Light Reading | When hope glimmers

Seasoned photojournalists know that their work seldom results in positive change for the subjects of their photos, but every now and then the unexpected happens.

When photojournalists start out, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, we think we can change the world. We eagerly tell people’s stories, believing it will make a difference. We look at our heroes like Ernest Cole or Dorothea Lange, who managed to change the course of history through their photography, and we dream of doing the same. 

Most of the stories we work on, as is the nature of journalism, are sad. The majority of people are having a hard time out there. They open their homes to you, a complete stranger, and confess their worst fears and deepest disappointments, trusting that you will do a good enough job to make a change. Sadly, more often than not, it makes no difference to their lives. After a few years, you start feeling that that dream keeps moving further and further away. It’s difficult to stay motivated. 

One Friday afternoon, my colleague Zandile and I set off to Mabopane, north of Tshwane. A young girl dreams of being a gymnast but has no access to a coach and the facilities she needs. We met her and her mother at their home and they led us into the living room. Except for a television unit against one wall, the room was empty. Seeing us awkwardly standing around, the mother quickly explained that there was no furniture because her daughter, Orapeleng, uses this room to practise her routines. It was a small room with a tiled floor. A medal was hanging on the wall. 

Zandile interviewed the shy 13-year-old and I shot pictures and video of her doing a routine on the cold, hard tiles, and impressive one-leg stances on the 2m-high wall surrounding their house. I was impressed to say the least. Having been a gymnast myself and understanding what one needed to do gymnastics, I knew her dream was near impossible. She needed a coach, yes, but where would she practice? The closest gymnasium was all the way in Tshwane and how would she get there? Her mother could not afford to pay for transport there every day and it would be unsafe for Orapeleng to travel alone anyway.

We wrapped up, said our goodbyes and headed back to Johannesburg. The late-afternoon Friday traffic gave us plenty of time to discuss her story and reflect. Here was another person who had put their hope in us to somehow bring about change in their life. I wasn’t hopeful.

I left Orapeleng that day thinking she had virtually no chance of realising her dream. But then, a few days after the video was published, the unexpected happened. I received an email with the news that “somebody has come forward and they want to coach the girl”.

The story is not over yet. It might still come to nothing. But Orapeleng has a better chance now than before she shared her story. There is still hope. For her dream and for mine.

Read Orapeleng's full story:

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