Lee-Ann Olwage’s incredible photographic journey began with a simple suggestion. She became a self-declared accidental photographer when a former partner suggested they buy a camera for an upcoming trip to Indonesia. Thinking the suggestion utterly ridiculous and a complete waste of money, Lee-Ann simply laughed it off. Not paying attention to her dismissal, her partner bought a camera anyway, and as Lee-Ann set off for her trip, camera in hand, she would too embark on an incredible journey into the spellbinding world of photography.
“I think I’ve always known I wanted to be a storyteller. I think storytelling is a fundamental part of this human experience. We’ve done it for centuries. We used to tell stories around the fire as cavemen and women. We tell stories in so many ways. For some people, it’s through their bodies, through dancing. For others, it’s weaving stories into tapestries. There are all these different ways. And for me, the way that I tell stories is through photography.”
When Lee-Ann returned from her trip to Indonesia, she was still working in the film industry as a props master and set decorator and, for a long time, never thought of herself as a photographer. However, a tragic event motivated her to follow her dreams and never look back.
“When I turned 30, a very personal life event took place where a very close friend of mine passed away, pushing me into really relooking my life and thinking about what it was that I wanted to do, and this desire to tell stories came back very strongly.”
Realising how short life was and how important it was to do the things you really wanted to, Lee-Ann ventured across the country and spent some time with an all-female anti-poaching unit called the Black Mambas.
“I just bought this Hasselblad 500CM Medium Format film camera, and I had no idea how to use it. But I took it on this trip, and I spent two weeks living with these remarkable women, trying to figure out how I saw myself and what I wanted to do next, all while documenting their journey. And someone from a magazine saw the images and wanted to publish them, and still, I didn’t think of myself as a photographer.
Motivated to learn more about the art form but not quite having sufficient funds to study photography full-time, Lee-Ann learnt things the true and trusted way with real-life experience.
“I decided to assist commercial photographers to learn about photography and lighting and earn some money. And this had a really big influence on my practice because I always knew that I wanted to work on documentary stories. But being surrounded by commercial photographers influenced how I thought about lighting and how I would conceptualise what I wanted to say with images. All of these people and mentors had a very big influence on the visual style and aesthetic of my work.”
Coming from a film background with years of experience as a props master and set decorator, Lee-Ann approaches spaces with the aesthetic of what she’s working with in mind.
“I think it’s really interesting and important to tell social documentary stories through this lens where I don’t just arrive on a scene and document what I see. I think very carefully about what I want to say with my images, what kind of story I want to tell and how I share that, and how I develop the visual language best suited for the story I’m telling. In that way, I’m also often not very set on a specific style of documenting a story. I think the story kind of dictates what the best method is.”
Regarding Lee-Ann’s creative pursuits, collaboration plays a significant role in creating work that she and her subjects are proud of. Documentarians are notorious for viewing people’s stories through a subjective lens, portraying them as they see fit and exploiting their stories for their own gain. For Lee-Ann, collaboration is crucial.
“I love being open to that process of discovery and creating when the people I work with become integral to the image-making process. There’s this real collaboration that takes place in my work, where I really thrive on the feedback I receive from people I’m working with. I love showing the images as we progress. And we continue brainstorming, reassessing, and recreating until we get to a point where the people I’m photographing feel that their images are affirmative of their identity and a celebration of them and their stories. I think it’s important to note that there’s this kind of naive idea in photography that you can tell somebody’s story, and essentially all you’re doing is telling a very small part of somebody’s story through your lens. I’m interested in how people want to be seen and how they want their stories to be told as opposed to how the photographer sees them, and it’s a really fun experience to kind of know that when you start a project. You come from a place where you’re the person in the room that knows the least. It’s not your story; it’s not your life. I’m always amazed by this access that we’re given into people’s lives and how open people are to sharing their stories with us, and I think with that comes a huge sense of responsibility. We become the guardians of these stories that have been entrusted to us. That’s super important to think about in terms of how you’re telling stories.”
Today, Lee-Ann is a world-renowned documentary photographer. And just in the last six months, Lee-Ann has won two of the biggest photographic competitions in the world, the Sony World Photography Award and the World Press Photo Award.
Her project, “The Right To Play”, has gained critical acclaim worldwide. It has been featured in Vogue, The Photographic Journal, The British Journal of Photography and more. The project was also awarded the 2023 Sony World Photography Award for the Professional category. The project tells the story of the young female students of Kakenya’s Dream School in Kenya.
