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Photographers have the power to show us what we might not otherwise see, and Canon Ambassador Michele Spatari harnessed this power to share antidotes to the chaos and anxiety of the global pandemic. In capturing stories of positivity, he shares a deeply personal view of a South Africa that is largely unseen and offers us sight of some much-needed hope.
“As a major at university, I chose architecture. I was interested in how spaces are built, how they develop and evolve. Eventually I became less interested in designing and building, and more in how cities are made and how urbanism works. As part of my final year project, I chose to focus on four ‘divided cities’: Beirut, Mostar, Belfast, and Nicosia in Cyprus and spent seven months in Beirut using photography to visualise what I was researching. This was a crucial time in terms of meeting with journalists, photographers, video makers, documentary makers and the project opened doors and new opportunities. Slowly I realised that architecture wasn't for me. I wanted to be a documentary photographer.
After graduating, I worked in Lisbon as an architect and urban planner, while also working on a photo project. Step by step, I built my photography career and won the Canon Young Photographer Award in Italy, then participated in the Canon Student Programme. It helped push my career forward and I was able to show my work to editors and colleagues, get feedback, exhibit my work and be published. At the same time, I was working with news agencies and took a course in journalism at the Istituto Superiore di Fotografia in Rome. This is where I met Marco [Longari, a photojournalist best known for his work in regions in conflict and social unrest] who is also a Canon Ambassador. He is AFP Chief Photographer for Africa and gave me the opportunity to try working for them in Johannesburg.
While I was in South Africa, the pandemic happened. Everything stopped. It took over news and media and with all the underlying conditions and social tensions, we knew it would hit hard. So, as it was almost impossible to get access to hospitals and ambulance services, I turned my attention to the social and economic consequences on the population. I concentrated on aspects I felt were South Africa-specific, like the hard lockdown and the police and military presence in the street. The social structure was very fragile. I knew we had to show the virus and asked myself, 'How can I show people that this is serious? That the virus is not just in Europe, it's here as well and people are dying every day?'
This picture is of a paramedic named Mudau Matamela, as he checks the temperature of a woman suspected of having Covid 19, before installing an oxygen concentrator in her house in Johannesburg. He is part of a community-run ambulance service called Saaberie Chishty and for this patient, who had been sick for some time, the oxygen meant it was a good day for her. When I discovered this NGO (Non-Government Organisation), I thought it was a great, positive story in the chaos that the public health services were going through. These kinds of grass-root organisations were crucial, as they helped with food distribution and other products to people in need.
The NGO was set up by a Mr Sayed after he lost his father and uncle to Covid and he took it took a step further, constructing welfare for the community. He set up a parallel healthcare system to fight the pandemic in his hometown of Lenasia, a suburb south of Johannesburg. Alongside doctors, they provided people in need with free home-based intensive care, ambulance and funeral services. Taking on the task of a struggling public health system and expanding the family tradition of community service in this way is, I think, amazing. Through this NGO, I was given access to ambulances and funeral services, so I could tell these stories. I think I was the first one to access the morgues and funeral service structure in South Africa. It was quite intense because I was going to funerals every day, showing up to someone’s funeral whose family you don't know, and you have to explain why you are there. Why you are taking pictures of this most private moment. But I think the people I spoke to and who allowed me to be there understood that it was important to show this part of it.
In Europe, when people were told they had to stay home, most had a place to stay with a Wi-Fi connection and Netflix. When the South African government told people they couldn't go out, this was a challenge as a lot of the places where people in South Africa sleep are not made to be lived in all day. Some spaces might be three square meters or overcrowded buildings from the apartheid era. Everyone coped very differently, and there was a lot of social tension that didn't explode until a few months ago when more than 300 people died during rioting. You have to understand that a lot of people in South Africa rely on a day-to-day economy. They go out, they earn money and spend it the same day to feed themselves and their loved ones. When they can't go out, it impacts a lot of people daily. They were hungry. We saw kilometre-long queues of people waiting to get a food parcel. It was terrible. I was very relieved to see how the community came together during the pandemic. For example, there is a community-run kitchen created by a woman who started cooking for the people of the neighbourhood every day – and she's been doing this for a year now, which is really heart-warming.
The expression 'there is no place like home' started playing in my mind, and I called my project 'There is no place like hope'. There are so many underlying conditions in South Africa, like HIV and tuberculosis, and, for many, living conditions are very bad and often overcrowded. So, this title gives a sense of how people were stuck inside, but couldn't wait to go outside, hoping that everything would pass so they could return to the lives they were living before.”
More about Michele’s work and projects can be found on his Canon Ambassador page.