The compelling stories of five Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) students struggling for access and to complete their university studies was captured in a photographic documentary booklet, which will form part of an exhibition later this year.
Following the first wave of #FeesMustFall protests that hit South African universities across towards the end of 2015, an idea was borne to document students’ unique stories.
NMMU’s official photographer, Leonette Bower, was tasked with the project because of her insight into many areas on campus and her unique perspective as photographer. Bower used the project as a basis for her BTech degree in Photography, which she received cum laude, in absentia, today.
“Vice-Chancellor Prof Derrick Swartz initiated the project as a photographic documentary story of NMMU students who had to overcome various challenges to access and complete their studies within the context of the #Feesmustfall movement starting in October 2015,” she said.
“I chatted to various academics, administrative and financial aid staff, residence managers and student governance staff and it took the whole of 2016 to complete the project, which was also printed in a booklet entitled #Storyofmylife.
“I wanted to capture more students’ stories, but time and access to students during the #feesmustfall period was limited. There is, however, so much richness in the stories that I realised we have to extend the stories to more students. We are therefore planning to include more students in the project, which will lead to the exhibition later this year.”
Bower said the surveyed students faced difficulties in accessing the system, but were all committed to success and to making a difference. It was also important to her to include students who give back to their communities through, for example, tutoring and community service.
“They are all incredible, positive people surviving against all odds,” she said.
“I also wanted these students to play an active role in telling their stories. I did not want to be just the photographer moving into their space. It had to be a dialogue and therefore I asked them to write down their own stories in their handwriting, giving them voice.”
Students whose stories were published included LLB student Gretchen Sudenie, Music student Luvuyo Plum, Tourism Management student Jenna Leigh Greyling, Computing Sciences student Faith Moyo and Management student Khakalomzi Gcwabe.
The booklet includes a music recording from Plum and a varied combination of photographs from each student that effectively makes up a photo story of their lives, accompanied by handwritten notes telling their stories.
“We identified these students as they have interesting life stories to tell, they are positive and their stories are of hope and inspiration against the many odds of university studies. We wanted to create an awareness and expose the reality of other people’s lives and their struggles,” said Bower.
The students’ photographs were taken in lecture halls, taxis, home and at churches, capturing the whole spectrum of their daily lives.