Despite South Africa’s wide range of talented and diverse photographers, a recent Flavorwire article titled “10 Essential African-American Photographers” has inspired this list of essential black South African photographers who are alive and constantly grasp our attention with their arresting images.
In a 2010 public lecture given by my father, photographer Fanie Jason, at University Park in Pennsylvania, he said, “In South Africa, no one speaks about blacks’ photography”, so to do just that – talk about black South African photographers – I’ve roped in award-winning photographer Zanele Muholi to give us her top three photographers, and renowned Mail & Guardian photographer Oupa Nkosi, who shares five of his favourite photographers.
There are certainly more than 16 great black South African photographers that should be on this list, such as Nontsikelelo Veleko, Rashid Lombard, Peter McKenzie, Benny Gool, and more, whose documentation of the South African experience – here and abroad – will forever be a part of the country’s cultural identity. But due to time and space constraints, we’ve stuck to 16. So, in no specific order, here they are:
Born in Soweto in 1966, photographer Tshabangu’s black and white photos of religious practices in the country has received critical acclaim. In an interview with Laatikkomo.fi, Tshabangu – who grew up in a religious home – says his work is “influenced by the culture of my people, Africans”. From zionists catching trains to Shembe church members gathered to walk to Nhlangakazi holy mountain in Natal, the photographer’s smoky and sometimes blurry images capture people in transit and prayer. When asked about the “hazy feel” in his photos, Tshabangu responds to the website, by saying: “This is not done intentionally, when I was studying we were taught in classical ways and I found that boring, hence my experimenting with different angles in photography.”
Despite his age, 34-year-old Mlangeni’s documentation on life in South Africa can be placed alongside local household photographic names like João da Silva, Peter Magubane and Ernest Cole. With work featured in the magnanimous exhibition “Rise and Fall of Apartheid”, which took South Africa by storm this year, and the critically acclaimed 2011 photographic exhibition “Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography”, which took place in London, Mlangeni’s black and white images tell of struggles and successes of his country’s citizens. Born in Mpumalanga, Mlangeni moved to Johannesburg in 2001 and three-years later he graduated from Market Photo Workshop. His photographs of street sweepers, portraiture of gay men and haunting images of reed dances in KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland have garnered him world-wide attention and awards.
It was at the opening of the “Rise and Fall of Apartheid” exhibition – where a photograph hung of a woman lying dead on the floor with a stream of blood flowing from her head – that I was reminded of the intensity of my father’s body of work. From images of the last years of apartheid to his subjects’ personal battles with Aids, the Fuji Press award-winner’s often macabre work exhibits the socio-political landscape of the country. While his previous paparazzi pictures of people such as Princess Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer – which resulted in a legal battle – and pin-up photographs of models in the 1980s images, makes light a heavy oeuvre. Born in Cape Town in 1953, my father’s been shot at and arrested, and left traumatised after shooting the Rwandan genocide, but he’s love for photography has not waned. Instead, he’s continued practicing it and has introduced me to works by photographers like Gordon Parks, George Hallett, Peter Magubane and James Nachtwey, whose works he is a fan of.
Some of South Africa’s most recognisable images have been captured by Cape Town-born photographer Hallett. And some of the country’s most famous art masters too, such as Dumile Feni and Gerard Sekoto. A recent retrospective exhibition of his works, at Cape Town’s national gallery, has shown off Hallett as a legendary South African photographer, who has documented events such as the homecoming of Nelson Mandela from prison and forced removals of District Six – the Cape Town neighbourhood where Hallett was born in 1942. In a review of the retrospective, aptly titled “A Nomad’s Harvest”, theroot.com writes, “Like Baudelaire, the French 19th-century poet-alchemist who transmuted the banal, the sordid and the prosaic of quotidian street life in Paris into a thing of rare lyrical beauty in his collection Les Fleurs du Mal, Hallett is the street photographer par excellence who captures beauty, joy and resilience in his predominantly working-class … subjects.”
Soweto-born Magagane captures the repulsion and allure of the City of Gold in a style that has garnered his work attention and also resulted in him being named the 2011/12 Tierney fellow. His images of lone subjects evoke feelings of isolation that tend to be felt in overcrowded metropolises like the Johannesburg. “I see Johannesburg and Soweto as avenues. Alluring avenues and sometimes repulsive,” said the Soweto-born photographer in 2013 interview with between10and5. “It’s life and it’s complexities I suppose. I just want to show the in-betweens, evoke emotions and awareness with the ‘spaces’ [Johannesburg and Soweto] I live in.” In his 2011/12 series “In The City”, night shots of distant figures are illuminated by single-source light, such as a lamppost or an upstairs apartment window. But almost three years later, Magagane’s “Somewhere Between Here” series – created while in Paris on a residency at the Centre Photographique d’Ile-de-France – are far more intimate, more close-up and more awkward, but equally as visually poetic as his other photographic series.
