Letters to Hlompho Letsielo
In May 2015, Lesotho lost one of its most vibrant and creative minds, the photographer Hlompho Letsielo.
In May 2015, Lesotho lost one of its most vibrant creative minds, the photographer Hlompho Letsielo. As friends, we’ve written letters to him in the next world.
The grief and denial
By-products of guilt rather than loss
Disbelief and shock aside
Torrents of “if only” flow from everyone’s lips
Including my own
If only I video-documented your presentation in January
But the lighting was poor and I dismissed it
I counted on next time and saved it in my visual memory
If only I had been consistent with our heart-to-heart sessions
Could that have made a difference?
Humans, ever so feeble
We applauded your art
Neglected its weight
We saw only the beauty of what you produced
But not the hidden horrors you were fighting off
Consumed by our selfishness
We lament that we’ll never see you again
As if you had something to gain
From our being possessive over you
You did a meticulous job of sowing warmth and inspiration
Planted sparks of your infinite light in all the souls you touched
Yours was a life laced with tales of bravery, laughter and wit
Never a hoarder, you spread love like you earned commission on it
How dare we not follow suit?!
I remember when we first met at Times Caffe, on the upper deck, overlooking Kingsway road in Maseru. Chairs were scarce and we happened to find places at the same table. With the smell of chicken grilling on the street below and the pounding of heavy kwaito bass coming from inside the bar we struck up a conversation over Maluti lagers and soon discovered we had the same obsession. The love of capturing light. We shared inspirations and project ideas with earnest enthusiasm and vowed to collaborate. I saw you on the street a few days later and we walked over to Pioneer Mall to look at magazines in the Pick ‘N Pay. We can do better than that, we said.
Now, a lot of people like snapping pictures and playing with cameras, but photography was never a hobby for you, it was a calling. You hustled with the newspapers in Maseru for a while using borrowed cameras, trying to make it in a small market which doesn’t always value photographers or know how recognize quality. Before long Lesotho couldn’t contain you and you set off to Johannesburg. It wasn’t enough to take good pictures for you, you wanted to know the history of photography and debate the power of the image, so you enrolled in the Market Photo Workshop and continued to hone your craft.
Your talent was clearly recognized and it earned you an internship with the Mail & Guardian newspaper. You covered intense feature stories where other photographers were afraid to go, documenting township protests and the struggle for hearts and minds between Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, then the embattled president of the ANC Youth League. At some point you even popped up in Kenya for some reportage. With every M&G feature I would seek out the print edition on the streets of Maseru and buy a copy, proudly telling the paper dealers, You see these pictures? I know the guy who took them. He’s from Lesotho.
More than once on trips to Johannesburg, a massive metropolis compared to Maseru, I ran into you randomly on the street, always alone and each time wielding your camera. You had your own by then and it never left your side. Whether day or night, whatever the conditions, you were always ready for decisive moments to reveal themselves to you or be created. No place was off limits and you had a knack for weaving through crowds of people with patience and poise. Your smile usually put people at ease, though some were threatened by the power of your lens. Even in the face of intimidation, of physical assault, your persistence endured.
Eventually you came home to Lesotho. I don’t know what brought you back from South Africa but you came back ready to take over. You dove into photojournalism with energy and professionalism, selling stories to some of the top photo agencies in the world including Getty, Corbis and AFP. It was never lost on me that you always gave meaningful captions to your work, humanizing the people you photographed beyond just the technical soundness of aesthetics. Your images weren’t romantic, they were real. When Lesotho experienced its attempted coup at the end of August 2014 you were relentless in telling the story of a nation of resilient people in the midst of political crisis.
It was exciting to see that with your presence, Lesotho saw a surge of visual creativity. Your travel and experience allowed you to step back and reflect on the nuances of culture, a quality shared by the best of artists. You had matured into a key figure in the cultural scene and became a mentor to many young creatives. Your work was shown in exhibitions, you shot campaigns for creative local products and you joined forces with friends to film and direct the most exciting music videos Lesotho had seen. Shit, there are even billboards of your work up around town right now. But I think the corporate work bored you. It seemed you preferred the bold pursuit of real stories through documentary work.
I’ve been too distant to know what caused that boldness to mix with hidden pain in ways which cannot be undone. Loss is always hard to deal with, but the loss of a visionary stings more acutely because of their power to change people’s lives. I don’t know if any institution has the consciousness to pay you proper tribute, but know that the ideas we schemed about and the visions I never had the chance to share will come to be realized.
Lineo and I invented a new Sesotho word this week as you know we have a habit of doing. I’ll tell you what it is, but I think you’ve understood the meaning for a long time.
(n.) Setšoantšo seo ralinepe a tsebang hore se na le botle le botebo hang-hang ha a penya konopo ea kh’amera e nkang senepe.
An image which a photographer knows is perfect the moment they press the shutter button on a camera.