It was on a cloudy morning in the winter of 2011 at my grandmother’s home in Wembezi, Estcourt, that I shot this image. A ceremony honouring our ancestors was to take place later on.
As my uncle, Ndabezinhle Thabethe, a sangoma, stood outside his room, which holds umsamo, the washing line and neighbouring apartheid-era built homes behind him, I knew I had to capture the moment. I called out to him, “Malume”, and as he looked at me, I took the shot.
He is a private person who doesn’t like being photographed but, as his favourite niece, he happily obliges every time. I think he loves that I show interest in both in him and his calling, and trusts me to use his images with respect.
I was struck by his quiet balancing of the two worlds he manoeuvres through on a daily basis. As a proud Zulu man with patriarchal beliefs, he would never be caught dead wearing anything deemed effeminate. And yet here he is wearing ibhayi with no issue. Ibhayi is compulsory for a sangoma when talking to the ancestors. It’s often looked at as a makeshift skirt by the general public. Despite this, my uncle is comfortable wearing it all day, showing the amount of reverence he has for amadlozi.
I’ve always been interested in the stories, people and history behind photographs. Raised by my grandparents, I hardly saw my mother because she worked far away, and so some parts of her were a mystery to me. As a child her photographs helped me to solve some of this mystery. I would look through her photos and see the life she lived and how she lived it. The photos became a way for me to better understand who she was as an individual over and above being my mom. That interest in the life and times of my mother led to an interest in capturing the life and times of the people around me.
I started taking photos keenly in about 2012 on whatever phone I was using at that time. Initially all my photos were centred on those close to me. This shifted in 2014 when I started taking street shots of the Johannesburg city centre while catching a taxi to university. I would take a window seat and wherever I saw a story or interesting person, I would shoot away. In the taxi on my way home, I would use Photoshop Express to edit the photos from the day, mainly to black-and-white, and share them online. The response was great, encouraging me to share more. I am currently shooting with both an iPhone and a film camera (Canon Canonet QL17), which I am teaching myself how to use.
The weekend I shot this particular photo of my uncle, I had access to a friend’s camera and was excited to explore the world around me with it. It was a Fujifilm FinePix S1850 set on black-and-white mode. The camera was pretty light to handle, red in colour — which was pretty unique — and the settings were easy to understand.
I prefer black-and-white photography because it removes the noise contained in colour, and allows better study of the subject. My focus tends to be more on the story I want to convey rather than technical aspects, as I am self-taught.
Here, I see the contrast between black and white as mirroring the internalised spiritual contradictions that most African children grow up with as a result of being raised in Christian homes. The struggle between what the West says is true and what we, as Africans, innately know to be true. Growing up, I too was heavily indoctrinated into Christianity and amadlozi were a distant, less important aspect of my spiritual rearing. In fact, the teachings I received called for the rubbishing of anything related to amadlozi.
This image is important to me because it represents the day I made a conscious decision to open myself up to learning about and respecting amadlozi and the ways Africans connect to our creator.
It also helped me to realise that I wanted to tell stories about the real and raw experiences of being black in South Africa. Stories to help us dilute the constructed perception of who we should be, a perception that the Western lens has used to define us for so long.