By Liana Jacob
AN EMOTIONAL series of pictures has been released showing students from one of Cape Town’s most violent ghettos attending their prom to celebrate graduating high school.
The gritty photos show a group of African high schoolers beaming with pride in their luxurious ball gowns and tuxedos after having completed school in an area where only 30 percent of students manage to finish high school.
Surrounded by an edgy looking environment where the elegantly dressed students grew up, the pictures resemble a contrast to symbolise the journey it took for them to achieve high school diplomas.
The captivating images were taken by photographer, Lee-Ann Olwage (31), from Cape Town, South Africa. Lee-Ann chose this project to reveal the hard-hitting truth behind the dwindling numbers of students who don’t make it through high school.
“When I first started working in the Cape Flats, a ghetto area in Cape Town, I found it difficult to connect with the right people to help me with my projects,” Lee-Ann said.
“I also realised that I needed to immerse myself in the culture to truly understand the subject matter I was taking on.
“I started working with Ceasefire Hanover Park, an initiative that makes use of reformed gang members who work as professional violence interrupters.
“I was asked to photograph the prom night (matric ball in South Africa) of the daughter of a gang leader as a favour.
“I was amazed at the amount of effort families went to for this special night and the contrast of the lavish ball gowns, tuxedos and limousines against the stark backdrop of the ghettos fascinated me.
“Hanover Park is an impoverished neighbourhood plagued by gang violence in Cape Town, South Africa.
“For months families who struggle to afford food save up to buy extravagant ball gowns, tuxedos and limousines to celebrate the big night.
“Only around thirty percent of students who graduate from primary school finish high school. Most drop out of high school due to high teenage pregnancy rates, substance abuse or being recruited by gangs.
“Although many students have the desire to finish school most are forced to drop out and work to support their families.
“If a family is lucky enough to have a student graduate from high school no effort is spared to give them the night of their dreams.
“Because of the stark contrast of the glamour of the night set against the backdrop of the ghetto made such an impression on me, I wanted to portray the subjects within their environment.
“I wanted to separate them from their environment and isolate them within the backdrop to symbolise this one night of glamour while they are surrounded by everything their life consists of and everything they have had to overcome in order to graduate from high school.
“When they first met me, they thought I was a white girl who didn’t belong in the hood and who was there to just make a quick buck.
“Over time people realised that my passion for the work I do and the love I have for the community is sincere and now they embrace me with open arms.
“Despite having very little, these communities have a lot of heart and soul and they celebrate these achievements in the most remarkable ways.
“I was amazed at the amount of effort they go to and to be a part of this special night was an amazing experience.”
While the photographic process was smooth, Lee-Ann says that actually entering the areas was near impossible.
“Because Hanover Park is divided into different areas, each being governed by their own gang, it is not possible for crowds from different areas to easily cross borders,” she said.
“I requested a meeting with the gang leader from the block where I wanted to shoot and asked for his permission and blessing to do the shoot there.
“Even the gang leader supports the students who graduate from high school and knows what a big deal it is to the community.
“He helped to facilitate the shoot and made sure that we were safe and that all of my equipment was taken care of.
“Many people have such a negative view of areas like Hanover Park and are always quick to tell me that it’s a terrible place and that I shouldn’t go there.
“The thing is Hanover Park is a place where sometimes terrible things happen, but there is a lot of good in a community like that and I want people to see that side of the Cape Flats.”
One of the students, Nikeshia Fillies, said: “It is such an amazing feeling to know that I have finished high school.
“I have been waiting for this moment all my life. My family is very proud of me and they supported me all the way till the end.”
Ceasefire coordinator, Pastor Craven Engel, said: “It is a miracle that these kids finish high school. When you live in a place like Hanover Park you are faced with constant trauma and violence is considered normal.
“On average between two-hundred and five-hundred shots are fired in a month and around three people are shot dead.
“These communities live with constant trauma and schools are often shut down due to gang wars raging.
“Just getting up and walking to school can be lethal and therefore it is a heavy achievement for a student to graduate from high school and we as a community celebrate them.”