Multi-award-winning photographer Mofokeng began taking photographs in his teens in Soweto. Born in 1956, many of his early works documented life under apartheid while more recent bodies of works explore spirituality and landscapes. Winner of the Ernest Cole scholarship in 1991 and Ruth First fellowship in 2007, Mofokeng’s hazy black and white are surreal and haunting. Despite capturing moments of political unrest or people travelling on seemingly uncomfortably overcrowded trains, in a reviewing for Mofokeng’s 2012 exhibition, Chasing Shadows, Pieter Vermeulen writes: “Mofokeng hardly depicts any victims as such, his subjects are portrayed as proud and dignified human beings, often despite the inhuman and repressive conditions they are living in. At the other end, he confronts the viewer with a series composed of vast, anonymous and deceptively appealing landscapes, where the horrors of history are literally lurking just below the surface.”
Alongside William Kentridge and Marlene Dumas, 82-year-old Magubane is one of South Africa’s most critically acclaimed living artistic masters. Born in Pageview and raised in Sophiatown, Magubane has shot some of the most recognisable images to come out of the country – such as Nelson Mandela during the Treason Trial, the black nanny and white child on the “Europeans only” bench and Soweto Uprising of 1976. Magubane has worked for publications like Drum magazine, Time magazine and the Rand Daily Mail. In a write-up on his recent retrospective of his work from 1954 to 1994, A struggle without documentation is no struggle, Paul Palunde writes, “From the streets of the country’s townships to its hallways of power, Magubane has dedicated more than half a century to capturing the story of South Africa through his lens. First the struggle against apartheid as a fearless photojournalist, then South Africa’s transition to democracy as Madiba’s official photographer, and today, the cultural traditions and practices of the Rainbow Nation.”
Zanele Muholi’s three essential photographers
Zanele Muholi. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)
Activist and award-winning photographer Zanele Muholi’s photographs capture day-to-day lives of members of the country’s LGBTI community, or as Jonathan Cane puts it: “the precariousness of the lives of black queers in South Africa.” Muholi’s work focuses on the challenges faced by those a part of this community, including corrective rapes or murders, as well as the beauty of being part of this group in South Africa. Here she gives us the names of some of her favourite photographers:
Qampi, who is a part of Cape Town’s Iliso Labantu photography collective, isn’t your typical photographer. Qampi is one of the strongest visual analysts of our times. She also teaches young girls at Aurora Girls High School in Soweto. Her work, such as her recent photo essay on the killing of Gift Makau – allegedly a corrective rape victim – focuses on photographing her environment and the social climate of the country. She is long overdue for World Press Photo award.
Muholi also listed two grade 10 learners from Aurora high school.
With an eye like hers, her photography needs more recognition.
Her photography is superb. Shabalala’s photographs capture the family and the issues facing our people.
Six of Oupa Nkosi’s favourite photographers
Having worked as a photographer at the M&G for almost a decade, Soweto-born Nkosi has always been interested in photography but started shooting in 1998. A Market Photo Workshop graduate, Nkosi’s images of the influx of Zimbabweans into South Africa during the 2008 economic crisis and body of work of the black middle class, or black diamonds, has garnered him attention and even a Bonani Africa award.
The Soweto-born Reuters photojournalist has an eye for things and is one of the best photographers out there. Looking back at the work he did on initiates: he captured it an interesting way, even though it’s subject matter that has been captured over and over by photographers.
When I was a student at the Market Photo Workshop, photojournalist Hadebe did a talk about his photographs and showed us his project on the people that sell coal (amalahle) – it was amazing. A lot of photographers can shoot but can’t talk about their work, but his composition and the way he talks about his work is refreshing.
Bam, who works for Getty Images, was the one that saw something in me, and used to encourage me to become a photojournalist. I would see him working and that would aspire to his level of work ethics. I love how absorbed he becomes in his photo-taking.
Badsha is a self-taught, award-winning photographer who played an active role in the South African liberation struggle, as a cultural and political activist and trade union leader. He is one of the smartest people I’ve met; he’s politically savvy and I think he reads a lot, that’s why he’s clever. He’s also a painter and he’s been around for a long time and has been able to capture apartheid at its darkest period. Badsha is also interested in giving a platform to the younger generation of photographers, and through him the Bonani Africa project has enriched youngsters.
He has been around since the 1980s documenting the realities of apartheid that were ignored by the mainstream. Speaking to him in 2012 during his book launch, I asked Nunn why he published a book so many years after making a name for himself as an influential photographer, and just he said he wasn’t in a hurry. A lot of photographers rush into publishing or exhibiting their work – even if its not good enough. But for him to say such a thing confirmed to me that I shouldn’t be pressured by people asking me questions like: “when are you going to release… ?” Regarding his work: when you look at it once you might not understand the intention of his subject matter or even angle. So you have to spend a while looking at it trying to find out what it all means. That’s the beauty of his work. You have to be patient with it. During the struggle he had his own way of capturing the struggle, a way that mainstream papers weren’t interested in. He’s patient and gets very close to his subject and manages how to capture their essence and understand what they are going through.
While she was working for the Star, Ntsoma’s work on urban culture was hip and really caught my eye. I was so inspired by it. Her subject matter was something I would see regularly but I didn’t know it deserved to be captured until I saw her fresh take on it. Also, Ntsoma – who is self-employed and freelances for Forbes Africa and Forbes Woman Africa – was the first woman to win the the CNN African Journalist of the Year for Photography prize.