/ 1 October 2021

Forgotten spools: Looking through the archive of Cynthia Mavuso

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Sabelo Mlangeni with his siblings and neighbours in a field in the 1980s. (Photo: Cynthia Mavuso)

​​Sabelo Mlangeni: It was 1997, we were in the same class with Mbongiseni when he introduced … actually this family was moving from Driefontein babeya somewhere eZabelweni, so he … said, you know what, Sabelo, I don’t know ukuthi wabonani lapho. I think we could be good for this work. I think CS is looking for some … Miss Dladla, ’cos CS is known as Miss Dladla in Driefontein. I think CS, they use it in the school, you know, teachers they always call themselves with initials, so “CS” that’s how, but in Driefontein she’s known as Miss Dladla. 

Uhm, so Mbongiseni introduced me to her, it was 1997 … I went  a couple of times to the house for my portraits too … because before this I used to work Emahlathini, so when I got money I’d buy clothes and went to see her. I went to CS’s garden and posed for pictures. 

So this time I was introduced to her by Mbongiseni and then my first-ever job … was to deliver images. Like I’d go to school and after school I’d go home, then come to CS Mavuso’s house and I’d pick photographs…   and I was not even the only one because uMiss Dladla had a team of guys. 

Bekukhona abo Magade actually we had … there’s another, eish, I’m not in Jo’burg, there’s another photograph where we had the same brand of bicycles, like bikes with like red, so it was really like a company … so that’s where I was like first introduced and delivering images. Over time, when I come back from school I’d go out and deliver the images.

I think this is the first time ever, for sure in CS’s absence, one would play with the camera there, and there you know, because she’s not there, and you just want to have a sense of it. The first time ever where she really gave me a job, like to go and photograph a wedding, I think, for me that was like the first step. I remember how nervous I was because I didn’t even have much experience with a camera, but she gave me a camera to go and photograph a wedding. Umshado lona I think there’s an image that I think I included in my recent show which I shot I think it was eDon’Don’ but umshado wakhona wawusuka kaNgema uya eSabelweni. 

Thule Mavuso: kaNgwenya?

Mlangeni: Ya kaNgwenya ngathi kwakushada ubhuti wakhona eshada nomunye usisi sawe loneni …

Mavuso: WaseSabelweni.

Mlangeni: So that was my first, I think ever, job with a camera, like a serious job and then …  I was given a camera. I think now I was photographing both at school mengabe ngibuya eskoleni, then I’d just drop the bags or I’d go with the camera to school and take photographs. 

And also, when I’m going out to deliver the images, I’d also carry the camera because people now, they’d invite me to come into their houses and even when I meet people on the street, like the photograph you saw, and then people would ask for a photograph. I mean those were the days where being a photographer was very special, we were like, I mean, there were just a few of us with cameras, so people when they see you they’d definitely stop you on the street …

So Thule, we spoke about this earlier, but I just want [you] to give us a sense, for sure, I mean you’re also involved in photography … you know, growing up in that environment at home, growing up with a camera surrounded by photographers and yourself also later becoming one or studying photography, I just want to understand how all this has inspired you over the years in your everyday life, ’cos there was a time when you went to corporate … 

You went to corporate, but you’re still practising as a photographer, so humour us about … how you create this balance and also how this experience over the years, growing up with cameras and photographers, how it shaped your everyday photography and life. When are you going to do photography full time? I mean, with your mom being a photographer.

Umshado ka Sana Mkhatshwa, early 1990s, as she joined Mavuso family at Ntumbane in KZN. This was the day of the matrimonial ceremony at Driefontein, Qalani Hall. (Photo: Cynthia Mavuso).

Mavuso: [laughs] You know, okay … firstly remember ukuthi. Uhm, okay, ekhaya sikhule it was me noSithembile, but isikhathi esiningi bekuzoba nabo Nhlanhla naboNkulu, you know, so I think, mina … I was the only one who had an interest in cameras ekhaya. ’Cos even until this day I don’t think uSithembile uyakwazi ukushutha [laughs].

Mlangeni: Angikaze ngimbone uSithembile eshutha, even picking up a camera [laughs].

Mavuso: I’m the only person who had an interest in picking up a camera. I think I learnt as early as, yho, I knew how to take a photo at four years old and sometimes because ngikufunile ukufunda, like I wanted to learn, I made sure ukuthi I learnt every time umama mekangekho, when you were not around and people used to come … wanting to take photos, I never allowed anyone to return without taking a photo, I would be the one taking photos all the time, like, you know, [it was] my proudest moment as a child … 

Bezoshutha izithombe. They all ran and were like Thule bazoshutha! I felt like ooohhhh so proud! Ohh child [laughs], labantu abadala laba, they are calling me, this child, to come take photos of people [laughs]. So yeah, I mean, growing up that was beautiful, even when we went to ama events, ’cos I was always by my mom’s side. I was always la eyakhona, I was there …  there’s probably like only two events where I was not by her side, so I was always there, it was amazing. It was beautiful to see and to see people, even that part, ’cos people had that thing that like ‘aaahhh, ngizishuthwa ilentombazane le?’ Hhhayi they were like uh uh wena ngathi udlala ngathi, they wouldn’t participate, they wouldn’t smile, they’d just be like lengane le idlala ngathi. Then I got to eVaal and eVaal I never … 

Mlangeni: Sorry ukukuphazamisa Thuli, even eMathunjwa, also you were more active eMathunjwa in high school.

