The man behind the camera

'He — Ndumiso Michael Omowale Sibanda — has a number of names' (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

'He — Ndumiso Michael Omowale Sibanda — has a number of names' (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

In his work black is beautiful. This realisation eclipses as something foreign in South Africa. Unfamiliar.
A novelty. Black is seldom shown nor understood to be beautiful.

It’s tricky to tell if his rendition is intentional — something he sets out to achieve, or if beauty is at its core simply a byproduct of melanin concentrate regardless of how it has been seen before. And so radiant is a default of how black skin manifests and expresses on camera. And so, it follows that he merely shows black as it is. Beautiful.

Strong, with a cool, slick swag, grounded, weathered, whimsical, resolute, proud. Through his work black is characterised as this.

“Yes, my intention is to represent black as beautiful. It’s done through taking care of the black image. Taking the responsibility to carry the weight of how we should see each other as blacks, versus how we actually see each other,” he says.

“I don’t do my work so that other people can look at it. I do it so that the subjects represented within can see themselves. Yes, we love an audience, but I think it’s important to love your subject.”

He — Ndumiso Michael Omowale Sibanda — has a number of names. The first a birth right, a meaning akin to Kagiso. From his mother and grandmother respectively. Michael was inherited from his father — so a “junior” of sorts. Succession, the passing on of a baton, a bloodline. Omowale was a case of mistaken nationality.

Interviewing Nigerian artist Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye at her gallery, they spoke a long time. Her switching between English and her mother tongue, postulating that he understood. When he admitted that he couldn’t follow her into her vernac, she — perhaps still convinced and so a little defiantly, a little facetiously — christened him Omowale, understood to mean: “The son has come home.”

Sibanda once referred to himself as a “photographer, camera dude and director of stories”.

He concedes that working in the film industry means being in a space obsessed with labels, that peers are always finding cool and clever ways to describe themselves. In the time that he has been in the industry, his self-professed label evolved to “a film/commercials director and official videographer of the Proteas cricket team”.

He has carried various titles in between. Most recently he refers to himself as “A storyteller — a multidisciplinary storyteller. And I’m enjoying myself.”

Two years ago he pitched to a company the slogan, “No-one knows Africa like we do”. The concept was approved and cemented him as a global citizen — embarking on a journey traversing 45 countries on the continent. With a team, they drove from Cape Town to London and documented the journey. It took the team 11 months, using three cars, and he wrote off three passports.

At the time, reflecting on this, he wrote in Taji Mag: “Our history has always been an oral one until explorers arrived and told us who we were in exchange for what we had and we lost ourselves … In the beginning, I was shooting with the insights of someone who knows his art. Over time I’ve let go and stepped back, I’ve loosened my grip on the institutionalised understanding of photography and my images have become a lot more raw and reflective of an everyday Africa …

“I have seen the bending of Spirit, tasted the most delicious, kissed the beautiful, hugged the cold, stood with warriors, made a connection with superheroes and ordinary Africans. I look forward to telling all the stories I’ve learned with a small pinch of exaggeration. I’m African after all, but truth be told we are really incredible, so what might seem like exaggeration is actually the beautiful truth.”

A Zimbabwean-born South African, Sibanda’s connection to the continent runs atom deep.

“No one can take either identity away from me. They are in my tapestry and my coding … Zimbabwe is my spirit, where I was born and named. It’s where I will be buried. Cape Town is where I grew up. Jo’burg is where I live, it’s where I learnt my craft and directed my hustle to where it is today,” he says.

“I’m going to re-establish myself in Zimbabwe and make it home again. Not my home for good, but my home for my family whenever they want to be there.”

His parents moved from Bulawayo to Cape Town, young and in love, to build on their already firm academic grounding.

His father — with professional notches in his belt, which include being a cook, a restaurateur, a human resources manager, and well-versed in the corporate world — refers to himself as an “independent knowledge merchant”.

His mother is in touch with her sense of play, having worked in the toy department of a store, and has always been in communications, working in spaces such as advertising companies before black folk did more than clean and take care.

“She’s a great storyteller. She’s a great writer. Both my parents are great writers. My father has lived in certain highlights in my life whereas she has been a constant narrative – a pillar.” A woman with a laugh less “infectious” and more “encouraging”. “It’s not like a yawn which traps you. She laughs with tears. If you’re not laughing around her laughter what are you doing with your life?” he wonders.

How he came to take his first photograph happened under some shady circumstances.

“I think I may have bought a stolen camera. Not sure if I should say this. We were in Pretoria and filming a party, I think, in Soshanguve. Someone came up to me, said, ‘He mf’ethu I have a camera. Do you wanna buy a camera?’ I didn’t know the price of gear at the time, but I did know that R1 200 shouldn’t get me this.”

He continues about what unfolded next: “I shot everything. I honed my skill. It’s nice learning photography in an environment that’s constantly stimulating. So I taught myself. I knew what I wanted to do with the camera but I had to learn it still.”

Sibanda, who studied film, speaks about how this meant “understanding composition of photography from an institutionalised level”, but his tour of the continent taught him to start “shooting the feels”. You can hear his voice smile. “I was being rogue and I was enjoying it.”

He recalls his 23rd year as his real beginning; a year that launched him into his unwavering work ethic.

“I learnt to hustle hard. If you can’t get a lift, walk there. I would walk to the Expresso Studio and unlock the doors — 3am, 4am — from clubbing in town. It was one way to ensure I’d stay awake. Or go to a friend’s place and overstay my welcome. Pass out on the couch and take a slow walk to work in the morning. I would give all the guests their wake-up calls. That was my awakening.”

On how he came to be here — from starting out like so many hopefuls do, diligently listening to their lecturers frantically taking notes to working on shows like Expresso, Ses’khona and Top Billing — he speaks to having the audacity to ask for what he wanted, what he thought he deserved.

He was still a student when he worked on Expresso: “I stood up at a meeting and told them my talents were being wasted. ‘I’m a Swiss Army knife being used for a toothpick tool.’ So I was moved into research. A while later I told them I was, in fact, a director.”

He speaks of what it took — of the pages he borrowed from the work and life goals of peers and mates: “There’s a friend of mine, Ernest Nkosi, who directed Thina Sobabili, whom I witnessed cultivate his own hustle. Feed it grain by grain. So I made sure I was never left behind by my peers. I fed my own hustle so I could have my own outcome. The hustle’s the dream.”

Recently he has worked on a three-part fashion film in partnership with the label The Prodigal Daughter. Filmed in Melbourne, Australia, LUV, LOVE!, LOVE reads like a homophone in its truest definition: “Words with the same pronunciation but with different meanings.”

The iterations differ in how they are expressed during the various life stages. The series of short films has award winning pianist Thandi Ntuli’s work as the soundtrack.

Sibanda’s work has been leaning towards showing strong, female protagonists, as in his film shot last year, Ephasini Lamabhudango: My envisioned Dream World.

This strength, a sentiment that, too, is intentional. Something he insists on. Strong sometimes and other times vulnerable. Women complex at their core and so a default of how they manifest and express on camera.

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