5th Place Award in the “Black Lives Matter” category. Photo by Leonette Bower, South Africa.

Behind the Photo with Leonette Bower

What is the story behind your winning photograph?

In 2016, during the #Feesmustfall protests in South Africa, I embarked on a two-year-long project, called #StoryOfMyLife. I wanted to document the lives of a select number of students, who all had to overcome significant challenges in accessing the university.

While my main objective was to provide a glimpse into the lived experience of these young people, I often found myself being taken out of my own comfort zone and into another’s reality. I have been welcomed into their homes, have shared meals with them, met their parents, siblings, members of their communities, and dogs! 

In this particular image is Sakhumzi Dukwe, photographed at his family home in the Joe Slovo township on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth. He comes from a close-knit and hardworking family who take great pride in their achievements. Sakhumzi is always immaculately dressed, in stark contrast to his impoverished surroundings. Upon asking him about it, he replied “I don’t dress like my past, I dress like my future, acknowledging my present.”.

5th Place Award in the “Black Lives Matter” category. Photo by Leonette Bower, South Africa.

What specifically drew you to this moment that you captured?

As Sakhumzi’s dress code forms an integral part of his story, it was important to me to capture it in some way. When he got up to fix his tie in the mirror, the image just came together when I noticed the graduation photo and trophy right beside him.

What was your experience while making this photo? What challenges did you encounter in the process?

One of my biggest challenges during this project was to bridge the gap between photographer and subject and to gain the trust of each student as well as their families. When I arrived at the family homes, I often purposefully put my camera down for the first while, in order to connect on a personal level and to build trust. At Sakhumzi’s home, his mom was busy dishing up a lovely home-cooked meal when I arrived, and also handed me a plate full before we all sat down together to eat.  

How or why is photography important to you?

As an introvert, I often count on photography to speak for me when words fail me. It is a way for me to make sense of life and the world around me, and a tool for me to be fully present – to see light and details that can so easily be overlooked when you’re not paying attention.

The Documentary Family Awards is an international competition in search of the insightful and meaningful ways that documentary photographers explore the interpretation of family.