Mavuso: Yeah, actually in high school I was the only photographer … abantu abajoyinile bajoyine after two years mina ngishutha, but I used to take photos, like when I go back home I’d have loads of films engiwa senda back to uMama ukuthi ayowa processa and I got a few photos there’s someone okewangi sendela izithombe zaseMathunjwa. Ohhh, I took those, yeah! 

So eMathunjwa, I was like … I remember the one time, uthisha waze wa complainer wathi ya angithi wena ubhizi ushutha izithombe [Laughs]. Then moving on to eVaal I think the first thing that I got there was an interview ’cos as much as I had I background ye … ’cos I got to eVaal, I was 15, turning 16, that year.

Mlangeni: Really? Ey, you were young.

Mavuso: Yeah, I was 15, turning 16, so when I got there you first go through an interview, they had I think about five photos on the table and then they asked, ukuthi, like just tell them about each photo. It was amazing ukuthi, like bengingazi, you know, like, I didn’t know that I knew, but I knew, like I could talk about those photos effortlessly and that background engiyithole kuCS, ’cos had it not been for that bengizofika ngingabi na clue ukuthi kwenzakalani. I left, I had many challenges, but le eyangishaya kakhulu was when I was threatened at gunpoint.

Mlangeni: Oh really? They wanted your equipment?

Mavuso: No, I was given an assignment, we were, I think it was freezing a moving object and then show movement as well. So ngashutha lezi zoku freezer, so eze movement I decided to take them ntambamanyana, ’cos the lighting isuke isiyehlile so mengishutha ngishutha izimoto ezidlulayo, just so I could have that movement, so one guy stopped and luckily I was with two housemates engangihlala nabo so this guy stopped wa reversa wabuya and then wasibuza ukuthi senzani?

Sam explainela ukuthi ngishutha i-assignment nani nani and he’s like ngicela ni delete lezizithombe. The way a behava ngayo, it was like it was a stolen car.

Cynthia Mavuso’s daughter Sithembile in the early 1990’s wearing an outfit that was worn by a bridesmaid at Mavuso’s wedding in 1988. The photographer was known as Miss Dladla in Driefontein. (Photo: Cynthia Mavuso)

Mlangeni: Ya..aaahhhh

Mavuso: It was like it was a stolen car, so he got angry and was like ngicela ni delete izithombe ezinalemoto le, then we were like oh ok sizo … then he took out a gun and was like khaxa [cocked gun] … yho, I ran [laughs] and left the camera with the housemates, yho, I was terrified, but yeah, they deleted the photos …

Mlangeni: They did?

Mavuso: Yeah but I was left with a row of photos, ’cos the row was still left, yeah. I had a few other challenges so I decided to leave and I think enye into eyangenza ngihambe more yho it was expensive, equipment was expensive everything was expensive and uCS was paying for that, so I was like you know what, let me go and try something else lana ngizobuya mesengikhulile sengi matured.

Mlangeni: Ngiyakhumbula ukhala ngokuthi I photography abantu bakhona [laughs] that you know izinto lezi okhuluma ngazo you’re right ’cos you know in public spaces sometimes asazi ukuthi kuzokwenzekani, sometimes abantu the way they react, sometimes ubone ukuthi if I was not a man this person was going to beat me up, but they confront you like in public spaces.

Mavuso: I was young so I decided to go and study business. I worked for a week in corporate [laughs], like a week was too much, then I handed over my resignation and was like I need to go back to photography … so yeah, I went back and studied again, so now I’m a photographer again.

A learner from Cabangani Primary School in Cynthia Mavuso’s garden in the early 1990s. (Photo: Cynthia Mavuso)

Mlangeni: [Laughs] That’s beautiful, no, you’ve been a photographer, you’ve just been doing other things in between, which is good, adding to your experience, and your experience is about everyday things.

The conversation turns to how CS worked.

Mavuso: Rule number one, there’s this one rule she had, the shadow must always be behind you [laughs] so whenever she positions isubject yakhe it would be in that position …   So there’s this place she loved, uhm, a tree, it was in our garden, we had two trees, but then at that time it was only one tree, she planted that tree when I was born, people loved taking photos by that tree. 

My mom is … a very shy person, but like, yeah, you know, I think she’s that person when you find her in her space you will see her true colours. So when taking photos those true colours would come out, she knew how to position amasubjects wakhe, she knew how to make them comfortable, like she knew how to do all the right things when taking that photo in that skirt or dress because she never used to wear pants.

Mlangeni: No, no, and there’s also one thing that I also like think a lot about how this associates CS ’cos she’s always chic, I mean, in terms of style she’s always like you know even when she’s at events, I mean, she’s a mother and then she has to dress in that kind of sense, but she’s always, and that’s the thing with her when she’s dressed beautifully, elegantly but still with that sense of dignity. So I think with people ’cos she’s like, even now, the first thing when we meet, we laugh [laughs], she’s just so sweet and she’s got that thing, yeah, super humble she’s got that thing that people in front of her camera they get that because of her energy and herself.

Mavuso: And she used to be like, you know, when she’s taking a photo outside of school she never used to … ’cos you know how teachers get respected like just for that title, especially back in those days, especially in the area we grew up in, so when she gets out of school, she’s no longer a teacher, she’d just be uCS the photographer, that title, she never used to carry it anywhere.

Mlangeni: Anywhere, actually le yokufundisa yeah.

Mavuso: Super humble person and people loved her more than anything and they still do. You know, when you just talk about CS, she used to be the sweetest person … so people used to be very comfortable with her and she’d make them comfortable as well.

Mlangeni: Comfortable, exactly!

This discussion for the Market Photo Workshop’s Black Photo Libraries was transcribed by Thobeka Dhlomo. For more on the book, visit photoformafrica.com/bpl/