Text and Photos by Tsebo Phakisi
I should have known the first day I left home to attend the weeklong Photo XP workshop that my life would change. I should have felt that the week would be a thrust so powerful and divine that I would have to remind myself to breathe through tears, profound fulfilment and utter disbelief.
Instead, I glided past the cluster of houses that form my neighbourhood with a sense of pride at not being late. I thanked God and my ancestors for ushering me into another day. I affirmed my worth and claimed a life full of abundance, clarity and radical love. As the taxi inched towards town, anxiety threatened to wrap itself around my lungs. Breathing became a bit difficult. I bit the skin at the tips of my fingers and let my eyes rest on the bodies and cars and buildings and stalls and that we passed.
Towereng. Jump out. Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Right. Stop. Left. Right. Left. Human. Right. Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Turn. Ouh La La.
I spotted Sisters just as I walked through the gate and past the eyes that greet you upon entering Ouh La La. I was glad to see that the people she was sitting with were ‘Maleballo and Keaboka. Relief washed over me at the thought of having more people I know to survive the week with. While the facilitators had a meeting, ‘Matlali and I caught up. Being anxious made keeping quiet difficult.
Before we introduced ourselves, before Tambu made us dig into ourselves, before I felt almost incapable, we toiled around waiting for the keys to Alliance Francais hall. I sat next to ‘Matlali because I knew I’d need a hand to hold and maybe a shoulder to cry into and I was sure I could cry into hers. Lineo then passed the welcoming remarks on behalf of Ba re e ne re with Zach looking at her softly. Lerato Dumse le Lebogang Mashifane introduced themselves and left me shook.
Seeing faces I recognised from Muholi’s celebrated Faces and Phases right in front of me made me blabber when I introduced myself as Tsebo Phakisi: a wild, talkative, disruptor and killjoy. Then ‘Matlali followed with her baritone voice reaching out from her. ‘Maleballo with her somewhat deep voice called our eyes and eyes to her. So did Tambu with her quirky idiosyncrasies. Letuka, Ts’episo and Keaboka followed. Each with shyness hugging their faces.
The objective of the workshop was to creatively document Gender Based Violence through a fusion of photography and literatures. We had to develop a concept of our shoots and then Go shoot. The discussion focused on unpacking Gender Based Violence, locating what narrative we wanted to portray using our images. ‘Mats’eliso arrived and I listened attentively to everyone and watched as we collectively built a creative tapestry out of vulnerability, laughter, questions and support. The clock struck 5 forcing us to pack and go our separate ways.
We were to reconvene at 12 the following day. Something had shifted in me. Something was growing in me, I thought as I sat in the comfort of my dark room while everyone dived deeper into sleep.
I woke up early, sat with myself and mapped how I had expanded from yesterday. My voice had sounded loud and sure when I spoke. I rambled as I usually do but with a new amount of confidence. I thought about how I would bring the idea of communal healing to life through images. I knew I wanted the images I’d present at the end to be soft and gentle. But how was I going to translate softness into an image? The words and I would dance and create something soft. Would the images be soft enough and disposition the gory, hard, bloody narrative that images centred around Gender Based Violence portray? I prayed and affirmed my place in the world. I said a prayer of gratitude for life, the opportunity to learn and tune inwardly as I got out of the house.
I was early. Again. Maiso arrived and we both shared how stressful yesterday was. My neck and head had been stiff when I got home. I was thinking so much that I had to nap to stop thinking. The conversations we had danced and sometimes flashed through my mind.Women. Blood. Marginalization. Men. Patriarchy. Money. Violence. Violated.Other participants filed in and soon, we were laughing at the unexpected intense turn the workshop took. Thereafter, Lineo and Zach arrived followed by Tambu. Lebo’s loud and unique voice announced her’s and Lerato’s arrival. A recap of Day 1 happened and I saw that there was a certain amount of heaviness the other participants and I shared but we smiled and laughed it away. We had to go shoot and bring out concepts to life. Our field trip began with us stuffing makoenya, lichips le russian into our faces.
