a common trope in the South African creative landscape, and it is not one that is easily assessed, or particularly nuanced in its representations. Many photographers have come into the community, only to exotify its residents without engaging with them, ‘othering’ their presence in South African society. It is this legacy that has left people sceptical about photographers in the area, and it is a conversation that is inescapable from the Ilizwi context. “You want to tell our stories and show South Africa and the world out there that our community’s not the stereotypical image that the media portrays us as, or that people that have never been here portray us as.”
During a 10-week process, students from grades 9–12 take part in basic camera skills workshops, as well as lessons focusing on composition and photojournalism. Understanding the ethical nature of photography is also an important part of the Ilizwi workshop process. Meghan elaborates: “Kevin Carter’s image of the Sudan Child and vulture? He took this photo, he went and won Pulitzer Prizes and was very famous. Do you think this was right or wrong? Why? And if you were walking around in your community in Khayalitsha, and someone was being necklaced, for example, would you take a photo, and intervene, or would you take a photo and walk away?” The students’ own stories that emerge vary greatly – severe acts of violence are juxtaposed with moments of joy and humour in hard times. A series of photographs by grade 11 student Sithembele Mlindazwe entitled, ‘A youth gang fight unfolding in ten frames’ captures the moments of violence amongst youths after school. Another story by Ongeziwe Gxothuwe, playfully involving his mothers’ cat, documents the family pet’s antics, which provided much comic relief for the home. Choosing their own subject matter, the photographs allow and ignite conversation, providing an honest and personalised interpretation of their immediate environment.
The workshops are fully sponsored, with Ilizwi receiving funding from Nikon, Fuji Image Centre and Adobe Youth Voices which provides Ilizwi with a stipend to run their projects. Income from exhibitions is shared between the photographers and the organisation itself. Skilled photographers can stay in contact with the Ilizwi network, where they are notified about exhibitions, scholarship opportunities and photography events. Ilizwi organises its own exhibitions as well, sharing the work of its members in their community, as well as on a more commercial basis. Ilizwi’s most recent exhibition took place at the Boaston Society in Long Street, where Meghan also took part in Creative Nestlings’ ‘Discussions on Creativity 2.0’. Ilizwi has also exhibited in the streets of Khayelitsha CBD, where more people may have more access to the images.
Meghan still has many hopes for the organisation, but it is not something she can achieve completely on her own. With a core team that works on a volunteer basis, many hands make sure that Ilizwi continues to function effectively. Eventually, Meghan hopes that the club can operate out of their own space in Khayelitsha, and employ staff full-time. In the interim, attending classes at UCT and running the organisation is not an easy balance. Being only 20, does she ever wonder how she managed to get here? “It’s a constant struggle and battle where you just have to push yourself to just jump in there and do something you really care about. I’ve struggled a lot this year with trying to juggle everything. But that comes with the whole package, I suppose.”
With maturity beyond her years, Meghan Daniels’ projects will no doubt continue to grow and develop well into the future. One can only hope that others will follow suit, and use their creative and organisational talents to bring about meaningful dialogue in the city and its surrounds.
Written by Amie Soudien for a now-defunct section of Platform called ‘Creation’.