Capturing the lives of ex-gangsters

Abdurahmaan Ruiters, also an interrupter, and Lee Ann Olwage, the photographer.

Photographer Lee-Anne Olwage spent nine months living among ex-gangsters in Hanover Park as part of her research which culminated in The Interrupters, a photographic exhibition, which was launched at the Amplify Studio in Loop Street, Cape Town, on Thursday June 1.

It focuses on 12 ex-gangsters who have changed their lives.

Ms Olwage, who lives in Kenilworth and has been a photographer for two years, has always been interested in social change and finding solutions to social problems – with a key interest in gangs.

“I like to call myself a photographer for change. Gangs have always fascinated me, the human aspect of it. I’ve always wondered why people decide to join gangs, and also why we don’t have gangs in the more affluent areas.”

She said she had always wanted to do an exhibition like The Interrupters, but thought it would be dangerous. She said she then approached the City of Cape Town to help her with the project and they put her in touch with Ceasefire, an NGO based in Hanover Park which runs a youth-at-risk programme, and who founded the Violence Interrupters programme.

The former gangsters she worked with are trained as these “violence interrupters” to try to mediate violence; create peace between gangs; report situations to the authorities to prevent violence and also to reach out to gangsters who want to change their lives and help them on the right path.

JP Smith, the City’s mayco member for safety and security, and social services, also attended the launch of the exhibition.

He said the City supported the art exhibition through the public education component of the Ceasefire programme.

“Those trapped within the cycle of gangsterism and gang violence are members of our communities and members of our families. They have the potential to be rehabilitated and to contribute positively to society and a large proportion of them have the desire to change but do not know how to.

The Ceasefire programme has given them hope to escape the cycle which they are trapped in, and other communities are now watching, hoping for similar attention and opportunities. Between three and four percent of community members are involved in high-risk gang activities and disrupt the community life and community safety of the remaining 96%.

If we can assist the few to change their behaviour, then we can positively impact on the safety and quality of life of the whole community.”

In a follow-up interview, Mr Smith said the Ceasefire team, which he described as remarkable individuals, worked late into the night last Wednesday as two people were shot – one dead and one wounded – in Hanover Park. The team was on the street and engaging in order to prevent retaliation.

“Their work requires a significant amount of dedication in dangerous circumstances and the people of Cape Town are very grateful to each team member for their efforts within the community of Hanover Park and also for showing us what is possible.”

Ms Olwage had been following the Amplify Studio on social media for months and supported their concept, so she decided to host her exhibition at their Loop Street studio. The studio runs a residency programme for up and coming photographers, whom they mentor and train for a few months.

The CEO of Ceasefire, Craven Engel, said the project was launched in 2013 and was the first of its kind for Africa. But, he said, preparation and sourcing people to join the project had already started in 2011.

“We started identifying interrupters for three years. Interrupters are ex-gang members who want to change their lives and we train them into outreach workers and mediators. Ultimately, they interrupt violence in the community.” The project operates out of the First Community Resource Centre, which houses counselling services, job-placement services, a drug restoration centre and a safe house.

Mr Engel said there are now 12 interrupters on the team – six who do outreach work as well.

He said nine months ago, he was approached by Ms Olwage to do an interview about the project. “It took us three months to meet. We don’t really meet with media because the project is sensitive, but we do public education, so I told Lee-Ann she could come work with us for a few months doing public education and outreach.”

He said Ms Olwage co-operated and spent months with the families of gangsters and ex-gangsters and on the streets of Hanover Park.

At the end of her “contract”, Mr Engel said Ms Olwage was free to ask the interrupters if they would like to be part of the project, and they agreed. Asked about her experiences in Hanover Park, Ms Olwage said: “It was amazing. It’s like a second home to me now.”

Mr Smith said it is the City’s intention to roll out the Ceasefire programme and its methodology to communities such as Manenberg, Lavender Hill, Delft and Elsies River.

The programme includes community mobilisation, mass media exposure, and the deployment of violence interrupters and outreach workers.

“These violence interrupters are recruited from the community and are required to engage with gang leaders and high-risk individuals, and participate in mediation and conflict resolution, he said.

The exhibition was to stay up until tomorrow, Thursday June 8, but the Amplify Studio chose to extend it by two weeks. The exhibition now runs until Friday June 30.