The photographs make you look twice. First because they are pretty, stylised shots, speaking the language of fashion photography, and then because of their settings.
Alexandra and Soweto’s Pimville, Kliptown and Orlando are not usually names that conjure the hipster lifestyle, freedom, beauty or high fashion. It is crazy that they don’t because a place can be many things. But for outsiders — locals and foreign tourists alike — these are places of struggle, yesterday’s and today’s.
They are contested sites, the home of angry youths, history’s heroes, today’s service delivery protests. They are places packed so full of significance that the names alone threaten to overwhelm you.
But for Vuyo Mpantsha and twins Justice and Innocent Mukheli they are the backdrop for recapturing the best moments of their childhoods and also the main event, the star of their photography show.
I See a Different You (iseeadifferent-you.tumblr.com) is the photo blog they started in December last year as homage to place, family and style. It showcases a series of images shot in locations around Johannesburg, including Yeoville, Melville and Braamfontein, in which one or more of the trio is artfully posed.
I meet the three twentysomethings in Rosebank on a Friday after work. They all have day jobs in advertising as creatives at Ogilvy and Draft FCB. The blog is something they do after hours, in the early morning and on weekends.
“Because we are artists, the work we do at work is not enough. We need something to clear our heads,” says Justice.
“With no client instruction, no brief and no guidelines,” Innocent and Mpantsha say. “Afterwards we feel like we have achieved something amazing.” So to call it a hobby would be to minimise its significance.
The trio radiate energy. They belong to a generation of young people who have grown up believing in themselves and believing that they can be many things. With a bit of determination they can be anything.
My first question is: Are the photos advertising or documentary? Definitely documentary, they tell me. And it is “they” — the three seem to think as one; they finish each other’s thoughts and sentences as the conversation moves along. Not stealing ideas but with respectful intros — “Vuyo tells the story better” or “Let Innocent tell you”.
“We wanted to document our childhood,” says Justice, “to show our family album to the world. The blog is about recreating moments we loved in our childhood.”
By all accounts it was a happy one. The three met at church in Pimville while in primary school. Their parents were friends. They are, they tell me, “practically family” but things did not get off to a great start.
“When we introduced ourselves I said ‘Hi, I am Innocent’ and Vuyo said ‘I am innocent as well’. We thought he thought he was funny. Then we met again at the basketball courts and said ‘There’s that weird dude’.”
But the weird dude and the twins had a lot in common. They sang in the church choir, were skateboarders and shared a style sensibility. The friendship was cemented.
It was in their blog that they also shared a common inspiration: old pictures of family showing fathers and grandfathers dressed formally in suits and buffed brogues. “We are literally trying to walk in our fathers’ shoes,” they say. The scenes in the photos are also recreations of places that shaped their childhood: a first kiss, learning to ride a bike.
The locations came next. “When you are young, everything is about fun,” says Innocent. “You don’t judge a place about how broken down it is,” says Justice. “If I see a nice street I just want to skate it; if I see a nice patch of grass I want to do somersaults on it,” says Innocent. “When we started we were also inspired by the idea of changing the general perception of these places, which we know is not a true reflection. We are able to see them differently. And when we look at two sides of the story we choose to look at the positive and try to find beauty in that place.”
“We have a relationship with Soweto, a long-term one,” says Justice. They smile, and one of them adds: “She’s our babe.”
We talk about Pimville, where they grew up. I ask what it is famous for and they tell me: “It’s close to Kliptown and it’s the home of Maponya Mall.” They are super stylish but admit to not being brand loyal. It helps financially, they say, adding that they shop downtown where all the bargains are to be had.
Pimville also has a golf course. I ask whether they play golf. They say they have tried it. They like the greens because the grass is perfect for doing backflips.
They admit to a bit of attention deficit disorder, although in their case it sounds as though they are just good at too many things: self-taught artists, illustrators, musicians and photographers. As teenagers they made extra money by fixing computers for the neighbourhood. They also wanted to be athletes.
Their path to advertising was through a mentor, Neo Mashiga, executive creative director at Draft FCB.
They say what is special about the photos is that “every shot has pride in it”. It is what drew me to their work. They say people connect with the photographs because they identify with them, the photos say: “That’s where I am from.”
We talk about a sense of belonging and having a city identity. National identities are tricky: too inclusive, sometimes frightening; xenophobia is their most extreme expression. But somehow cities can contain everyone and increasingly you hear people identify themselves by the city they are from rather than the country. I am a New Yorker; I am from Johannesburg; I am Capetonian.
“I see a different you” is about sharing the family album, all made possible by a digital generation that has the means to create and distribute content, stories and ideas without borders. It started with a Skype chat from Kenya when Innocent travelled there for an ad campaign.
“He sent us a photo of a guy on a motorbike at a carwash,” says Justice. “Everywhere there were happy people smiling. We saw such cool in it.” They admit to having been quite shocked by it: “It’s not what we expected to find in Kenya.”
Innocent’s “I saw it and thought let me take a photo and send it; I didn’t want to experience it alone” is the anthem of their generation. “Our ultimate goal is to make people see places differently, because the world is missing out on amazing things.”
Laurice Taitz blogs about Jo'burg at www.todoinjoburg.co.za