Joburg-based Gulshan Khan takes us through her journey to becoming a photojournalist, staying safe on assignments, and her thoughts on the romanitisations of photojournalism.
When did you first pick up a camera and how did you end up as a photojournalist?
At the end of 2015, the #FeesMustFall student protests erupted all over South Africa. Observing not only such historic moments but also seeing how often police forces were meeting un-armed protesters with such unnecessary force, I felt the need to reflect what I was bearing witness to. So, with no previous training and using my phone and a point-and-shoot camera, I instinctively began photographing the scenes that were unfolding in front of me.
With the urge to make images and the need to learn more about the craft growing, I enrolled in the Photojournalism and Documentary Photography (PDP) course at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg. During that year I was first published by Agence France-Presse (AFP), where I subsequently did an internship and thereafter became the first African woman to be hired by the Agency in 2017 (a valuable accolade, which I am proud, of but also an indication of how untransformed the photography industry is).
This is how my journey began.
Photojournalists have been romanticised in a way, if you think of, for example, the Bang Bang Club locally and photographers like Robert Capa and Don McCullin. Do you think this still holds true for the profession now?
There has been a glamorisation and even a machismo and bravado associated with the profession, which is often unhealthy and mostly unwarranted. And certainly, it is still being romanticised.
The work can be anything that ranges from being quite truthfully dangerous in certain contexts (which is really not something we should hold as romantic), to being fraught with colonial gazes of the “dark continent” so that any person venturing here is seen as brave, even in the most peaceful and everyday settings, to everything in between. Being a male-dominated industry has not helped with this.
‘War photography’ seemed to be the impulsive association with photojournalism and served as a benchmark almost, for how successful and well-known you were. This is obvious from the photographers mentioned in the question too, but there are so many valuable photographic contributions to the world which show a greater range of our humanity and that needs to be celebrated and focused on too, something which is happening more often now.
I would mention especially the work of photographers of colour, in the majority world, which provide responses and a returning of the colonial, western gaze; that which is inextricably linked to the history of photography and oppression.
How do you keep safe while out shooting?
South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women and children in the world, so much so that it is referred to as a femicide of pandemic proportions. This makes working here, especially as a woman, even more challenging.
I use an app called Life360 which keeps a few friends aware of my location. Also, I often share my live location with my partner when going out and try to keep in touch as much as possible. My gear is packed in bags that are not so obviously camera bags.
While I prefer working alone, it is smarter to work in pairs or groups. Mostly I work on pure instinct, trusting people I come into contact with and you learn to read situations.
Is there one event/moment that you wished you had covered?
No. I have come to realise that I am always where I am supposed to be, and I will reflect with my camera only what I am meant to in this life. This acceptance gives me a great peace.
Favourite person to photograph and why?
I don’t have one favourite person really. There are moments of deep connection, with so many people who I photograph. They can be fleeting, but it is this feeling that has become familiar to me more than a person can and is something that stays with me.
Tell us more about your favourite photograph.
I am in love with so many moments made into images, but I will tell you about one.
“Girl-go-round” is an image I made one summer night at a fête in Mayfair, Johannesburg. I didn’t know if it would be a good enough image technically, but all I knew was that I wanted to freeze this moment of joy, a face gleeful, smile wide open, as she spun through the air on her magic horse, burka catching the wind like a super-hero. I stood there for what felt like the longest time trying to pan and focus every time she came around.
This image is the result of that outpouring of energy. Wanting to show her the image and ask her name, I ran after her when the ride stopped, but she was too quick for me; disappearing into the swelling crowd.
Do you have any special projects you are working on?
Called the “The Things We Carry With Us” this project is about the community of contemporary Muslims in South Africa to which I belong. This personal documentation aims to engage with ideas of how faith is something that we carry with us even when we cannot carry anything else. It speaks to ideas of (re-)establishment of communities around acts and spaces of worship and prayer, and the transformations of physical and social landscapes through faith.
The project also aims at remedying the historical lack of visual representation that our communities suffered, due to the dislocation and erasure cause by colonisation and apartheid in Africa. It aims to be something that generations to come can look upon as a source of history and memory.
I am also slowly working on a project for the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass 2020 which speaks to the complicated themes of connection and separation in relation to our interactions with systems of governance, power and human economies.
Do you take inspiration from other photographers? Who are your favourites
Santu Mofokeng, Ernest Cole, Zanele Muholi, Seido Keita, Malick Sedibe, Carrie Mae Weems, and LaToya Ruby Frazier among others.