Photo credit: Dominique Spruch
Andile Bhala is making a name for himself as a photographer telling authentic stories of life in Soweto. Fujifilm South Africa chatted to him about the social value of photography, building on the legacy of others, and finding his stories on the streets.
Where did your love of photography start?
I’m a documentary filmmaker at heart. After my football scholarship got declined, I chose to tell stories either as a filmmaker or photographer, but due to a lack of resources I chose photography. I have always seen things in a different way and found it easy to project my perspective through photography. So, cycling around creating photographs became an interesting and fulfilling habit.
Soweto has seen a number of excellent photographers, one just need to think about Santu Mofokeng and Peter Magubane. Do you feel you are building on a legacy left by those photographers gone before?
That’s like jumping into the deep-end, I’m just a guy with a red backpack, a bike and a dream. They definitely gave us the blueprint of the narrative that we are telling, but I would like to believe I’m on my own journey and creating bodies of work that are of my interest.
They proved you can be great while telling the authentic stories that you relate to, and I see it as our duty to continue with the ideas, add your personal plot and leave it for the next generation.
Tell us a bit more about the gear you use.
Most of my street work is shot on a Fujifilm X-T10 and a 23mm and 35mm. Personal bodies of work are shot on the Fujifilm X-T1, X-T2 and X-H1 with a 56mm and 90mm.
What style of photography do you like best, since you do both street photography as well as portrait photography?
I love photographs that are about reality because I’m much happier in the streets. In the street a lot of things are happening at once, so in a way my work has to do with humanity.
Soweto is so distinct so the spaces are always contributing to the story – even someone that left Soweto years back could easily pick up the location just from the framework of the house in the picture. Street photography teaches you to understand the person you are photographing and the culture at large. I do a lot of social documentary photography and try to find the balance between emotions in portraits and spaces.
Can you tell us more about your Silhouette Series of photographs?
This body of work uses a unique set of people walking on top of a wall. It includes different shapes and movements – people moving from mountain to the dam for a day prayer or baptism, kids who are there for swimming, and some families walking on the wall for fishing.
The series started as an observation, where I would sit for hours waiting for some action to happen. After weeks of seeing people walking on the top of a wall, I saw a need to engage with the wall visually, and that’s where I started arriving with my camera.
Funny thing – during the first two days with my camera, no one walked on the wall. Part of me wanted to stop going but my persistent side felt a need of revisiting the space.
For me it was always a matter of getting a frame with different conversations from the people walking on the wall. I allowed the camera to narrate the story and use those conversations as the voice of the silent wall.
Do you see your photography carrying a sense of social value – your images all seem to relate to something very personal?
Photography has been a beacon in my life. Most of my work are personal projects I shoot from a point of not knowing – I seek to find myself and continue to learn from the streets.
The streets of Soweto with their bustling noise, smiles, and the legends in the making compel me. I document the truth with an unwavering belief in the power of the human spirit to overcome the mundane and the complex.
I’m drawn to moments that tell stories of dualities and contrasts of life in Soweto, therefore my subjects have a story to tell – some tender and some harsh. My goal is to share a slice of Soweto in a positive way since I want those who see my work to look more carefully at the world around them, to discover the beauty in the most unlikely places.
Are there any big projects you are working on and where can people contact you for prints?
For now, I am busy with the silhouette project trying to create a coffee table book. I sell prints per request and people can reach me via email: email@example.com and www.Mysoweto.co.za.