I See A Different You

For many first world inhabitants, the first images evoked by the word ‘Africa’ are still those of poverty. In 2011, a group of young photographers from Soweto in Johannesburg, twins, Innocent and Justice Mukheli, and their friend Vuyo Mpantsha, grew weary of their neighbourhoods being portrayed in the same tired, stigmatised way when there were other narratives playing out around them.

The group did not have traditional tertiary education, but were instead armed with a mentor in Neo Mashigo, and a background working in advertising functioning as “a great teacher” for the group. They set out to explore how they could use Tumblr to help them share their visual narrative. The blog took off internationally, culminating in an exhibition in Tokyo in 2012.

The wider, almost panoramic shots capture the pride and beauty of Africa, contrasting the colourful, wonderful wildness of Soweto with scenes an international audience might not expect. This collective captures an exciting time in an exciting place: a country with 11 official languages where a majority of previously oppressed young people are finally free to express their own identities. YOUTH had a chat with the collective.

TH How did this project start?

Vuyo Mpantsha: You hear negative stories all the time. You hear mostly about the struggle. Kids that are hungry. You never hear the other stories that are happening to the youth too: the love stories, or the stylish kids that are coming out, or the artists in Soweto… we decided to take it upon ourselves and just photograph this world that no one knows about. Hence, ‘I See A Different You’ because we see a different Africa.

TH A lot of your work features incredible fashion. Where does the focus lie for you?

Innocent Mukheli: The focus is in telling stories and we use fashion as part of the narrative. We want people to resonate and see themselves in those locations, in the type of style we bring in and in the type of shots that we take.

Vuyo Mpantsha: It’s weird that people like to say our work is focused on fashion because a lot of people in the townships we come from dress in the way which we dress and people don’t know that aspect about Soweto.

TH How much power do the visual arts have to actually change perceptions?

Vuyo Mpantsha: So much power. To think about it - how we started. We started in Soweto, you know. Soweto is a township. We started photographing our township, and our changing of perceptions ended up taking our work to Tokyo. That was our first exhibition. And people in Japan said: ‘but we didn’t see South Africa like this,’ and we said ‘Ya. That’s the whole point of the images.’

TH How do you work as a unit? Photographers are often solitary animals. What’s the dynamic?

Vuyo Mpantsha: There’s a lot of fights.

Neo Mashigo: On any project there is a lead and everyone else is there to be a tool to that one person to make sure we get what we need. Then, I’m there to make sure it’s all fucking hot. (Laughter) Also, I think it’s a black thing, you know? Black people like doing things in groups. (Laughs)

TH As a South African creative working abroad, I’ve noticed that creativity in South Africa is a lot looser - you can do a lot more. Is it because it’s a bunch of cultures all working to create a new identity for themselves? Is that something you see too?

Innocent Mukheli: Definitely.Africa is a melting pot of a lot of amazing things. We’re spoilt for choice. You can express yourself in a lot of ways, and so it looks like we have more fun creating. But, we always try to keep the balance to compete internationally as well and not just get lost in our world alone. Looking at the world out there and looking at our world, we see a lot of opportunities to showcase our coolness and the talent we have in Africa.

Neo Mashigo: Africa’s still more open in many ways. Shooting internationally there’s a lot of restrictions. Even shooting in Joburg vs Cape Town: big difference. In Joburg you can do more or less whatever you want, in Cape Town everything is controlled. That allows more freedom for trying out stuff and for creativity to flow much easier.

TH What’s in the future for photography for South Africa? Are we looking at more red tape to choke creativity?

Neo Mashigo: It could be more red tape or less red tape. The Cape Town experience might prove that it actually doesn’t allow creativity to thrive. The language that’s being used in government right now, is that the creative industry is the new gold, and using words like ‘roll out the red carpet for creativity, not the red tape’. They can feel that around the world. If you let the creatives loose, it creates a more productive environment for people, and people find ways of creating their own things, and work as a result. If we engage more then the drama will be less. Unless you guys in so-called first world countries will do damage to us and create laws like we can’t fly drones and we can’t do this and we can’t do whatever we want.

TH Could you elaborate on your SA Kings project?

Vuyo Mpantsha: It’s quite an exciting project for us. We realised that as South Africans, as the youth, we don’t know who our kings are. We decided to do this as an educational project to showcase our kings in the world. As much as England has kings and queens, so do we. We want to showcase them so that people our age and older can identify their kings. As a Venda guy I didn’t know who my South African king was. When we showcase it all over the world people will know. If you’re Zulu, you’ll know your king. If you’re Tswana, Shoto, you’ll know your king.

Neo Mshigo: During 1994, the government instituted a commision to identify the rightful kings because, during Apartheid, the rightful kings were replaced by fake chiefs. Only a couple of them remained, like the Zulu king remained as the rightful Zulu king. But, most of them were replaced with Apartheid sympathizers. So most of the new, rightful kings never got real PR. Only if you stay in this village would you know about it. So the point of the project is to showcase those kings and queens as a collective, which has never been done.

TH Were they quite responsive to this?

Neo Mshigo: The kings themselves are very cool. The kings’ handlers - I won’t tell you about. It was very painful, but rewarding at the same time.

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