PROFILE: Uncovering the township’s untold stories one shot at a time 

A photographer shares her story of using her camera lens to depict the art and magic that exists in everyday life 

Dineo Mtetwa, is a storyteller at heart — whose main interest is to portray the nuances of township life.  

The 25-year old’s collection of images, which are both taken in colour, while others are black and white feature fleeting moments and regular objects that are part of our daily lives – some of which we hardly pay attention to. 

Mtetwa, publishes most of her work on her Instagram, where you can see photographs of people rushing in and out of taxi ranks, minibus taxis on the road or parked, school children milling about in the streets, street vendors, quaint houses and people sitting around in the township and protests. 

Speaking to Wits Vuvuzela, about the inspiration behind one of a recent black and white photo she took of a woman street vendor, walking, while carrying brooms on her head, she said, “umama othengisa umshanelo (the woman who sells brooms) was just walking by. “You don’t know her struggles or her achievements, but you can see the context and the setting”.  

Mtetwa acknowledges that township stories have been told before, but she believes she brings a different perspective.  

She says that it is not a usual occurrence to see images of people like her hanging in art galleries. To put an end to this, she dreams of one day running an art gallery in a township to make her photography accessible to her subjects. 

Born in 1998 and raised in Soweto, Meadowlands, Mtetwa is passionate about the township, adding that, “even if I become a billionaire, I still be coming from Soweto.” 

She holds undergraduate and honours degrees in Bachelor of Arts from Wits. She also holds a master’s degree which looked at the minibus taxi industry, public health and passenger’s pandemic stories in Soweto at the same institution. Mtetwa is now a PhD candidate, and her research is on medical anthropology, focusing on how electricity impacts every aspect of human life. 

She explains that education has changed the ways in which she interacts with Soweto and other people who live there.  She had questions about it that she could not find answers to before she was equipped with research tools. “School has filled in the gaps” she says.   

Social entrepreneur, creative and friend of Mtetwa, Mpumelelo “Frypan” Mfula says that “the mixture of academic understanding, social and intuitive understanding of your neighbourhood, the world and your subjects is powerful”.  

Mfula has worked with Mtetwa from late last year to date, in a project called Let’s Play Outside which is a content development programme that teaches high school pupils from different parts of Johannesburg how to use mobile phones for storytelling, content creation, publication, and monetisation. 

Mfula describes her photography as “authentic” because she has no formal photography training as she started from “a thing of feeling”.  

As a coach for Let’s Play Outside, Mtetwa currently teaches the pupils at Daliwonga Secondary School in Dube, Soweto how to develop a short documentary. 

FEATURED IMAGE:  Dineo Mtetwa in Cape Town. Photo: Supplied

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Photography service provider accused of killing competition  

Thato Senoamadi (21) posing on the stairs below the Great Hall Piazza after getting his degree in BSc Computer Science before a CPS officer arrived to cut the shoot short. Photo: Otsile Swaratlhe

Graduating students given strict orders to use Wits University’s official photographic service provider – or else.  

A longstanding agreement between Wits University and their official service provider for graduation photos, Gordon Harris Photographic is being called out for its monopolistic nature by students and practitioners.  

Graduation season is in full swing at Wits, with in-person ceremonies taking place in the Great Hall between Monday, April 17 and Wednesday, April 26. 

In an email sent to students on Wednesday, April 12, the university announced that no other photography service providers will be allowed onto campus, and those spotted will be removed from the campus by Campus Security Services (CPS). 

Put the camera down!

Wits Vuvuzela learnt just how serious the threat was on Tuesday, April 18, when this reporter was swiftly removed from the Great Hall Piazza after taking two photos. An unnamed CPS officer said, “Please stop what you are doing…You know you are not allowed to be using your camera here!” The officer said permits are needed for anyone using photographic equipment.  

Another photographer was pulled aside at the time but was let go when he could prove the camera, belonged to the student he was taking photos of and not his personal property.  

