Contradicting to enter resistance.
Lee-Ann Olwage is originally from Durban, South Africa. A visual storyteller, her work explores themes of identity, transitions and universal narratives through long-term projects. Interested in using photography as a mode of celebration, her collaborative projects allow individuals to engage in the co-creation of their stories and how they are represented.
For Lee-Ann Olwage figuration is meaningless, oblivion and absence are impossible. This is how the South African photographer constructs several series that speak of the necessary resistance, including “Black Drag Magic”, made in the underprivileged suburbs of Cape Town, within a community particularly exposed to vexation, physical exaction and rejection. Her main model is Belinda Qaqamba Ka-Fassie, drag artist and activist. A work that seduced the Bonne Espérance Gallery in Paris. Strong images made at the bottom of wastelands where girls (who are not girls) pose in evening gowns showing the possible beauty and the conceivable pride of these ghetto Queens.
If the question of masculinity and femininity remains at the center of these images, they also evoke education, health, and support for impoverished families. For Lee-Ann Olwage, photography is the hardest mirror she knows. Her work reflects this state of mind, which she reveals to the world with the aim of rebuilding a social framework on foundations other than hate and exclusion.
Her images have been noticed by the most important media and have won several awards.
Your first photographic trigger ?
Lee-Ann Olwage : When I was 28 my ex-partner and I planned a trip to Indonesia. He suggested that we buy a camera to make some pictures along the way. I thought this was a silly idea and a waste of money, but he bought the camera anyway. During the trip I picked the camera up and I have never put it down again.
The man or woman of image who inspires you?
Lee-Ann Olwage : I am most inspired by my peers and contemporary artists, especially the ones contributing to the rich visual culture in Africa.
The image you would have liked to make?
Lee-Ann Olwage : I always think of photography as my love affair with life. It’s a way for us to reflect on the human experience, to process our own experiences and an outer visual reflection of our internal landscape. I hope to never stop making images because then that exchange ends.
The one that moved you the most?
Lee-Ann Olwage : The image of Belinda Qaqamba Kafassie because the act of making the image was a radical and progressive act of activism to stand up against the discrimination that the queer community face in the township. I have always wanted the image making process to be more than what happens in camera and by creating in this way where it became an act of activism I felt like we were able to achieve this.
And the one that made you angry?
Lee-Ann Olwage : It is not an image that made me angry but an experience around it. I was photographing the matric dance for the project The Dance and there was a journalist from a local paper at the families house where I was working. The family was very excited when their daughter first stepped out in her beautiful ball gown and everybody gathered around to take pictures on their cellphones. The journalist asked me why I was not pushing in amongst the family to get the picture. As photographers we need to know when it is our time to make pictures and when it is time to wait. I knew in that moment that it was a big and special moment for the family and I needed to step out the way so that they could share that moment with each other. I knew I would have a chance to make my pictures. It is important to know that not every moment is a picture to be made and sometimes it is more important to be respectful than get the picture.
A key image in your personal pantheon?
Lee-Ann Olwage : All the images I create contribute to the next image I make. As artists we are made up of all the moments of our lives, the people we meet, the places we visit. All of these experiences inform the image making process and form part of the mosaic of your unique voice as an artist.
The image I created with Belinda Qaqamba Kafassie had a huge impact on my journey as a storyteller. I am forever grateful to Belinda for their trust in me to create this project.
A photographic memory from your childhood?
Lee-Ann Olwage : For me it is not a photographic memory as such but a memory that had a big impact on me as a visual storyteller. My grandfather was a storyteller too and he used to spend hours with me telling stories. I loved this and later in life I realised that we are all storytellers we just use different mediums to do it. For some it is a camera for others it is song. Some people weave stories into carpets and others tell stories through dance. Storytelling has been a part of us since the stone age when we told them around fires. We are all storytellers in one way or another. I just happen to choose a camera as my medium.
With no budget limit, what would be the work you would dream of acquiring?
Lee-Ann Olwage : I would love to continue my work on girls education in different parts of the world so if I could have no budget limit I would use it to work with girls in different regions.
According to you, what is the necessary quality to be a good photographer?
Lee-Ann Olwage : Kindness
The secret of the perfect image, if it exists?
Lee-Ann Olwage : To me it is about finding your unique voice as an artist and then finding a way to translate that into your work. The way you see is your superpower so as you develop your voice you are able to make work that is true to that. That in my opinion is the perfect image.
The person you would like to photograph?
Lee-Ann Olwage : The act of portrait making is so intimate and I value those interactions you get to share with people you photograph. Every person I make an image with changes me in some way so I can’t really identify just one that I would like to photograph.
An indispensable photo book?
Lee-Ann Olwage : I’m loving Hafiz by Sabiha Cimen and The Adventures of Guille and Belinda by Alessandra Sanguinetti.
The camera of your childhood?
Lee-Ann Olwage : I didn’t have a camera.
The one you use today?
Lee-Ann Olwage : Canon R6, Hasselblad 500cm, Pentax K1000
Your favorite drug?
Lee-Ann Olwage : Dancing.
The best way to disconnect for you?
Lee-Ann Olwage : Camping.
What is your relationship with the image?
Lee-Ann Olwage : A complicated one.
Your greatest quality?
Lee-Ann Olwage : I like to think I’m kind. My imagination and enthusiasm.
Your latest folly?
Lee-Ann Olwage : Self-doubt and overthinking.
An image to illustrate a new banknote?
Lee-Ann Olwage : Fun illustrations from children’s books.
The job you would not have liked to do?
Lee-Ann Olwage : Any job that keeps you stuck in the same environment.
What do you think are the bridges between photography and design?
Lee-Ann Olwage : Photography and design inform each other and contribute to the way we see and experience the world.
The city, the country or the culture you dream of discovering?
Lee-Ann Olwage : Iran
The place you never get tired of ?
Lee-Ann Olwage : South Africa.
Your biggest regret ?
Lee-Ann Olwage : Caring too much about the opinion of others.
In terms of social networks, are you more into Instagram, Facebook, Tik Tok or Snapchat and why?
Lee-Ann Olwage : I’m really bad at using most social platforms regularly but I do enjoy Instagram. Although it has changed a lot and I don’t know if it really still serves photographers the way it did in the beginning.
Color or B&W?
Lee-Ann Olwage : My work exists in both color and B&W. It depends entirely on the project and what will serve the story best.
Daylight or artificial light?
Lee-Ann Olwage : I like both. It depends on what style of lighting will best enhance the project.
Which city do you think is the most photogenic?
Lee-Ann Olwage : Mexico City
If God existed would you ask him to pose for you, or would you opt for a selfie with him?
Lee-Ann Olwage : We all think of God differently. For me God is in everything and everyone and by making images we show that.
If I could organize your ideal dinner party, who would be at the table?
Lee-Ann Olwage : The people I love – family and friends.
The image that represents for you the current state of the world?
Lee-Ann Olwage : The world is a mess right now and there are so many images that show that. I wouldn’t want to highlight that but rather think of an image of resilience and strength. For me that is an image of a women in Iran with red boxing gloves by Newsha Tavakolian.
What is missing in today’s world?
Lee-Ann Olwage : The ability to pause and slow down.
If you had to start all over again?
Lee-Ann Olwage : I would do everything the same but not be so hard on myself.
A last word ?
Lee-Ann Olwage : Nurture your unique voice as an artist and make images from that place. You matter and the way you see the world is your superpower.