Ask any of his teachers and they will all say the same thing about Yeoville-born Thapelo Motsumi: what a wonderful young man. Attentive, thoughtful and engaged. One of the many casualties of a broken education system, Thapelo (21) was never going to let disadvantages beyond his control stand in the way of personal growth.
Enter the Umuzi Photo Club, a non-profit organisation that aims to teach teenagers in urban, township and rural environments how to become activists and leaders within their community. Although the programme uses photography to give their students a voice, the idea behind the programme isn’t to create hundreds of photographers, but rather to give youth a voice and a chance to make a change in their communities.
This doesn’t mean that no photographers are born along the way. Thapelo joined the programme and quickly realised a love for telling stories through images. After spending a year in the programme, he pledged to work for the agency side of Umuzi, an offshoot of the original foundation.
“When we created Umuzi in 2009 the idea was for professional photographers and media specialists to share their knowledge and expertise with high school students, so that they could find their own voices, learn how to be activists and make a difference in their community,” explains David Dini, the founder of Umuzi Photo Club.
“This has grown to include an agency, which gives the students who really do love photography a platform to hone their skills.”
Blue chip clients of the agency include Volkswagen and Vodacom, and students go through a grading system, from second assistant, to first assistant, and then assistant photographer. “They need to pass certain criteria before they are upgraded to the next level,” explains David. “It’s basically a photography apprenticeship. For our corporate clients it’s a CSI spend, and for our students it’s a way of furthering their education.”
The students are paid for their work, but it’s not a ‘cash in hand’ system. Instead, Umuzi keeps their earnings for further education. For example, Thapelo completed his matric in 2011 and worked for Umuzi to earn money for further education. He has since amassed clients like Marie Claire and Vice in his freelance portfolio, and has been accepted at the world-class Market Photo Workshop, a photo journalism school established by world-renowned local photographer, David Goldblatt. The year-long course will be funded by Umuzi earnings and a bursary.
Leading by example
For David, working alongside Thapelo has been an inspiration. “He’s become one of the breadwinners for his family, while focusing on getting an education and furthering his talents.” He also volunteers as a speaker and teacher in Umuzi Photo Club workshops, encouraging younger learners to become leaders in their communities.
Thapelo’s real strength lies in his quiet humility. “We’ve gained enough traction since we launched Umuzi to become a go-to point for local youth,” explains David. “An advanced photography training programme that was run during the 2010 Soccer World Cup was looking for students and we sent eight learners, including Thapelo, who got press access to events, learnt from international professionals, and ended up involved in an exhibition in Wembley in London as a result.”
Over and above this exhibition, Thapelo has participated in two local exhibitions, and was chosen to receive a gift on behalf of Mandela: a football jersey commemorating the ANC’s 100th anniversary, presented to Thapelo on the Newscastle football pitch in England.
Thapelo isn’t loud, or even outwardly opinionated. He does, however, have a presence, and is fast on his way to becoming an iconic youth in South Africa, not because he says what he thinks people want to hear, but because he leads by example. He has pulled himself through school despite challenges, embraced photography and teaching young community members how to become leaders, and continues to focus on furthering his own skills. After completing his course at the Market Photo Workshop, he plans to learn filmmaking at Big Fish. Step by step, Thapelo is focusing on his future — and helping the country that he represents.
Founded by David Dini, Umuzi Photo Club was established as a non-profit organisation in 2009. It currently has two full-time employees and ten voluntary facilitators, and to date 120 students have passed through the programme.
David and his team identify schools in areas where they wish to make an impact, and then pitch the club to the student body. Candidates are asked to motivate why they want to join the programme — after all, it’s not only hard work, but will hopefully result in the development of community leaders.
“We use photography as a medium through which to teach leadership and activism skills,” says David. “That’s the core focus. The fact that this led organically to budding photographers hungry for more training has resulted in the establishment of the agency, but Umuzi’s core focus is still developing youth. The children of today are tomorrow’s voice, and it’s important that they learn to use that voice.”
An example of this idea in action is the Diepsloot Change Association, a body made up of eight students who are teaching their community about their rights, and demanding improved service delivery. Graduates of the Umuzi Photo Club, these are budding activists who have found their voice.
Visit umuziphotoclub.blogspot.com for more information.