Mandisa Buthelezi is one of the young breakout photographers from the Durban Centre for Photography’s creative program run by KZNSA Art Gallery. Mandisa has created a unique niche for herself by photographing rural scenes at a time when young South Africa is infatuated with township and street photography. We caught up with the ambitious photographer from Umlazi Township, who is seriously passionate about storytelling and recapturing rural Africa’s relationship with modern urban culture.
Please let us know more about yourself?
My name is Mandisa Nonhlanhla Lulama Buthelezi. I am a 23 year old from Umlazi, Durban. I’m also a netball coach. I love cattle. I love culture. I love music. And I love exploring these three interests through photography. I am a photographer.
You have an interesting story of how you ended up as a photographer full-time, please elaborate?
Growing up I had never known which career path I would take. That definitely was the defining point leading up to me doing a Construction Management & Quantity Surveying qualification and working for just over two years in the industry post-graduation. Quite frankly I was miserable. The whole surrounding did not define me. But I am thankful that in the midst of that misery I was able to buy myself a camera. It was so refreshing to make photos. It made me so happy. It’s always been an interest, making photos, but I must admit I never thought of myself as a full-on photographer. I had to teach myself to be comfortable with that thought enough to resign from the construction industry and to devote myself wholeheartedly to it. So here I am, making photos. Also in my happiest space I’ve probably ever been since childhood.
Creatively, who did you grow up looking up to – inside and outside of photography?
Sports was the centre of my childhood. I lived for it. I did not, in all sincerity, expose myself to any well-known photographers. Reading, though, was and continues to be one of my greatest escapes and I have always been one of those not too much concerned about what the story is but rather how it is told. I think that’s where Marguerite Poland made me fall in love with her gorgeous writing. Beyond that she has immense understanding and knowledge of African culture and she fuses this subject which I am very passionate about with her phenomenal storytelling skills. She continues to inspire me. Even though I am in photography her work seeps through to my inspiration nerve. Photographically right now it is Cedric Nunn. There is so much character in his work. I just feel his respect for culture in the whole mood of his photography making. A gentle photographer but with a driven message, too powerful. Dense story telling through the lens. Truly captivating and certainly inspiring.
How do you face the challenge of developing a unique style and skill-set in your young career?
I cannot stress how important it is for one to undress what works for them as an individual. Everyone, if true to themselves, has a unique style. Capitalize on that. And then research. Fiercely. It’s really about having a conversation with your soul and letting your photos do the final talking. It’s about allowing the camera to teach you things about yourself that you didn’t even know. Then it’s those hidden treasures that require you to master your technical skills so that when executing your photography, there is an exact definition of who you are and what you’re about.
As a young female photographer from a township in KZN, what are the current challenges you face?
The township itself is an ocean of challenges, gender and everything in between put aside. The hardest challenge about being a person of the township is living in a township but not falling to its harsh psychological dysfunctions. So many psychological breakdowns it almost feels like a prison. Now to try to escape that mentally alongside choosing to take the road less travelled is heavy. It’s hard to explain concept photography in that kind of space. It’s hard to be understood. It’s even harder to get a support system going on. People won’t support something they do not understand. Maybe it is the constant winds of hardships surrounding the township that make concept photography something hard to try to understand. The current challenge is this; making photos anyway.
Your current work re-visualizes a space that has been rather neglected by young South Africa, especially with the current rise in street and township photography within youth culture. What has inspired you to want to make rural South Africa a subject?
I am a person who finds culture interesting. I have an indescribable passion for cattle. It is through being in the construction industry that I have enjoyed the space of the people from the rural areas most. The buildings stand tall and it is because of their hands. I particularly fell in love with the way they expressed themselves and the zeal they possessed when speaking about home. Portions of choosing rural photography lay in the fact that I grew up in a township and I have no experience of rural life whatsoever, but my main influence was the love of culture and identity. I have, with my camera, decided to bridge the gap between my passion and the lack of rural experience I have to make rural/cultural photography a subject. It’s me.
How important is content versus form in rural photography? Do you think one plays a stronger role than the other?
At some point the marriage between a captivating narrative of a photograph (through its composition) and its content (story) has to take place. The one enhances the other, I feel. Photographically how one frames the subject is an entry point on how you view the content. And I guess it’s what separates a good photo from a bland one; the fusion between these two factors and exceptionally executing it.
What do you want your viewers to take from your work?
Everything is art. Everything has its own beauty as much as it has its own story. And as a photographer I would love for the photo of the story to without fail illustrate the beauty of the subject, whether it’s a lovely to look at beauty, or a sad or dark kind of beauty. That piece of history I freeze with my camera, I want it to form part of the echoed richness of culture, identity and happiness in self.
How do would you say social media has reinvented the role of the photographer?
Social media gives a wider platform to show work. Beyond self-recognition, used correctly, it’s an excellent tool to read about what’s happening industry-wise, learning and growing. It’s getting extremely difficult though to establish oneself as a professional photographer mainly so because technology allows more access to cameras and everyone is photographing away. Considering the social terrain, content is rarely a point interest if it is not aligned with what is trending. You get only a selected number pushing you especially if it is still the establishing phases of your career. So it can be a challenge driving out what you’re about when there’s an influx of photos swimming in social media. Passion alone can be very difficult to sustain so to some degree there has to be a set of skills one uses to be in the loop with industry and to get your work out there.
On a lighter note, what work would constitute your dream project right now?
Travelling all over Africa and photographing different cattle breeds and their herdsmen and headmistresses. Just that.
And then there is your taste for vintage and contemporary jazz at such a young age… care to indulge us?
Jazz hits the centre of me. A messy, messy music but absolutely delightful to the soul. There is just so much expression in it, like every instrumentalist is in his own zone but man do they make sense even when they’re put together. I highly doubt it has anything to do with my upbringing because there wasn’t much, if any, musical influence there. It just came. And it stayed.
What’s next for Mandisa?
More travel within rural South Africa. Making some documentaries. Exhibiting. Great things, I pray, great things.
Otherwise, where can we follow your work
My tumblr blog, Risoul.