From a very young age, she desperately wanted to be out in the world and explore, being part of the adventure and energy that was bubbling outside. She describes life growing up in Johannesburg as fascinating and historic, remembering the transition from Apartheid to democracy. “It was a time of uncertainty and change”, which had a very big impact on the future of a then, little Alexia Webster.
Destined to document
She remembers paging through her mother’s books in the midst of apartheid (her mom is Luli Callinicos, respected historian and writer). The books were full of images and photographs of badly exploited workers coming to the city to work in the mines and Rand lords in their opulent homes in the suburbs. “I would spend hours looking through her vast collection of photos, piecing together the story of my city, my country and the society I live in.” With history being a strong influence, she started piecing together the world with her own images at the age of 16 and never stopped since.
A variety of opportunities and stories
She describes being a documentary photographer as having a magic key that opens up the world in incredible and surprising ways. From being invited to be present as a woman gives birth in a tiny candle-lit room to canoeing through kilometers of beautiful Zambian floodplains and traveling in the back of an armoured vehicle in the Congo.
Lessons learnt inspired new ideas
One of the most important lessons she has learnt was from a man who was a refugee in a camp called Kakuma in Kenya. “While working for a non-governmental organisation (NGO) documenting their projects in the camp, this man from Ethiopia approached me to find out what I was photographing.” She explained her project, after which he asked when the people of the camp would get copies of the photographs. When explaining to him that they will most likely never get copies since the NGO uses the images as part of fundraising he became very upset. He told her about how he had lived in the camp for 15 years, trapped in uncertainty. During that time, photographers had come in and out of the camp; photographing his family, his friends, himself, yet here he was without a single image of his own. “His history and story completely invisible, a man in permanent limbo.”
That conversation struck her to her core and lead her to completely re-evaluate the importance and significance of photography, both in the world and personally. It inspired her ‘Street Studio’ series, in which she creates public outdoor portrait studios in areas where people wouldn’t usually have access to family photographs. “We have a portable printer on site and offer free family and individual photographs to anyone passing by.” So far, she has created 11 studios in 5 different countries, including refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan.
A project in South Sudan
Alexia received a fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation to go to South Sudan. There, she is working on a story in the capital city of Juba and since the work is still in progress she can’t say much, but is excited to share it soon. So are we!
Alexia is a strong woman who is “profoundly grateful to have been born here and to be part of this complex, tragic, fascinating and powerful story that is South Africa.” When asked to share some wise words for aspiring documentary photographers she said that it’s not your equipment that makes your images powerful, but rather your empathy and your courage – words she obviously lives by, her work is evident of that.