/ 19 October 2022

Young South African snapper Sibusiso Bheka graces Amsterdam

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At night they walk with me by Sibusiso Bheka

In 2012, young, aspiring photographers, mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds, were given the task of thinking critically about projects they would like to work on. Among the students at Of Soul and Joy, a photography programme in Thokoza township in Gauteng, was Sibusiso Bheka. Now a successful photographer, he has just returned from a residency programme at NOOR in Amsterdam, Netherlands, which he attended in September.

Back then, he chose to do his project at night because it was something that his peers would not think of — it was something even professional photographers seldom do. 

Never having used a camera, he did not realise the challenges that come with night and low-light photography. Common problems include blurry photographs caused by slow shutter speeds, grain caused by high ISO and pictures that are too dark. Security can also be a concern.

“Photographing at night is different from during the day. What happens during the day does not happen at night. What I’ve learnt is that the environment and the atmosphere suddenly changes,” says Bheka during a video interview in 2013. 

Armed with a digital camera and a tripod, the eager Bheka walked around his “rough” township, Thokoza, looking for interesting characters and objects to photograph, bringing along a friend as security.

Bheka named his project At Night, They Walk With Me, recalling his childhood growing up in an area called Phola Park with his mother and grandmother, playing in the streets with friends at night. 

“We used to be told by parents that playing outside at night, we’re playing with ghosts. Adults would say this as a way to scare us or as a way to try to make us understand the dangers of being outside at night as a child. 

“So, I conceptualised the childhood experience of playing out at night as a kid into an actual body of work that speaks to the community that I grew up in,” he said after his return.

Because he did not use a flash, he had to use long exposures, which resulted in surreal and intriguing images – as if of ghosts. He used various forms of light sources — from street lights to those of homes, shacks and spaza shops and the fires where people warmed themselves.

From obscurity to fame

“The Of Soul and Joy programme is an enabling space for children to reach their full potential in photography as a medium of expression and is also a home that cares because of the support that we give them. We give them long-term support like in a home structure,” says Jabulani Dhlamini, the project’s manager since 2015 and a photographer represented by the Goodman Gallery.

Easigas, which has headquarters in Alberton, near Thokoza, supports the project. The company and its employees got involved in the local community by offering photography courses in 2012 to pupils at Buhlebuzile Secondary School in Thokoza. Bheka was among the first learners to participate in the Of Soul and Joy’s programme.

“The fact that he was doing visual design gave him a certain advantage in terms of understanding and expressing himself through photography,” says Dhlamini. 

“We run weekly workshops on Saturdays with mentors that started in 2012. Mentors in the art field come in to assist, like Andrew Tshabangu, Sabelo Mlangeni, Thandile Zwelibanzi and myself.” 

After joining the Of Soul and Joy programme and through hard work, discipline and dedication, Bheka was awarded a scholarship to further his photography studies at Vaal University of Technology. He graduated in 2018. 

His work has been shown many times, in South Africa and internationally, at venues such as the Turbine Art Fair, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Constitution Hill, Cape Town Art Fair, International Festival of Gand, Addis Foto Fest and Bamako Encounters. 

In 2018, Bheka was a finalist for the Magnum Foundation’s Photography and Social Justice grant and was nominated in 2019 for the CAP Prize. He has been represented by the Afronova gallery in Johannesburg since 2020.

“I’m really proud to be part of his growth and where he is right now. When he started in 2012, he did not know anything about photography,” says Dhlamini, who has taken on Bheka as an assistant after noticing he likes teaching and giving back to the community.

In addition to Bheka, in its decade of existence, Of Soul and Joy has produced photographers such as Lindokuhle Sobekwa, who works with the international Magnum Photo Agency with headquarters in New York, Tshepiso Mazibuko and Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo.  

At night, they walk. By SibusisoBheka

NOOR residency

NOOR is an international agency for documentary photography and visual storytelling based in Amsterdam, founded by American photojournalist Stanley Green in 2007. It also gives photographers an opportunity to benefit from a mentorship by the renowned agency’s photographers. The NOOR foundation and agency work with multiple international clients, collaborators and partners. As a collective of industry leaders, it produces work for large media companies and small startups, institutional clients and nonprofits.

Bheka was mentored for two weeks by Kadir van Lohuizen and Sanne de Wilde, who have received numerous awards.

For Bheka the experience was worthwhile and was an affirmation that he should remain true to his work and focus on the properties that make his work stand out. 

“I’ve also learned how photo agencies work; I’ve learned about image licensing, as well as contracts and also how to do proper research,” he says. 

He mentions that cinematography inspires him. “It’s very imaginative that sometimes science fiction as a form of storytelling has a kind of social, political and cultural message generally contained in the stories. I also try in my work to borrow some of the qualities of cinema, from the colours to the lighting, to use to make social commentary about our time.”

Following on from At Night, They Walk With Us, Bheka did a project titled Stop Nonsense, which seeks to document the changes “included by the wall built around his grandmother’s house”. In township-speak, this refers to any wall intended to provide protection and prevent conflicts between neighbours.

Bheka says that, since 2019, he has been working on three other projects that the public has not seen yet and he hopes that one day he will get to show them. He intends to have his own website so people can view his work. He also wants to be involved in more residency programmes. 

Bheka is proud of his family for their unwavering support and thanks the Of Soul and Joy programme for being a life-changing experience and for teaching him that he can actually make a living from photography.  

“We wanted him to be seen by the whole world and have new challenges by going to Amsterdam and meeting curators and new mentors who set new challenges for him,” says the proud Dhlamini, before concluding that, “He was the right person to start this mentorship and I don’t think this will be the end of it. It is just the beginning.”


For more information follow:https://www.instagram.com/ofsoulandjoy_photoproject/