Nolly and Cindy ran away from home as teenagers, both had previously been raped as prepubescent’s. As a result Cindy’s womb has been damaged, she can no longer have children and therefore has no right to marriage in the Xhosa community. Nolly has two children from different men, but is not yet married. “Cindy and I were having the same issue with our mothers and had no one, so we take care of each other. She is my street sister and friend forever.” Gugulethu Township, South Africa, 2015
Former sex worker Mandy poses at the scene of her assault. “I wanted this photo taken here in my office because I wanted people to really feel my story. You see the condoms everywhere and plastic to lay on. I have almost been stabbed to death in this spot. After we do sex, he took out his knife and began to stab me. I am only alive because one man came from his car and picked up a stone to beat his head, that is how I survived. It is here that I can really think about and feel my reality.” Farah Road between Gugulethu and Khayelitsha Townships, South Africa, 2015.
Cikizwa’s normally introverted personality falls away when she dances in the tavern. Her face could transform in an instant from soft to mean. Her reputation was quick to fight, which is why I always felt safest near her. “I’m taking this picture because I want people to see the scars of what can happen as a sex worker in South Africa, because it causes social problems as well. A girl in the tavern once called me a prostitute to look down on me, so we fight and she cut me with a broken bottle.” Gugulethu Township, South Africa, 2015
Khosi has a sense of balance within herself, and it’s contagious. The greatest pain in her life was loosing her mother who was poisoned and died alone in a hospital before Khosi could reach her. Before her mother’s death she never considered sex work. It was not until her early 20’s, alone in the world and unable to find a job that she joined her cousin in the streets. We created this image to depict the two sides of her, the woman her mother wanted her to be, and the sex worker she’s trying to forget. “I wanted my face painted like two different people. One side is my wishes for who I want to feel like, my dreams and my hopes. This other side of me is loosing hope and feels dirty. I feel like two different people.” Khayelitsha Township, South Africa, 2015.
Cikiizwa shows off her bedroom. She is happier in this home and to finally have a room of her own. It has not always been that way, “My parents were never married, but they were together until my father passed away. My mother soon found a new man in Gugulathu. My new stepfather was rude and strong. When he came into our life he would shout and shout, ‘This baby is not my child! This baby I don’t want in my house!’ My mother told me if I do not love my new father then I had to get out. I was 14 with no money, food, or job. So I found a boyfriend. My boyfriend smoked tick, he smoked everything…” Gugulethu Township, South Africa, 2015
Nosipiwo , stands in her home surrounded by her children. “This photo makes me happy. I like to share my problems with my babies so they know about life. I make my babies strong. Even if I have stress it helps me to tell them and they come to me with their problems. I know they will never go to the road because I tell them what happens there.” Khayelitsha Township, South Africa, 2015.
Cindy stands outside her home. Her features are sculpted and fierce, high cheek bones, twig-like waste, “This picture is about me in my normal clothes, in my home. I like it because it’s just me without the past, and I feel one day I could be a model and have beautiful pictures taken of me.” Gugulethu Township, South Africa, 2015
Glenda’s, right, life revolves around her mother and children; it is also what has driven her to the streets. Her mother was a sex worker, and Glenda follows in her footsteps. Glenda speaks about the living conditions in Gugulethu as I photograph her youngest daughter and mother. “People should know how life is here. Where I’m living now there are no flushing toilets, I use bucket toilets and that can expose us to a lot of disease… I am like everyone else, but I like to stay indoors. I don’t want to go get drunk, party, or go to clubs. What I like is to be true to myself, and my family.” Gugulethu Township, South Africa, 2015.
Khosi originally wanted to try a portrait with the neighborhood children in the room to represent the close proximity of the naked body, sex, and lack of privacy in the townships, but after we discussed the sensitive nature of posing children in situations that deal with exiting sex work, she chose to ask only Nanthando to be in the image. She wanted to create a photo that speaks to the openness and reliance women hold in each other’s lives, “To me this photo is about feeling free. The women in my life have been my freedom. And here we are naked, free, and beautiful even in this small room.” Khayelitsha Township, South Africa, 2015.
Cindy introduces her mother with whom she lives, “My mom has an alcohol problem. I have to buy everything and I want to leave again. Sometimes I like to question myself and try to answer myself. So I decided to stay at home, and speak to her when she is sober. I ask her, ‘What will I learn from a drunk person everyday?’ She told me she was getting abused for years, and now it is her turn to feel free. I think if she drinks because of stress, then she can drink for the rest of her life.” Gugulethu Township, South Africa, 2015.
Noluyolo cuts through a path between the shacks in the Khayelitsha township.. On my visits to the township to work with the women, it was too dangerous to travel after dark so I often found myself waking up early in Khayelitsha. We would walk barefoot out of the catacomb of homes and in to the abandoned lots to find a ride. Millions of people live in the townships surrounding Cape Town and it was always surreal to see Khayelitsha empty and quiet. Khayelitsha Township, South Africa, 2015.
Noluyolo stands in her front yard where she often walks around nude. No one is fazed; her brother walks by and friends stand around drinking. “This photo reminds me of when I was young before all the hard times in life. I use to like to feel free. My aunt raise me that I should not be afraid to show my body, and I am to be proud of my body.” Khayelitsha Township, South Africa, 2015.
At first glance a shabeen, an unlicensed drinking hole, in Gugulethu looks just like the other millions of shacks making up black townships. Most community camaraderie stems from drinking at one of the many shabeens where women come to let loose on the weekends, and men can be found drowning out there responsibilities all day, everyday. Gugulethu Township, South Africa, 2015.
In January, 2015, Embrace Dignity, a South African NGO that works with Xhosa women transitioning out of a life of sex work, commissioned me to photograph ten of their clients. What initially began as a straightforward documentary project, transformed over time into a collaborative portrait project that attempted to address each woman’s experiences, hopes, and dreams. I came to know and love these women as they struggled to develop positive aspirations, and worked with me to depict some of the darkest aspects of their personal lives.
In townships like Khayelitsha and Gugulethu where the women served by Embrace Dignity live, poverty is rampant, alcoholism is high, jobs are scarce. There is no running water, and no way to support children. Xhosa women are the backbone of their communities and the primary income-earners for households. Often they must resort to sex work to feed themselves, to sustain their families as single mothers, or to support unreliable partners in an effort to keep families together. Rape is common before the age of 13 and often overlooked by the young girls’ families in the face of ineffective and chauvinistic law enforcement, and the pressures of survival.
As part of the project each woman shared and described a person, moment or place that has defined her life. We then collaborated to choose a location and gesture to create a portrait that represented her identity or internal experiences. I then interviewed each woman about the portrait making process and asked her to describe the meaning as she looked at the image.
The result is a series of images in which the women challenge the label “prostitute” and ultimately discard it. Threaded through each woman’s life are stories of forced dualities: prostitute and mother, prostitute and wife, prostitute and daughter. To me the world is a dichotomy of beauty and pain, and I have never experienced that more than with these ten incredible women. Individually, these photos tell unique stories; however, overlapping commonalities create a narrative of survival and solidarity. The story shown through these portraits is dynamic and identifiable for all women that have loved, lost, and discovered the depth of their own strength through struggle.Follow