Finding humanity underneath gang tattoos and stereotypes

 
 
 

For every person who joins a gang, countless lives are affected. In Cape Town, gangsterism is threatening to tear apart families and destroy communities. Lee-Ann Olwage hopes to make a difference by photographing this devastating reality. Rather than emphasising the violence and danger of gang life, she’s showing the heart and souls of men beyond tattoos and stereotypes.

Olwage’s photographic series, The Interrupters, explores the journeys of ex-gang members in Hanover Park who now work professionally to reduce gang-related violence. While profiling the men and telling their stories, Olwage realised the media usually portrays them as nothing more than hardened criminals. Her second photo series, Portrait of an Ex-Gangster’s Family, sought to change that. She captured the men with their families, as someone’s son, brother or father – people with purpose and potential. After attending a gang member’s funeral, Olwage realised it wasn’t just about the presence of gangsterism but rather the absence of the person. So she styled the same family portraits again, this time with an empty chair to convey loss. Presenting alternate realities, Olwage’s photos make a powerful statement.

Olwage believes in the ability of her craft to create social change, and the people she photographs to inspire that change. In addition to her portraits, she has captured moments of happiness – matric dances and family gatherings – inside harsh circumstances. “I’m amazed by the resilience of the human race and how, despite very difficult circumstances, you get these remarkable people,” Olwage says. Through her photography of reformed gangsters, Olwage is proving that change is possible and that our choices define how our stories end.