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His series of photography entitled “From Brokenness to Healing”, exhibited at his graduation earlier this month marks the progress of Dean’s own journey and narrates the importance that relationships play in transformation.


Western Cape, South Africa – Dean Sass is an emerging photographer and a formerly homeless addict.

At the age of 33, he has become a beacon of light for others who face similar challenges and a reminder to society that “homeless” does not mean “hopeless”. When we shift from a short term “cup-of-soup” response to homelessness and instead invest in rehabilitative programmes, we celebrate stories of transformation like Dean’s.

Growing up in Mitchells Plain, Dean was exposed to gangsterism, as well as drug and alcohol abuse.

He found his escape in drugs and alcohol, and in capturing moments of beauty on his old banged up Nokia phone camera. Dean says that he has always sought beauty in the brokenness surrounding him.
A light came for Dean after joining the U-turn programme in 2018. He had previously successfully completed drug and alcohol rehabilitation through The Ark – City of Refuge, but with a lack of access to aftercare programmes, he returned to Mitchells Plain, to the same triggers that had left him destitute. He relapsed but after finding himself homeless for five months, completed rehabilitation again but this time enrolled himself in U-turn’s final phase, Life Change programme. It offers a work opportunity based at one of their Charity shops, along with ongoing relapse prevention and skills development programme, and lasts on average 18 months.

It was through the U-turn programme that Dean was enrolled for a three-month photography scholarship at the Orms Cape Town School of Photography. His series of photos entitled “From Brokenness to Healing”, exhibited at his graduation earlier this month marks the progress of Dean’s own journey and narrates the importance that relationships play in transformation.

The first photo gives prominence to a broken wooden bench, a man is walking by, and children play in the distance. Dean says, “No one is taking notice of the broken bench. When you are broken, no one’s interested in you. The bench represents this society, people with broken hearts, homes and emotions. But I saw something else in that bench, something beautiful that people often don’t see. If you look closely, there are sun rays, and the sun rays for me are hope. I put that as my first image.”

The second photo captures a scene with which you will be familiar, that of a homeless person holding a cardboard sign asking for help at a traffic light. “He looked straight at me and then looked away; I could see he felt down. He is standing there with a sign in his hands asking for help, but the cars have passed him, and no one is taking note.” Dean goes on to explain that asking for help is the next step towards healing, even if no one notices.

The third photo celebrates a fallen tree stump with young green plants growing around it. Scratched onto the wooden stump is a heart with a cross inside it, and the words: “There is life after death.” This he sees as a symbol of salvation.

Out of the darkness: From homelessness to emerging photography

Dean explains that the series includes a fourth invisible image. The blank wall after the third image provides space for the viewer to recall their own personal journey.

Dean explains, “It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone is broken in some way. We’ve all had dreams that die or ideas of ourselves that die, and we have experienced salvation for which we are grateful.”

Lauren Theunissen, the course coordinator for Orms, says: “Many South Africans don’t have access to education and fewer have the means to participate in arts and culture, one of the fastest growing sectors of our economy. The scholarship was launched to help candidates like Dean. We ask candidates to submit a portfolio of work and motivational letter, both hold equal weighting in helping us arrive at our decision. Dean has shown tremendous growth over the last three month, he’s extremely inquisitive, and by producing consistently quality content, he will grow his own client base.”

Speaking of lessons learned at Orms, Dean says: “Be patient in the darkroom when developing photographs – there are some things which you just can’t rush!” Dean dreams of becoming an apprentice to an established photographer, but in the meantime, he is focusing on completing the final stages of the U-turn Life Change programme.

Graduates from the U-turn programme are asked to independently search and apply for jobs in the open labour market. The programme has positive and repeatable results for rehabilitation and reintegration – more than 80% of U-turn graduates remain sober and employed six months after graduation.

Sources: Cape Town School of Photography 
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