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The Portfolio: Oupa Nkosi

I seldom use a flashlight. I enjoy taking photographs using natural light, something I feel I have become better at through much trial and error. I’ve been told so many times by photographers what wonders a flashlight can do. I’ve seen how others have used it creatively to enhance their work, and that’s always stuck in my mind.

Some instances compel a photographer to use one but I think that they are used too often, allowing photographers to be lazy. The flashlight also spoils the authenticity of the situation — at least that’s what I used to think, until I took this photograph of Ukhahlamba Zulu Dancers at Madala Hostel in Alexandra.

I first met Philani Makhaza, the leader of the group, in 2010. I was working on a story on the life of hostel dwellers. It was on a Sunday afternoon and his group were scheduled to perform at the taxi rank near the hostel. I was mesmerised by their singing and dancing, and the admiration they drew from the audience.

The following year I again visited the group, and through knowing Makhaza, I automatically got access to the place. It was in winter, on a Friday, after 6pm. It was already dark. By the time I arrived, the dancers had assembled in a huge indoor open space with gas stoves blazing and a fire that lit up the room. Most of the tenants seemed oblivious to what was happening inside. They just wanted to cook their food and go to their respective humble rooms. But the beat of the drum did not stop. Topless, muscular dancers were already sweating as though they were running a marathon. The group was dancing as one, bodies moving to the beat of the drum, eyes wide open as if possessed. The dance was called Mzansi, originating from Bergville in KwaZulu-Natal. It is understood that it was first performed in the 1820s, during the era of Shaka Zulu, and was designed to prepare warriors who were about to go into battle.

The dance is extremely physical and tactical, with the beating of the drum meant to evoke aggression. There is a lot of pushing and coordination. The beat of the drum and the landing of the feet are critical. The dancers must know how to communicate and be able to entertain and captivate the audience. Passed on from generation to generation, the Mzansi dance is a powerful reminder of Shaka Zulu’s reign.

The dancers’ pace was so quick that it was impossible to use the available light to freeze their movements, hence my use of a flashlight. Luckily, the ceiling of the room was not very high, so I was able to bounce the flashlight to avoid the red-eye on their faces and preserve the authenticity and the feel of the image. Because of their choreographed sequences and the intensity of the dance, I thought that by creating a ghostly image I would reflect what I was feeling inside me — a feeling heightened by the constant beating of the drum in the background.

I used a slow shutter speed of ¼ sec at f 2.8 and ISO 800. By spending more time and attentively watching the moves of the dancers, I eventually managed to position myself at the right spot and waited until I got this frame without becoming a casualty. Pensively created, it is one of the cherished images in my archives.

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Oupa Nkosi
Oupa Nkosi

Oupa Nkosi began taking photos in 1998 with a pawnshop camera, before enrolling at the Market Photography Workshop. He began freelancing after graduating and has since run community projects, won a Bonani Africa award, had his work selected for exhibitions in Zimbabwe and Japan, and been invited to international workshops. He began at the M&G as an intern and is now chief photographer. He also writes features for the paper and lectures at his alma mater.

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