By Liana Jacob
THE FEARSOME former gang-members who spent time in South Africa’s most violent prisons reveal their vulnerable side in these intimate portraits.
The thought-provoking pictures tell the story of each ex-gang member; showing their tattoos, gun shot and knife wounds that illustrate the life they lived.
Photographer, Lee-Ann Olwage (31), from Cape Town, South Africa, discovered Ceasefire, an organisation that aims to work with the people of Hanover Park, a Cape Town suburb plagued by gang violence.
Its aim is to prevent gang-related street violence through mediation with ex-offenders like the men pictured; who work as professional “violence interrupters” during times of conflict, which inspired the name for Lee-Ann’s project, “The Interrupters”.
“Initially the guys were not open to working with me at all,” Lee-Ann said.
“I persisted and for the first three months, I just used to drive into Hanover Park and hang around the building where they work, hoping to meet them.
“The biggest problem in doing this work was gang related shootings and gang wars raging in the neighbourhood at times.
“This, at times, made it dangerous to go into certain areas and the guys were busy stopping retaliations and managing the violence so this often delayed working there.
“I realised that I had to leave my camera at home until we got to know each other. I visited them at their homes and we shared many meals at a small local Pakistani restaurant and experienced a lot together.
“There were many shootings and funerals and they were also there for me when I encountered difficulties in life.
“We became friends and only then was I able to ask them to spend the time and get to really know the guys. They felt comfortable with me so it was easier for them to open up.”
One incredible portrait shows the back of one former gangster, Nealon Petersen, who lives by a phrase tattooed across his back, “how can a loser become a winner?”
Part of the project included quotes from the reformed gangsters.
“Changing is a daily battle. But the good in your life and your sense of purpose makes it easier. My life serves as an example for others that change is possible and that keeps me going. We provide hope for the hopeless,” Wilfred McKay said.
“My life serves as an example for others that change is possible and that keeps me going. We provide hope for the hopeless.”
“I knew that powerful portraits of reformed gang members would be interesting and it would open the door to talk about the social issues behind gangsterism and what can be done about it,” Lee-Ann said.
“It was also an opportunity to change people’s perception of ex-gang members and to hear about them as individuals.
“Some guys look strong and intimidating, while others have a sense of sadness. Showing the tattoos serves the purpose of showing how far they’ve come in the changes that they have made.
“The photos are powerful because they are real and they show what an interrupter looks like underneath.”