One of the founding members of Afrapix, Lesley Lawson was born in Durban in 1952. She matriculated from Durban Girls College and attended the University of Natal, Durban, where she did a Bachelor of Science Honours degree.
In her first year at the university, she came under the influence of Dr. Rick Turner and attended a work camp at Phoenix Settlement run by Turner, Omar Badsha, Ela and Mewa Ramgobin, and Laurie Schlemmer. This was a turning point in her life. In 1973 she became involved in the work of the Student Wages Commission, which played a major role in the emergent trade union movement.
In the mid seventies, she did an interdisciplinary MSc, Liberal Studies in Science, at Manchester University that viewed science as a social practice. While in the UK, her interests in photography grew. After the 1976 student revolt, upon her return to South Africa, she resolved to become actively engaged in the situation in the country.
Lawson joined SACHED (South African Council of Higher Education) an independent educational project and became a writer on the Peoples’ College project. This was an educational newspaper supplement aimed at out-of-school youth. People’s College was a supplement in Weekend World, banned along with World Staff and Black Consciousness organizations in October 1977. Some of the key staff members of SACHED were also banned.
At this point, an audiovisual department was started at SACHED. Here, Lawson received training in photography and audiovisual production, along with Ingrid Hudson and Nomsisi Khuzawayo. Ingrid Hudson went on to become an important documentary photographer.
In 1977, Lawson began participating in the photography workshop organized by Eddie Wes at the Open School. The photographer David Goldblatt came once a week to critique the work of the group. Although most of the members of this group were all highly politically motivated, they also appreciated the values of good photographic practice. David gave each group member individual attention, inviting them to his home in turn for a meal and a one-on-one printing session. Later when the programme was disbanded by Open School, the group continued the workshop informally. Some times they met at Lesley’s house in Crown Mines and other times at the Goldblatts’.
People’s College was revived in a less ambitious form as Learning Post, a supplement to the Post (which succeeded the World). Lesley continued to write for this supplement and other publications, as well as produce audio-visual programmes and photographs for SACHED until 1980. She then went freelance as a photographer and audiovisual producer.
Lawson then began doing service work – photography, writing and editing - for various civil society organizations, such as trade unions, health, and literacy organizations. In addition, she produced a series of slide and tape shows on the history of political resistance for HAP (the Human Awareness Programme). This later surfaced as a book published by IDAF in London. (IDAF had been the donor of the project). In this period she also worked for a short-lived paper called Afrika, forerunner of New Nation.
The assassination of Neil Aggett in February 1982 was something that affected Lesley and her fellow photographers very deeply. A group – mainly from David’s workshop – set out to document the funeral in film and still images. This group was informal and included Jenny Gordon, Jacqui Nolte and others - who discussed and planned how to cover the event. Lawson sees this time as a precursor to the formation of an alternative photo agency for the left. However nothing really came of it until the photographic agency, Afrapix, was established the following year.
During this period she had maintained a relationship with SACHED, and had continued to freelance for them. In 1983, she went back part-time to work on the Working Women project. This was conceptualized as a resource for the emerging women’s movement in the trade unions (FOSATU as it was then), for whom she had worked.
Working Women, a book of photographs and interviews was published by SACHED and Ravan press in 1985. After this she became a full-time freelance photographer, later moving into film and then into technical writing in the field of HIV. Her book Side Effects, The story of AIDS in South Africa was published in 2008.
Interview with Lesley Lawson, conducted by SAHO CEO Omar Badsha