"I’ve had some crap ideas in my time but this wasn’t one of them.”
Brighton-based photographer David Westhead’s Wembley To Soweto project took Thapelo Motsumi from marginalised, disadvantaged teen living in a South-African township to staff photographer on the Joburg Times.
“Thapelo is from the roughest places I’ve ever encountered in my life, and I’ve been to some pretty rough places,” explains Westhead. We’re talking ahead of the exhibition in which 45 or so of the best alternative views of South Africa taken during World Cup 2010 are unveiled in Brighton as part of Black History Month.
“Thapelo came over as guest of honour for our exhibition in Newcastle. He was presented with a shirt with 100 and ANC printed on it, because 2012 is the 100th anniversary of the African National Congress, which he then took back to give to Nelson Mandela.”
Huge prints by Thapelo were hung in a concourse at Newcastle United’s ground St James’ Park before a match against Liverpool.
And his shot of a fan celebrating South Africa’s first goal of the 2010 World Cup against Mexico, with a big fist being pumped in the air (main picture right), ended up being blown up to 20 metres wide and laid on to the pitch before the game.
“That was pretty amazing,” continues Westhead. “If you knew where he’d come from and where he’s got to now, it is absolutely fabulous.”
Thapelo was one of eight lucky students involved with Umuzi Photo Club who were given the opportunity to take a four-week photography course run by Westhead and Hastings-based American snapper John Cole.
The youngsters ranged from 14 to 19 and were chosen because they demonstrated talent as well as being economically disadvantaged.
“It’s only because their pictures are so good that we put them up.”
Westhead, also a filmmaker and producer, says the project grew by accident. As one of the people charged with making the last authorised documentary about Nelson Mandela – still in progress, with some clips shown at Brighton Festival 2012 – he spent time with Mandela’s grandson, Kweku .
They went to Wembley Arena to watch England play football and while walking up Wembley Way, Kweku wondered where the gig for his granddad’s 70th birthday in 1988 had taken place. “It turned out the family were convinced it had happened there but I said not [it actually took place at Wembley Stadium, with an audience of 80,000].
“To prove it, I decided to get hold of John Cole’s photograph, which I thought was the most iconic of that day.”
When Westhead rang Cole and explained that he wanted the negatives from 22 years ago so he could get a framed copy of the picture to put on Nelson Mandela’s wall, Cole thought it was a prank call.
“I showed him a DVD of the work we did in the townships training kids to work on filmsand he got back in touch.
“He found the negative and we met in a Brighton cafe. It turned out he was just back from Montserrat teaching kids to document volcanic eruption on their island.
“I said, ‘Would you come and teach kids in Soweto?’ He said ‘Yeah, sure, when do we start?’”
Big sporting occasions work well because of the effect their arrival can have on communities. The pair chose World Cup 2010 in South Africa and were recently in London working with teenagers from Tower Hamlets, Newham and Hackney to get a different view of the Olympics .
“It’s similar in that we wanted to see the effect of the Games to come. We concentrated on going into communities rather than the action. We took pictures of fan parks, concerts, people who might be on security, a fan. Some extraordinary photos came out of that.”
Plans are now afoot for a project with Brighton and Hove Albion.
Before then about ten of Thapelo’s pictures will be on show, in large format, in the city.
“My favourite is the picture of a boy on a makeshift playground swing on top of a JCB metal structure with a massive chain hanging from a piece of old wood [The Guide cover today].
“It is filled with the expression of joy and freedom you have to go a long way to find.
“The hope rising over that place was particularly poignant.”
Wembley To Soweto will be in the Brighton Dome Founders Room, Church Street, until November 9. The exhibition is free entry and runs most days from 10am to 5pm – check www.brightondome.org for full opening times. The prints are for sale, with all proceeds going back into promoting photography for underprivileged
“This is a gift from South Africa kids to the UK,” says Westhead. “It allows us to continue teaching kids in the UK. It is an interesting reverse: the children of townships in South Africa allowing our kids to
go out and take photos.” Wembley To Soweto: A Photographic Journey Book, compiled by David Westhead and John Cole, will also be on sale for £20.