Then a lengthy pillar to post search ensued in pursuit of this permit or accreditation, something which this publication has never had to secure to cover graduations. In the past the Great Hall steps were considered free dominion for all, with the inside of the hall reserved for the service provider.  

Head of communication at Wits, Shirona Patel said this is a security measure. “[CPS] are strict because we have had many photographers (and people pretending to be photographers) wanting to scam Wits’ students and their families.”  

Gripe with Gordon Harris 

Gordon Harris Photographic, the university’s service provider offers the service of studio photographs two hours before and after the graduation ceremony, together with three on stage photographs.  A service provided across 100 institutions nationwide, with almost blanket exclusivity.  

The cheapest packages range from R400 to R550 for high-resolution images shared via email or prints, the latter incurs an additional delivery fee.  All non-refundable.  

An affected graduate, Thato Senoamadi (21) told Wits Vuvuzela, “It is very unfair. Not everyone can afford what Gordon Harris charges…Imagine having to capture your graduation memories with a phone because the photographer you can afford is not allowed on campus,” he said.  

These are the same sentiments shared in a tweet by Twitter user @DanielNgobeni6 at a graduation ceremony held at Unisa on April 4, 2023, where a photographer can be seen being dragged away from the ZK Matthews Great Hall.

A student creative and photographer, Thando Radebe (21) has resorted to bending the truth to carry on with his side hustle. “I find it weird that I have to lie [to CPS] every time a different security guard catches me taking pictures,’ he said. “I tell [CPS] I either didn’t know or that I never got the email, some of them are very understanding,” he added.  

 “[Gordon Harris Photography] wants all the money to themselves, some of us cannot even compete,” a disgruntled Radebe said. “For example, I charge R900 per hour with room for negotiations and more photos than them…but because I do not have a contract with Wits, students will never know,” he said. 

An official complaint was lodged with The Competition Commission in July 2022. Spokesperson, Siyabulela Makunga said, “The commission is currently engaging all affected respondents to gather requisite information as part of our screening process,” which can take up to 12 months from when the complaint was received.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Graduates exiting the Great Hall and coming down the stairs to the Piazza after the end of their ceremony. Photo: Nokuthula Zwane/File

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Shutterbugs in the park

A middle-aged man wearing an old suit looks relaxed while he is sitting in the shade in Joubert Park with a camera around his neck and a photo display nearby so that people walking through can see samples of his work. He is approached by a woman wearing a summer dress with her two young daughters dressed identically.

The man and woman spend some time negotiating before he leads the family to a tree that has the best amount of light for the perfect photograph. He first positions the mother and then the daughters so that they are ready for the family picture.

The man takes a couple of steps back; he encourages the children to smile and after two clicks the job is done. He first looks at the photos before asking the mother to pick the one she likes best.

Back at his work spot, he prepares the printing process which happens immediately with the help of a small portable printer that gets its power from a connected motorcycle battery. The photo is then sealed in a plastic sleeve and handed to the customer. In exchange, she pays the photographer for his work.

Thinking about the past

David Selepe is one of the ‘street photographers’ that operates in Joubert Park. Selepe has been working around the area since the 1980s and officially started working in the park from 1982. He has been in the same spot by the north entrance of the park since his first day. Selepe reminisces about the old days when things were different.

“You were not allowed to sit down anywhere like I am doing now, only in designated areas of the park because this choice was for the white people. You were only allowed to walk around inside.” Selepe says as he looks off into the distance.

Street photographers could take photographs inside the park if someone approached them and asked, however, once the job was done then payment had to happen outside. “It was illegal to do trade in the park and there was always a lot of security around,” Selepe says.

He stretches his arms out a little and pulls up his sleeves to show the scars on his wrists that he got in 1983 when he was arrested. “A customer offered me money inside the park and security saw it. I was arrested immediately and the scars are because I fought against them when they tried to put on the handcuffs. I was taken to the station and had to pay a fine of R30, which was a lot of money back then, and I was let out,” Selepe says.

