Photographer Andile Buka acquaints himself with the music of his subjects. (Kgomotso Neto)
A wedding present to his dad that lay in a box for years — a 35mm film camera — became the serendipitous catalyst that opened a whole new world of perception for photographer Andile Buka.
He discovered it one day in 2006 when, as kids, he and his siblings looked through their parents’ wedding gifts that were never opened.
He started using the camera in the townships of Soweto and Orange Farm, where he grew up, taking pictures of his friends.
Today, the 33-year-old Buka’s work has been used by Avant Arte and top brands such as Dior, Reebok, Nike, Margiela, Adidas, Levi’s, Converse and Asos.
He is also the go-to photographer for some of South Africa’s more interesting, adventurous musicians, for their album covers and promotional images.
His photographs have been featured in an array of prestigious print and online publications, including Vogue Italia, Aperture Magazine, Ogojiii, The Wire, The New York Times, The Guardian, VSCO and Leica Fotografie International.
“I started photography while I was in high school,” Andile recalls, a glint of nostalgia in his voice.
His initial encounter with the discipline was as spontaneous as it was unconventional, as he found himself capturing moments with friends, even if the technical quality of the photos at that stage left much to be desired.
The joy he witnessed when he handed over prints of those images to his friends was what sparked his photographic journey. It was a reaction any neighbourhood photographer can relate to.
Buka’s love for photography was further nurtured by his family.
“As a pastime activity, my siblings and I would go through family albums, and that brought us so much joy, and we would ask our parents ‘Who is who?’” he fondly reminisces.
These family albums gave Buka a unique perspective on the power of photographs to immortalise moments and memories.
“Engaging with photography physically really changed the way I saw live photos,” Buka reflects, noting that he doesn’t want to discredit the digital age of image consumption. Yet, the tangible nature of printed photographs and their storytelling potential have always held a special place in his heart.
He was always aware of his artistic inclination, even when life took him on different paths.
“I went to study tourism management at the University of Johannesburg but I was still documenting images of my friends,” he says.
The proximity of the tourism faculty to the arts faculty was a stroke of fate that allowed Buka to spend most of his time in the creative sphere, even though his academic focus was tourism management.
“I did not have an interest in what I was studying and, quite frankly, found it boring,” he admits.
However, engaging with the arts so regularly was what motivated him to pursue his first love. Buka’s journey in photography truly took off with his photo book, Crossing Strangers, which was published in August 2015.
This project was an exploration of the people he encountered in his community and the city, capturing unique moments, be it on their way to church, a party or just hanging out.
The book’s concept evolved organically, initiated by a friend’s suggestion that they collaborate. This led Buka to compile a collection of images that would align with the book’s theme.
“This project is about tracing where everyone is going and what they do. It is purely about capturing life,” Buka explains.
Commuting by taxi exposed him to a diverse mix of people and it was during these journeys that he captured the raw essence of their lives.
“I would approach them with a greeting, ask to take a photo, and the response would be, ‘Sure, but when will I get it?’ I was fortunate enough to give some of the photos to people, especially around Orange Farm and Soweto.”
Working with musicians
Buka also has a distinctive knack for capturing musicians in their element. He doesn’t photograph them during performances but rather focuses on creating images for magazines or promotional purposes.
“When working with musicians, it’s a different kind of environment, but you always think about what kind of music they make and how that influences how you approach the shoot,” Buka explains.
The intimate setting allows him to capture the vulnerability of the artist outside of their performance persona.
He expresses his profound love for music; he collects it with passion. His extensive record collection reflects his wide taste in music.
He makes sure he gets to know an artist’s music before he photographs them, listening to their albums and attending their concerts.
“I feel very lucky when an artist asks me to photograph them,” Buka says, emphasising the unique connection he forms with each musician.
“All the artists I have worked with are quite different. Some are dedicated and have an entire team to help during shoots.”
Most recently, Buka was commissioned to capture the essence of jazz artist Thandi Ntuli for her new body of work Rainbow Revisited.
It was a culmination of a long-standing collaboration.
“It’s been a long time coming, to be honest. I had the privilege of working with Thandi in 2020, starting our working relationship.
“She then said, in the near future, if there was something she was working on, she would reach out to me.
“Earlier this year, she reached out, and nothing really happened — until now.”
Buka expressed how proud he is of the Ntuli project and says he gave it his all, as he does every project.
“I just want to be remembered as someone who put in the work, someone who contributed toward the arts,” he says.
He acknowledges the beauty of being an artist, where the audience interprets and receives the work in their own unique way.
“You share a part of yourself and wear that with pride. How people receive it is up to them; I cannot dictate people’s feelings.”