Then we walked passed people, buildings and cars seeing images, stories and potential. Something was growing inside as my long legs leapt forward despite wanting to curl under a tree. I was interested in the involvement of community in healing from violence. Images of old women with grey hair, clothes wrapped around their bodies revealing their sharp, bold shoulders kept flashing in
front of me. I could see my grandmother somewhere in the image that danced before me. I could feel hands roam the length of my body: pressing, cradling and holding me. I knew I had to photograph hands. Conversation rose and fell as we approached Queen 2
We were looking for herbs for Maiso’s concept, unconventional looking girls and women for Ts’episo’s, men who would speak to the violence men experience for Letuka’s, spontaneous shooting for ‘Matlali who had taken stunning self portraits the previous day. Something bubbled up in me when I remembered Muholi would have arrived when we got back. I grew silent. Indeed they were there when we arrived some with photos and some with stories. I saw their hair first and turned around then walked in to where the water was. When I extended my hand to greet them, their face broke into a wide smile that left their teeth on the open.
I would later learn during the week that Muholi’s joy and smile are thick. Almost like a saving grace. We sat down and Muholi asked how the field trip was. Their isiZulu accent bit heavily into the English words that sometimes flew out of their mouth. Muholi had come with Thobeka whose silence and gentleness colonised every corner she occupied. I hadn’t seen grace personified as it was within and around TK. Muholi instructed us to move fast and betray our innate Basotho docile and meek nature.
Something was being stirred in the room. They were undoing difficult and forcing us to see how capable we were. An overwhelming cloud lingered in the room. I realized that not only did I have to think out of the box but I had to dismantle the box entirely. It was amazing to see the synchronicity that the Inkanyiso team had. There were at least two cameras in the room and recorders sprawled on the table recording the conversation.
I learned that this was how you create an archive. Muholi spoke with authority and greatness and asked the same from us. With boxes of pizza, bags and equipment in tow, we moved outside and sat on the lawn. Muholi had walked in and injected the workshop with a sense of urgency. Time is important, they kept emphasizing. Shooting groups were formed, ‘Matlali, Maiso, Lebo and I hit the ground running.
The sun was low enough to make beautiful photographs. Disbelief permeated the air as we ascended the thaba ea Paramenteng. An invincible thread of friendship was wounding itself around us our eyes darted quickly looking for possible images. I ended up topless with a full heart, beautiful images, a throbbing head with three people I had fallen deeper in love with. Tomorrow was an early day. There were many blank pages of assignments that needed to be filled.
Sleep. Gratitude. Disbelief, a sprinkle of fear, anxiety and a full heart lulled me to sleep.
Started early. My voice was deeper than it usually is. Sleep clung to my eyelids making them heavy. I was proud of myself for showing up. I picked up Mats’eliso and we were both shooook. We had been in the room with Zanele Muholi. She was going to shoot with Zanele Muholi. Our laughter was tinged with nervousness. The workshop was unfolding so quickly. So intensely. It was presenting monstrous, life changing opportunities. We were being forced to stand in our power. To reclaim our stories and three hours of sleep.
I watched as Mats’eliso and her Nikon camera became close friends as we waited in the parking lot of Mohokare Guest House. We were seeing images. Directing each other to move to the left a bit. To hold it right there. Come forward. Stop. Lovely. We were starting to believe we could create lovely images. That we are lovely and deserving. Finally, Tambu and Muholi arrived. The plan changed as we sat to have breakfast. It was then that I watched Muholi’s face become a sweltering smile. It was also on that table when we cried together and held space for Ts’episo with Muholi erratically making us aware of the magic the banal holds.
That breakfast meeting set tone for the rest of the workshop. The days that followed were full of vulnerability, honesty, life changing growth, work, frustrations. We were to frame, focus and shoot. We had to raise our voices. To stretch. To date each thing we wrote. To see images. To write about the clitoris. To commit to documenting our lived realities. To photographing Lesotho. To taking a self portrait everyday. To loving fiercely. To believe we are worthy. To strive towards being our best selves. To show up. To be excellent. To hone and nurture our craft. To being the best.
And now I am here. Wilder. More gentle and believing that the world is my oyster. We didn’t survive. We cried. Ate. Laughed. Panicked. Wrote. Sang through the week. For which I’ll be eternally grateful.