SCARS FROM THE PAST: The dark rectangle-like mark is the scar David Selepe got from handcuffs when he resisted arres in 1983. Photo: Candice Wagener

 

Why business has declined

When Selepe first started working in the park, he was using a film camera, something that not a lot of people knew how to work compared to today and digital photography. He says that around 1995 more photographers started arriving in the park but cannot say whether this was related to the end of apartheid.

Now there are about 30 photographers and each one has his own spot inside. Many of them can be identified by the umbrellas that they sit under and each one has also got a photo frame that displays his work.

Selepe says that business has gotten difficult, mostly because of smart phones. People prefer to have photos taken with their cellphones. This is just one of the contributing factors behind the decline of business for the park photographers. Another factor that is hurting business is that the area is not regularly looked after.

When you take a glance around the park or walk down its pathways the thing you notice the most is the amount of rubbish that lies around and the smell of urine that occasionally fills the air.

Selepe also mentions how bad the crime used to be when there was no longer security looking after the park, “compared to the apartheid time”. Selepe says that there came a time when all the photographers that were operating in the park had a meeting and it was agreed that they (the photographers) needed to be the watchers of the park and look after the people.

“If we see someone doing something wrong, we tell them not to do that,” Selepe says.

He adds further that since the photographers started looking out for the park, “the crime has gone down”. During apartheid, they were viewed as a problem, however, many years later they now play a role in keeping the park safe.

FROM ONE PHOTOGRAPHER TO ANOTHER: David held his camera in front of his face so I could take a photo. At the same time he took one of me. Photo: Candice Wagener

The loss of photo hotspots

What once used to be the main attraction of the park was the striking circle fountain located in the middle. According to Selepe, when the fountain was working, there were six sections in the centre where the water would gush upwards around a metre or so high. The second layer to the fountain was surrounded by sections where water would flow out into a half circle and trickle into the pool of water surrounding the centre.

Selepe remembers how the fountain used to be a popular attraction for everyone, from kids to adults. He recalls a time around 2001 “where the water gushed out into streams and the pool was frozen in time. Everyone got excited and wanted a photo taken in front of the fountain. I still have a photo of just the frozen water back home in Limpopo, it was a great day for everyone.”

He reveals more of what he remembers. The fountain had different coloured lights inside: red, blue, yellow and green. “During the evening you could see the lights through the water while it flowed,” Selepe says. He has a wide smile on his face and at one point he turns to look back at the now empty feature which stopped working five or so years ago.

The Victorian Conservatory inside the Greenhouse Project, known as the “Greenhouse house” by the photographers, used to be another photo hotspot. The conservatory used to boast of its beauty with a complete glass and metal frame structure and different types of flowers that had rooted themselves in all areas of the greenhouse.

“People liked it, it was a nice area to take photos in and sometimes wedding photos as well,” Selepe says.

The conservatory is now closed off because it forms part of the Greenhouse project. This project is found in the northwest section of the park and it serves as a teaching ground about sustainable living. It has become a garden where vegetables and medicinal plants are grown by the community for the community. It is fenced around so as to keep it safe from crime.

BROKEN AND ABANDONED: The park’s photographers are yearning for the fountain to be fixed. Photo: Candice Wagener

A woman and a flower

Selepe moves on from talking about the fountain and the conservatory, and starts talking about one of his photographs that have brought him great pride. When he worked with film he could do double exposure photography and one photograph he had taken was of a woman pictured in the middle of a flower. He cannot recall the exact year when he took it, but he remembers that he sold the photograph in 1995 to a young woman that had taken an interest in it.

“I have my name and number on the back of some of my old photos and I got a call from a man in Cape Town. His daughter was the one that had bought my photo and he was impressed with how I had done it. He had it placed in an exhibition and my photo won a R15 000 prize which the man sent to me. My photo made it all the way to Cape Town!” Selepe exclaims with a look of pride and excitement on his face.

The Zwane family business

Gift Zwane was another photographer that used to work in the park during the same time as David, but he passed away in 2002. Zwane’s photography lives on through his sons who now also work inside the park. Both brothers see photography as a family business and they take great pride in this. Mkhululi Zwane started working in 1998 and Frank Zwane joined in 2001 after he finished school.

