These images focus on the life of Khanyisa Mtulu as she prepares for her ‘matric dance’. In South Africa the final year of high school is know as matric and the matric ball carries huge significance, seen as a landmark event in the lives of students. They often spend much time and money on the event, meticulously planning their outfits, with many of them getting dresses and suits custom made. For female students like Khanyi, the process of hair and make-up preparation is a coming of age process leading up to the final reveal of their ‘look’ on the big night.
Khanyi is from Phillipi, one of the most dangerous townships in Cape Town. It is an area that sees some of the highest murder rates in the country, and where gang violence and drug abuse is rampant. Many families in the area face acute poverty and social challenges and dropping out of school is common. Pupils at Peak View High School, where Khanyi studies, often repeat grades in order to get to the final year of school and reaching matric is seen a success in itself, whether or not a student passes their final exams.
For these students, attending the matric ball represents a huge achievement. While the night allows them a chance to feel glamorous, and socialise with their friends and teachers, it also signifies their success in reaching their final year of school, and of having overcome odds stacked against them to do so.
In the time I spent with Khanyi, I was struck by her calm dignity and confident selfhood as an emerging young woman, and I am grateful that she allowed me access to document these pivotal moments in her life. During the time we spent together, working with her became an increasingly collaborative process as she had a very clear sense of the self she wanted to project as she prepared for her final exams and the dance; both landmark moments in her life.
This project is part of my ongoing work exploring notions of beauty, physical appearances, empowerment and femininity. Despite the many difficulties she and her classmates face, my intent here is to communicate her pride and self-assurance as an empowered and dignified individual.