If you’re a fan of photography, you’ve probably come across the name Kgomotso Neto Tleane before. Hell, even if you’re not into photography you’ve probably seen his work. Maybe it was through the sprawling billboards showcasing his #FeesMustFall images, or perhaps you’ve stumbled across his collaborative project, The Honey on the pages of your local newspaper. And if you’re active on Instagram, you would have seen his prolific documentation of Johannesburg’s taxi industry. Certainly, Kgomotso is a photographer on the rise.
It’s a warm day in Maboneng, but nonetheless, Kgomotso shows up in a thick cardigan and his signature beanie wrestled onto the back of his head. “I’ve told this story a lot of times now,” he laughs, “okay, let’s start from the beginning.”
Growing up in the small village of Ga-Maja just outside Polokwane, Kgomotso moved to Johannesburg in 2009, but it would still be a few years before he fell into photography. “Back then I was studying towards a law degree. I had this idea of what would happen with my life,” he explains. “I’d finish high school, get my degree, find a job, make money, and that’s it. Man I had no idea how wrong that was. It didn’t go like that at all.”
Kgomotso then ditched the law degree and found work, but still, he wasn’t happy. It was in 2013 that he bought his first camera and started to produce the work he’s now well known for.
“I don’t even know what made me buy the camera. I think it was the photography I was seeing on social media, but I didn’t have a reason as to why I was buying it, I just bought a camera and started shooting my environment,” he recalls, elbows now on the table as he leans forward. “I’m from the township so I started shooting that and people started gaining interest in what I was doing, because you don’t see that stuff a lot. It’s not the pretty stuff. It’s the grunge stuff you only see in the hood. That’s when I moved into storytelling through photography.”
Kgomotso’s work is striking, both technically and conceptually. He chooses to focus his lens on those who are always seen, but rarely recognised – the woman pushing her fruit and veggies cart home at the end of a long day, the queue marshals directing countless travellers to their respective taxi lines seeing them move to work and back. He champions the gaartjies, the trash collectors, the backyard butchers and more. These are the people at the building blocks of South Africa’s informal economy, and Kgomotso’s pushing their stories into the wider public eye.
Dropping a law degree to pursue photography is a daunting task at the best of times. Even more so when your family is sceptical. Kgomotso explains that for many young, black artists, getting support from family is often a challenge, as creative paths are lesser valued in comparison to more traditional career paths.
“I won’t lie, my grandparents still have no idea what I’m doing. My gran asked me last year ‘So what do you do? Do you just get to a place and take photos?’ They don’t really get it. My parents have grown to understand, but not the older generations.”
On the topic of making it as an artist in a young South Africa, Kgomotso is adamant that individuality and self-confidence is the way forward. “A lot of photographers go on Instagram and end up trying to recreate their idols, which is bullshit,” he says. “For you to actually stand out, you need to create your own work and tell your own truth. Especially if your aim is not just fame and money. It will work out and it will take off. Stay true to yourself and your work.”
The end result? A generation of forward thinking artists pioneering holistic and lasting change in the realm of South African narratives, says the photographer.
“For a very long time, there wasn’t a lot being documented around us. I want the youth in 30 years’ time to think of us as the people who started creating work that reflects the people,” he says before a brief pause. “I think we really are part of an era of things like photography and jazz and writing that’s just changing everything as well as saying things that have never been said before. We are part of so much change right now and I think they’ll see us as the generation who sparked that change.”
Photographs of Kgomotso by Travys Owen at Lampost.
Meet the 16 young South Africans defining creative culture now. #BAYEZA16