Iconic Still | Andrew Tshabangu shares a lifetime of stories through black and white photography

Iconic Still is a weekly series in which writer and online editor Phetha Motumi talks to the people behind photographs considered iconic in South Africa’s visual history. While the idea of being iconic is debatable, with images that evoke a poignant time of civil unrest or our nation’s greatest triumphs, certain photographs might always spring to mind.

Andrew Tshabangu is a name that rings familiar when one thinks of the striking imagery of black communities, sometimes in their strife, other times in their rituals, most times in their normality. Though he describes photography as something he stumbled into, over time he has become regarded in silent awe for the way that his eye captures people in their being. Looking back on his career, he reflects.

“Initially I wanted to study drama but I didn’t get accepted into Wits University, so I went to the Alexandra Arts Centre and chose photography along with a range of other subjects.” Citing Ernest Cole’s House of Bondage, co-written by Thomas Flaherty as a means of inspiration, Andrew recalls seeing something in those images that made him want to pick up a camera.

Beginning to photograph everyday life in Soweto – where he was born and raised – the idea was to go against the grain of images presented on mainstream media. “It was around the time of political violence in the townships [in the early ’90s] where the dominant images were of so-called ‘black on black violence’. I didn’t recognise myself in these images so I tried to capture the quiet things.”

Embarking on his photography career in the early ’90s, Andrew worked for now discontinued newspaper New Nation. Feeling obligated to report what was popular, Andrew describes himself at the time as one of the people taking the some “negative images” for the job. Hungry for the liberty to decide his own focus, he made the decision to become an independent photographer instead. He used the newfound freedom to photograph subjects closer to him, living in moments unreported in newspapers. “When I started I was young and handsome; now I’m old and grey but there’s still nothing to regret. Everything that happened with photography carried me to my current journey overtime.”

Though he photographs friends, family and weddings in colour, it is black and white images that Andrew is drawn to. “Black and white has to do with the people who inspired me in the journey of photography, they took black and white photographs as well,” he says citing legendary photographers like Cole. Represented by Gallery Momo, he has exhibited his work locally since 1995 and most recently at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown; also showcasing around the globe from Brazil to Finland and Austria, Zimbabwe, Kenya, UK, US, Germany as well as Japan. 

Challenging himself to experiment beyond the stills, Andrew has collaborated with curators, dancers and musicians to portray the meaning of his images through different art forms like the unforgettable performance at the Standard Bank Gallery where he invited ballerina Ana Mondini to interpret his work and the time a six-piece jazz band sang symphonies to his stills at The Orbit. 

Talking about his approach to taking photos, he says, “Sometimes the subject makes it easier and other times it’s about the basics: lighting and composition. It’s also about how you treat yourself during that process.” Balancing technique with natural instinct, Andrew has learnt different lessons as a student of photography and as a teacher of it, at the Children’s Photography Workshop and the Market Photo Workshop in the late 90s, also facilitating a number of workshops across the continent.

“I’m thankful that photography has given me ability to access spaces that I normally wouldn’t have. It’s enabled me to travel and I wouldn’t have met many of the friends I have.” According to Andrew, the future can only bring a more honest reflection of the lives of people of colour. “There are a number of photographers contributing to the landscape who are showing various aspects of black communities; what is in my images is only a small piece. There’s still so so much that needs to be documented.”

WIN! To stand a chance of winning a signed copy of Andrew Tshabangu’s latest book Footprints, share this post on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #PhotographyMonth17. Competition closes on 31 July 2017.


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