“David is our elder, all the photographers know about him,” says Frank Zwane

Mkhululi continues: “David and my father were some of the first photographers that started working in the park and they created a space for us.”

The brothers’ work spot is close to the fountain and they each have a bench where they sit and wait for customers. Frank and Mkhululi both have a love for photography, and they work in the park because they can’t find work elsewhere.

“My camera is my life,” Mkhululi says as he lifts his camera up to his face as if talking directly to it.

Mkhululi, who has been taking pictures of a customer, shows the customer what he has taken and asks him which one he likes best. While the photographs are being printed, Mkhululi starts talking about what he earns for the day, which is all dependent on how business is for that day.

Frank, standing next to him with his arms behind his back, nods in agreement with his brother.

The brothers speak about the same concerns that Selepe had raised and that these are the reason business has declined for them as well.

The breakdown of the fountain and the conservatory are named as being the main reasons things are difficult for not only the Zwane brothers but also for the other photographers.

A photographer’s community

Although the photographers initially only took portrait photographs, they have become innovative and lately they take ID and driver’s licence photos as well so that they can keep business steady. They charge R5 more for this simply because the photos need to be cut and that wastes some of the photo paper. They use a white sheet as the background for these types of more specialised photographs.

Each photographer respects the other’s space. If a customer goes to a specific photographer, the others do not try and get that person’s business. The price for portrait photos is the same price all round at R15 a photo, and ID or driver’s licence photos are priced at R20. This is also something that the photographers have agreed on.

The photographers have some form of a brotherhood among them. If one’s printer or camera does not want to work when they have a customer, then another photographer will lend a helping hand. Frank says that going to help is important because “the same thing could happen to me one day”.

Joubert Park is a community where you will find kids playing on the playground equipment, and men of different ages playing chess, either on the small boards they bring with or the giant chess board painted on the floor. It’s a place where people come to drink alcohol that’s kept in a plastic bag or to smoke dagga. It is also a place where people come to sleep during the day or to gamble with playing cards.

“LET ME SEE”: A customer checks his picture to give it the stamp of approval. Photo: Candice Wagener

In this mix, you will find the street photographers that see the park as their office or their studio. These dedicated individuals come every day, from dawn till dusk, and can be found in their spots trying to earn a living.

“There are still a few [photographers]. Some are dedicated, some don’t stay for long, and some have passed on.” – David Selepe

FEATURED IMAGE: An image of a photographer holding a camera. Photo: Candice Wagener

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GALLERY: O, What a jol!

By Pheladi Sethusa and MfunekoToyana

The weather wasn’t warm but thank God neither was the beer.  The atmosphere in the beer garden was positively sizzling.  O-week offered students a great way to start the year, explore the campus and get to know each other.  The fun isn’t over yet, with tonight’s  Fresher’s Bash sure to be a razzmatazz humdinger. Ziyawa Mo.

GALLERY: Highlights from Power Reporting 2013

This year’s Power Reporting Conference hosted by Wits Journalism was the biggest they’ve hosted to date. Three days saw close to 300 delegates from around the world coming together to discuss abd debate issues central to investigative journalism.

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These banners were littered all over the FNB on West Campus to welcome all delegates to the conference. Photo: Prelene Singh

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Delegates eager to read the special Power Reporting edition of the Wits Vuvuzela. Photo: Prelene Singh

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Michael Salzwedel gave a class on Google tools and showed attendees how to use them. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

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Delegates taking notes and asking speakers questions. Pictured are Anina Mumm (left) and Izak Minnaar. Photo: Caro Malherbe


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Alex Kotlowitz awed and inspired delegates with his opening talk that spoke to non-fiction storytelling. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa


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Nigerian delegates arriving on the first day of the conference. Photo: Nolwazi Mjwara


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Data journalism classes proved popular this year, most sessions were as well attended as the one pictured. Photo: Shandukani Mulaudzi

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Luc Hermann gave a powerful session on pharmacutical drugs. Photo: Shandukani Mulaudzi