Text and Photos by Mats’eliso Mots’oane
January 28th: In December 2018, Lineo who is a good friend of mine told me that Prof. Zanele Muholi would be visiting Lesotho as part of a workshop with Ba Re Ne Re. Ba re is an organization whose work has always been close to my heart. When she mentioned Muholi’s name my face lit up with excitement, without hesitation I told her ‘count me IN.’
Fast forward to the morning of January 28th 2019. On the day the workshop started, I had completely forgotten about it. Instead I was going through the usually really frustrating emotions of my everyday life, PMS, grocery shopping, job hunting. I arrived at Alliance Française more than an hour late, quickly snuck in and tried to catch up. The first thing I noticed was Muholi’s absence, I was however quickly consoled by the positive and warm welcome that I received from everyone else.
The first day of the workshop was dedicated to coming up with concepts surrounding the topic of Gender-Based-Violence, needless to say there was a lot of discussion and debate involved. Issues of bodily autonomy, physical abuse, emotional and psychological abuses and other never ending violations that fall under the GBV umbrella. What stood out for me though, was how organically occurring the conversation was amongst the participants. I appreciated that we were able to easily bounce ideas off one another, even more that we were generally in agreement about how we all viewed and interpreted violence and abuse. The hard part was yet to come though… capturing images of these violations, or some of the emotions involved between the trauma and healing processes.
The first thing I thought of was capturing objects that helped women to heal. Personally, I have always been the type of person who needed an escape, a sort of non-human support structure to help me forget or at least come to terms with traumatic experiences. When it was my turn I shared this idea, everyone seemed to like it. I was moved however by the idea of traditional/herbal medicine and the relationships African women usually have with this practice. This concept literally chose me, I hadn’t thought of it before, I had never even considered that perspective as something worth exploring. All I knew was the relationship I had with herbs and it dawned on me in that moment that there may be other women out there with similar ties to their traditional practices.
I left that session feeling really empowered. I was proud of myself for coming up with the concept. I had no idea how I would capture images that really spoke to the message I was trying to put forward but I can proudly say I stuck to this theme throughout the week.
January 29th: I arrived twenty minutes early, camera charged and ready to go. We were to start shooting on that day. I did not anticipate how challenging that day would be. The more I thought about it, the more anxious I became about doing justice to the concept of GBV, how does one even capture images on this theme?? My research instincts immediately kicked in, I would conduct an interview with my local herbalist. I figured this would help me solidify my concept and possibly even get images that relay my message. All I got was 4 pictures of different herbs sitting on the herbalist’s shelf. Having learnt the rules of photography, I now know and can admit those pictures are trash. I was low-key in panic mode. I started asking myself questions like ‘what are you doing here?’ I have always loved photography, I deeply appreciate all sorts of art. I have photographer friends whom I have been captured by. I have a partner who has an almost innate gift of capturing moments with honesty. What about Me?
I have always been stronger with words, living under the impression that despite my love for visual art, I did not have the gift to produce it. So I quietly shut the door, which held my curiosity and desire to pursue any kind of visual art. Myself and four other participants walked the streets of Maseru that day, looking for stories. We may have not gotten the images we wanted, some of us got no pictures at all, but we got the stories and they truly were worth our time. I was so moved by how easily some of the women we ran into opened up about their stories of abuse, I was grateful for sisterhood. After about an hour and a half of shooting, we met Prof. Muholi back at Alliance Française.
They were so welcoming and polite. There is something about their energy that really made me feel welcome. Despite their fame, Prof. Muholi is such a warm hearted person. I could tell this the moment I held out my hand to shake theirs. The rest of the day was quite short, we had lunch together and were assigned facilitators to go out on the field and shoot with. I was meant to shoot with Prof. Muholi and Ts’episo but I decided to tag along with Lebo’s group. We took a taxi up to the Parliament Hill. Tsebo, ‘Matlali, Lebo and I, walked around taking pictures of each other, the country and everything around us. This was one of the highlights for me. There were a lot of good moments and memories made that evening.
There were 5 doll heads that we found semi-buried in the sand. A really peculiar thing; we had all sorts of theories for how they could have gotten there. I got one of my favorite shots that day. The three days between the 30th and the 1st February were a rollercoaster of greatness. We shared some moments of vulnerability and a kind of intimacy as we talked about issues that most affected us as vaginal bodies. We cried, and laughed and shared poetry that we were requested to write every day. The breakfast table was usually the starting point for these engagements. On the Wednesday, some of us shared a piece of writing that we had either done in the past or the day before. Tears were shed. Weights were lifted. I was so grateful to be there. As the day unraveled it got a bit overwhelming.
That night I slept with the words ‘you have to move faster!’ ringing in my head. Muholi pushed us throughout the workshop to value our work by actually putting in work. They complained a lot about the slowness of our country… They were right, people here have close to no sense of urgency. Although I am not used to being in a cutthroat working space, I appreciated the way we were pushed, it was a great exercise on work ethic. I thought to myself ‘this is the stuff that makes people great, I am trying to be great.’
The more pictures I took, the more I fell in love with the art of photography. At first I felt a little insecure about my work, a lot of people can attest to that. However I slowly started becoming comfortable behind the camera. I owe much of this to the support we got from the Inkanyiso facilitators. Lebo was especially active in helping everyone get the shots they wanted and so on. In addition to appreciating photography so much more, the space that the workshop created made it feel safe to be an artist, to dig deep within ourselves and produce words and pictures that were not just beautiful but also meaningful.
All the photo shoots we did from the assignments given to us, to trying to capture our concepts, the participants stuck together as a team. We complained as a collective, worked as a collective and celebrated together when someone took a good picture. On the last day of the workshop participants gave a presentation of their five best pictures. I complained all afternoon about how I had taken too many pictures to choose only five, but when time came to prepare for the presentation it was almost like the images chose themselves.
With each one of the pictures I remembered, who or what I was shooting, why I was shooting and where I was. I came out of that presentation feeling empowered. It felt like such a huge transformation from how I felt on Monday when we started. I remain so grateful for the opportunity, but above all else for the fact that I now feel free to create. I haven’t been able to put my camera down since the workshop ended.