“I was commissioned to direct a documentary about Kakenya Ntaiya, the founder of Kakenya’s Dream School. And while I was spending time in Kenya to make the film, I realised that so much of Kakenya’s personal story is being told through the girls that progress through her school. And so I chatted to Kakenya and proposed the idea of doing the project “The Right to Play”. I think initially, when I pitched it to her, I didn’t quite know how to verbalise all the stuff I wanted to do yet, and she just had this complete trust in me to tell this very important and very sensitive story, and that was a really amazing place to start from.”
While filming the documentary, Lee-Ann set up a portrait studio to spend time with the school girls and allow them to feel comfortable around her and the camera.
“I just invited the girls to come and spend time with me to have their portraits taken. (We had) the idea is to continue with a photographic series about child marriage, female genital mutilation, and women’s and girls’ right to education. And so I set up my camera, a light, and computer in the school hall. What truly blew me away was every girl that came into that school hall had such a clear idea of how she wanted to be portrayed. The confidence I saw these girls have was absolutely mind-blowing, especially compared to other girls I met in the local village who weren’t attending school.”
Founder Kakenya Ntaiya created the school as more than just a safe space for girls but as a space for them to dream. For many of these girls, their lives were already decided at the age of 5. They were to undergo genital mutilation, get married at the age of 12 and see to their husbands and their households for the rest of their lives. Space and time for dreaming, aspirations and ambition were not part of their predetermined life. There was no time for schooling or even enjoying childhood. There is only duty and duty alone. That’s why institutions like Kakenya’s Dream School are so important in areas like rural Kenya. They serve as a way out for people who are trapped by societal pressures and practices.
“Kakenya’s Dream School is where these girls were told, “You matter, your dreams matter”. And it was remarkable to see the impact that this had on the girls and their confidence. One of my favourite moments was when Alishers (one of the students) walked in, and I think she was about eight at the time. She just took the school chair and put it on the floor, got up on top, and stood there so proudly. She said, “I’m ready for my picture”, and that just blew me away how incredibly confident the girls were, and I just loved how they all came in, and they knew the little details from the chair that they wanted to sit or stand on or how they wanted to present themselves. I was shooting tethered to my laptop so the girls could all come and have a look at their images, and we would try different things until we got to a point where they really loved their images. And that was a really fun way to get a sense of what they wanted, and for them to see themselves through my eyes was also a really rewarding experience because I wanted to show them how beautiful and confident they are.”
Back in Cape Town, once filming had concluded, Lee-Ann spent several months figuring out how to complete her photographic project when the idea of adding flowers to the images came to her as a way to reclaim and turn the narrative of child marriage on its head.
“I had this idea to use the flowers in a playful way to create this really playful world that shows the girls in a very empowered way. And so when I first started, I decided to cover the girl’s faces with flowers because I wanted to speak about the loss of identity that comes with child marriage.”
However, after consulting and collaborating with friends and mentors, she realised that instead of hiding the joy and confidence of these girls behind the flowers, she would rather use them to accentuate their happiness.
“I did a first set of images, and then I kept discussing it with friends and mentors, and everybody commented on the amazing sense of pride and confidence and joy that they saw in the original portraits and that it was a pity that it was being covered and hidden by the flowers. And so, I decided to rethink my approach completely, shift the flowers to reveal their faces, and only do one or two anonymous portraits to still speak about that loss of identity that child marriage brings.”
“In the mornings, I would place the prints on my kitchen table, and I would pinch flowers from my neighbour’s gardens, and I kept playing with them. And I really loved this kind of very tactile meditative process of working with the flowers and working with the images until I could find something that felt right as opposed to doing a digital collage. I don’t know; I didn’t become a photographer to spend hours behind a computer. That kind of approach just doesn’t appeal to me.”
The series has gone on to achieve incredible recognition from publications, awards and photographic competitions from around the world.
“This was just so amazing for me and for the girls to see. I think there’s something really important and valuable in that. I’ve noticed that young people really inspire each other. So what’s happening is that the girls are seeing their images in magazines and galleries, and this is inspiring their sisters and their peers and other girls in the community to see how amazing it is to follow your dreams. I’m hoping that in that way, the work is also kind of shifting things for other girls in that community.”
Helping people tell their stories and putting them first has always been the main focus of Lee-Ann’s artistic practice.
“For me, it’s always stories about people first of all. I always think of photography as my love affair with life, and it’s this dance of life where storytellers get to interact with the very aspects that make us human. So that’s definitely a big part of why I love making images. It really reflects on our humanity, on our shared experiences. And I think themes of gender and identity come up quite often in my work. As a female photographer, I’m definitely interested in telling stories about women and girls, especially telling stories that are empowering, affirming and celebratory of women and girls in Africa and sharing these stories with a wider audience.”
