The youth immortalised

It’s no wonder photographer Neo Ntsoma has chosen a cultural theme for her current exhibition. This 33-year-old was born in Vryburg and brought up in Mmabatho, where she loved music and at one time considered a career in dance and then TV and film.

In the end, photography seduced her.
As the award-winning graduate of Cape University of Technology and Technikon Pretoria says: “I fell in love with the medium and never looked back. Memories from my childhood, which I never captured on camera, came back with such clarity. It felt like I had a calling to make the past live forever in images.”

She has since won the CNN African Journalist of the Year photographic award and the National Geographic photo award for her project South African Youth ID: Kwaito Culture, which is on show in New York. Ntsoma also works as a staff photographer at The Star newspaper.

What are you doing at the moment?

I am working on a book project based on the search for identity within the black South African youth, which is still very far from finished. I am also co-editing the first book of photographs by women photographers in South Africa that is to be published later in the year.

Is it more difficult for a woman to be a photographer? Why are there so few in South Africa?

My response is categorised by race. There are more white women photographers in the industry. Black women in South Africa were introduced to this profession only in the Nineties, and it’s sad. The release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 opened up opportunities for us, and I am glad I am one of the first black female photographers in this country. The lack of black women photographers is mainly a hangover from the apartheid years. It was not safe for photographers to take images that carried any political message—and this danger applied particularly to women. Photographers were regularly locked up, while others went into exile. As a result, my generation of women was left without role models.

Is this changing? Are there more sistas on the scene now?

Not really, but it’s slowly getting there. A few are still at institutions, but not enough.

Tell me about your latest exhibition.

It is a collaboration of the works of three photographers—Jürgen Schadeberg, Robert Adele Hamblin and myself—entitled Face to Face. The exhibition focuses on different narratives of our society.

My work focuses on kwaito. It is in honour of the Soweto uprising of 1976, but also a celebration of kwaito music and its generation. It is the music that has afforded young blacks opportunities they could only have dreamt of under forced segregation.

What does it centre on?

Strong portraits accompanied by powerful statements and testimonies by some of those who contributed towards its success.

Why did you choose this as a focus?

What better way to mark this historical moment in our history than with kwaito and the people? South Africa’s story today is of its youth and the kwaito influence. Kwaito was the first creative channel for the black township youth, and came to be their lifestyle. It has since become the voice of the black urban youth in South Africa.

How does the National Geographic award work?

Every year an advisory board—comprised of members from the professional photographic field and National Geographic magazine editors—nominates under-represented photographic storytellers from around the world who are documenting their changing cultures and communities through photography. These photographers then submit a portfolio to be reviewed by the board.

I was one of the four who were selected. I was later invited to show my project (South African Youth ID: Kwaito Culture) at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood Boulevard, National Geographic headquarters in Washington DC, the Santa Fe Film Festival in New Mexico, and it’s currently hanging at the United Nations headquarters in New York City.

Why did you focus on South African youth culture?

I guess the love and admiration that I have for my people motivated me most, but I didn’t wish to see a foreign photographer coming to my country to document something that’s happening right on my doorstep, like they’ve done in the past. This story is very personal and deep. It had to be someone from my generation documenting it.

What do you love about South African youth culture?

For the first time, we have a voice we can call our own. You could say it’s a whole lifestyle, and I love it. Our culture is more than skin deep. It is the soul, spirit and mental orientation of our existence.

This is part of my self-initiated project, a reflective body of work about the changes in the lives of ordinary South Africans in this democratic country. South African youth refuse to be condemned by the politics of the past, regardless of the emotional damage it caused them. Instead, they choose to find their own identity without being judgemental.

Is your exhibition only about famous people?

It has never been and it will never be. My project is divided into three parts: the community (club scenes); portraits of DJs, producers, musicians, media personalities, actors, fashion designers, et cetera; and lots of other things South African.

Why is it important to be recording local youth culture as images?

My aim is to capture images that add to the riches of the past and help explain the story of our time, now and, perhaps, for generations to come. This is an important era in our country and it needs to be documented with photographs, among other mediums—the intention being to have them available as a reference for future generations.

Of course, the pictures that the world will always remember are from the apartheid years, photographs of brutality and cruelty that did so much, here and in the rest of the world, to bring about freedom.

But, since then, the world has seen a different South Africa—a great diversity in creativity, hope and vitality. Every generation has its own signature and what better way to celebrate it than with pictures?

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