Maxisole Feni on using photojournalism to advocate for human rights

In his award-winning documentary photography series, A Drain on Our Dignity, Capetonian photographer Masixole Feni sheds light on the lack of service delivery in townships and living conditions of those marginalised in South Africa. “The series talks about the everyday struggle we face in the township such as shack fires, crime and inequality,” he says.

The stories reflected through his images highlight issues around human rights – a topic close to his heart, and one that winning the Ernest Cole Award in 2015 encouraged him to continue highlighting. Masixole studied photography informally at the Icon Image School of Photography in Mfuleni prior to freelancing for the Cape Argus, Big Issue and The Cape Times, among other publications. We chat to him briefly after the launch of his book, A Drain on Our Dignity, and exhibition opening on the third of August at the Centre for African Studies Gallery at the University of Cape Town.

Masixole Feni “Sonwabile Manziwa poses with Danger the dog at Mdzananda Animal Clinic in Khayelitsha.” From Meet Khayelitsha’s Adorable Pets.

When did you decide you wanted to be a photojournalist, and how did you get to where you are today?
I never decided I was going to do photography. I was introduced to it by a group of photographers who created a society, known as the Icon Images School of Photography, which operated from the Sakhumzi Children’s Home in Mfuleni. 

What is photography to you?
It is a tool that can be used to speak for the unheard voices. It’s a powerful form of media. It’s not just used aesthetically. It can be political at the same time. I prefer to use it as a means of rehabilitation.

Your series, A Drain on Our Dignity, won the Ernest Cole Photographic Award. What did winning mean to you, and how has it influenced your career so far?
It is the most humbling experience in my life, including my career. It has influenced me to continue exploring the territory of human rights.

Masixole Feni
“A homeless man washes himself using a sprinkler.” From GroundUp’s Masixole Feni Wins Photography Award.

Can you tell us about the series?
As a press photographer, I grew tired of being sent to the same events – everyday protests. I decided to find an alternative means of protesting and looked deeper into the cause of protest. In every image I spotted, I realised it spoke to the condition I found myself in.

You work at GroundUp. Describe a typical day. What does it entail?
We call all civil societies and get to up-to-date with their schedules on things like when they’re planning a picket. Sometimes, one has to call one’s own sources to get a newsworthy event. If there’s no news at all, I’ll take my camera and visit any location I feel like documenting. 

How do you separate your personal feelings from your ability to take pictures and tell the story?
When I’m not having a good day, I tell myself I’m going to be documenting an event. I try, by all means, to keep my personal feelings suppressed and give into what I find myself doing.

Masixole Feni
“A woman sweeps the flood water away.” From Streets of Mfuleni Flooded.
Masixole Feni
“June Peterson is sixty-four and cleans this block of student apartments on Gympie Street. She says she used to live here, but she was one of many people who were moved to Blikkiesdorp in Delft (near the airport).” From In photos: The People of Woodstock Threatened With Gentrification.

What’s been the most inspiring encounter since you picked up a camera?
The fact that I will be having an exhibition, and that I’m having a book published without any formal education. 

What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?
Always learn from those who have been in the game before you. You don’t always have to have the most expensive camera to create a good image. All it takes is your eye, mind and soul!

Can you tell us about your upcoming exhibition?
The exhibition will be travelling to Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. 
It showcases images that document township daily life; people going to work, workers collecting portable toilets in the informal settlements and families being evicted from forcefully occupying the land. My work is basically taking the life from the margins to the mainstream. In other words, I want to challenge the notion of this idea we have of the township being full of angry people.

Lastly, are there any special projects you’re working on in the future?
There are many other issues we can discuss such as children having to walk long hours before they can get to school. I would like to partner with Equal Education and hopefully work with them on field trips visiting the various schools that are not meeting expected norms and standards.

Masixole Feni
“Zaida Wolhuter has been living in this unit on Albert Street for four years. Before she stayed here she had a Wendy house on Gympie Street. After evictions on Gympie Street, she decided to move to Albert Street, where she is now facing eviction.” From In photos: The People of Woodstock Threatened With Gentrification.
Masixole Feni
“…see how low Cape Town’s biggest dam was in June 2016.” From In Photos: Cape Town’s Water Crises.
Masixole Feni
“This family has created a second storey to gain a rental income. The conversion was simple and innovative.” From Dunoon Residents Capitalise on Thriving Rental Market.
Masixole Feni
“Residents try to recover a shack overturned in Khayelitsha, Site C.” From Gale Overturns Shacks in Mfuleni and Khayelitsha.
Masixole Feni
From Drain Our Dignity: Book and Exhibition Launch

See more of Masixole’s work on GroundUp.

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