Lee-Ann’s creative process involves spending a lot of time mapping out whose story she wants to tell and the best ways to do that. That’s why she believes in spending considerable time with her subjects to learn as much as she can from them.
“The more time you spend on a story, the more you understand the story you’re telling and going back to that first bit where you come from a very naive place, the first couple of times that I go out and I take pictures, I know that those will probably never make the final edit because they’re just kind of feeling it out and getting a sense of the story that I want to tell and being open to the story I’m trying to tell. It’s a feeling. You need to really spend time with the subject matter to understand what you’re trying to say and think about a visual language that will communicate that. As I said, I love long-term projects. I often spend a minimum of 6 months to a year on a project. I’ve been doing a long-term project for the last three years on Alzheimer’s and Dementia in Africa. I love really investing time in people. I love going back to places over and over again and seeing how time kind of shifts a story.”
Regarding gear and all those techie things, Lee-Ann describes herself as “ such an anti-photographer in a way that I’m really not hung up on gear. I’m shooting on a Canon R6, and my go-to lens is the 24-70mm. I used the 24-105mm for the first five years of my career. My partner always made fun of me because you’re a professional photographer with one lens. But find what works for you, you know. I want my gear to work, to serve me. I’m more interested in how to tell a story. And I think that’s important. How you think about creating images is far more important than having the latest and the greatest equipment. And I think this is very important for aspiring photographers and photographers starting out. I’ve met many of my all-time favourite photographers and was always blown away. You know, you look at their work, and you think they must have the best lights and the best camera, and a lot of them are just using what they’ve got, which is sometimes even entry-level equipment. So I think that’s important for young photographers to remember. It really is about what you do with your equipment. I do a lot of my work on Canon, but I firmly believe that the best camera is the one you’ve got with you, whatever that might be, whether it’s a cellphone, an old film camera or your digital camera.”
When starting your photographic career, or any creative career for that matter, rejection and failure are subjects not often discussed with aspiring creatives. For Lee-Ann, it’s a significant subject that needs to be spoken about more openly so that people can feel more comfortable with failure and know how to respond when it happens to them.
“I remember when I started out, and I started applying for awards and grants and sharing work, and I used to feel really gutted when I got a rejection letter. And then, one day, I read this fantastic story about a cartoonist who was applying to draw for The New York Times. Over time, he got 2000 rejection letters, and he eventually got the job, and he now works for them full time. And now, every time I get a rejection letter, I’ve got this folder, and I’m just adding it to the pile. We often celebrate people’s achievements, but we don’t talk about all the disappointments. I apply to tons of stuff, and I can tell you that the same body of work that has won awards has also been completely rejected in other spaces and for other awards or never placed, and that’s totally fine. It just means that that wasn’t the right space for your work. So I think it’s important not to get hung up about that and just to keep adding those rejection letters and knowing that each time you get one of those, it’s not a disappointment; it’s just one step closer to where you want to be and to keep at it.”
As an aspiring creative, losing motivation and focus is incredibly easy. Success sometimes looks so easy for others, but we often fail to recognise the amount of work it took to achieve that success and how many times that person has failed on the way to their success. Sometimes we get so sidetracked by our efforts to make our work successful that we forget why we create in the first place.
“I think grit and perseverance is so important in what we do. You’ve got to keep doing it. Do what you love. And I think that’s also a very important thing; you have to make images for yourself and not think about how it will be received. Don’t get me wrong, audience is important, but it’s so essential to make work that you love. Whether that gets recognised or not is not the point because I often find that when I do personal work purely because I want to do it, those have been my most successful projects. I think there’s just a pureness about creating on that level where you’re telling a story because you care about it, and that’s when you make your best work when you care about the stories you’re telling. Young photographers, wherever you are in your career, make it your own and remember to value the way you see the world because that’s your superpower. It’s what makes you unique. It’s exciting, and that’s what will set you apart from everybody else, not making more of the same. Take time to nurture the way you see the world. To honour that, to express that, to do personal work. All of those things are so important on your journey. Learn as much from your peers, and learn as much from mentors. I really want to give a special shout-out to all the photographers and editors who’ve taken the time to mentor me. I love sharing information, and we all go forward together, so I think sharing resources and information is important. We learn so much from each other. I think that’s the key thing, building a visual community. Have as many photo friends as you can find and connect with them and have coffee with them when you visit their cities and learn from each other. Learning how other people see the world is so exciting and so wonderful to be exposed to that. So go out there and build your visual community.”