Moments of meaning: 5 documentary photographers share images of import

We ask South African photographers and photojournalists Thom Pierce, Chris de Beer, Tshepiso Mabula, Ihsaan Haffejee, Neo Baepi and Ashraf Hendriks to share an image they’ve captured and the stories behind them.

Tshepiso Mabula

Originally from Limpopo and now working in Johannesburg, freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer Tshepiso Mabula captures human stories. Her images challenge systematic oppression and comment on societal ills across South Africa.

“This [image is titled Ikonzo Ne Mvuselelo and was] taken at St Paul’s Jabavu Anglican church in Soweto in 2016. It was the middle of mass, and I saw the light coming in from the top windows while the congregation sang from their hymn books. I particularly noticed how the light hit Boitumelo More’s face and the stillness of the moment got me. We live in an age where we are always saturated with images every day, and thus I feel like it is important for professional photographers to seek out the iconic moments. This is what I tried to create in this image. I love it because it is a moment of serenity, and it presented itself in the perfect time.” – Tshepiso

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Chris de Beer

Hailing from Cape Town, Chris de Beer is a photojournalist specialising in documentary photography and portraiture. 

“Entering Knysna as an outsider [after the recent fire] with little attachment to the town meant that much of my photographing what the fire left behind was about aesthetics, documentary news value and meaning for other people who love the town. The area was apocalyptic, covered in smoke and ruins littered the hillsides. It felt unreal. But this image and scene shattered that for me. Seeing this young girl, Kristen, in the ruins of her friend’s home made the event feel personal, relatable and real. She walked me through identifying the home with stories of the last times she visited. It brought home to me the meaning and history tied into these buildings. It gave a new face to the cruelty of the fire that tore through it so easily. When statistics and graphs, aerial images of fire zones and damage reports give an overview of such a huge event, it’s these little “in between” stories that truly captivate me.” – Chris

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Thom Pierce

Thom Pierce is an award-winning British photographic artist working in Cape Town whose work explores cultural, social and historical issues. When not working on editorial commissions, he collaborates with NGO’s on social justice campaigns.

“While working in Romania earlier this year, I was driving through a small village and noticed this scene. I continued driving, annoyed with myself that I had not stopped to photograph it. About a kilometre out of the village, I still could not stop thinking about it, so I turned round and headed back. Luckily, the couple were still working around the tree. I stopped the car, stepped out and took three or four quick images. The woman looked up just at the right time, and the man is suspended in motion which reminds me of the iconic image by Henri Cartier-Bresson of a man jumping over a puddle. This was a piece of good luck, but it would not have happened if I had not turned back. It reminds me to listen to my inner voice when working, to always turn around and keep an eye open for those small, almost unnoticeable moments.” – Thom

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Ihsaan Haffejee

Johannesburg-based Ihsaan Haffajee is a regular writer and photographer for GroundUp, a local news website specialising on human rights stories, and his images have also been published in major publications like Al-Jazeera, The Daily Maverick and Huffington Post, plus more.

“It was a few minutes past noon, mid-year 2016, when Ahmed Ibrahim Hashi – a 28-year-old Somali migrant – spotted a mob rapidly approaching his spaza shop in Atteridgeville. He fled but was caught and mercilessly beaten. His head kicked was into the sidewalk while bricks rained down on his face. Today, he recovers at a Somali community centre in Pretoria West. His jaws have been cracked, so he slurs when he speaks, and he is fed through a straw as he is unable to chew. Ahmed who came to South Africa as a 22-year-old hoping for a peaceful future free of violence has been left traumatised after this attack. ‘The way I thought it would be in South Africa, it is not like that. Once I recover, I think I will make my way back home to Somalia. If I’m going to be killed, it would be better if it was in my country. Also, I will discourage the youth of Somalia from coming to South Africa because they will be killed in a bad way here.’” – Ihsaan

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Ashraf Hendricks

Ashraf is a Capetonian multimedia artist, and one of GroundUp’s staff photographers and reporters. His personal projects focus on nightlife, nature and being a voyeur of urban life.

“With protests, news publishers always search for the most extreme moments of every situation. Whether it’s residents pelting stones, burning structures or police violently responding and making arrests. The thing is, those moments are incredibly minuscule and don’t always represent the whole story. But, I get it. It’s dramatic, so it has a much better chance of gaining attention and creating outrage. I like this because it goes against that stereotype that all protests are inherently violent. Sometimes, there is a lot of down time where protesters, police and the media all just get along, talk and joke with each other. We’re all the same. We just want the best for ourselves and those around us.” – Ashraf

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Neo Baepi

Cape Town-based Neo Baepi is a versatile photographer and known for intimate portraiture.

“I took this image of US musician Casey Benjamin at the Cape Town Jazz Festival in 2013 after my first eighteen-month foray into digital photography. Previously, I had only been exposed to film. I shot this digitally using basic equipment. This image instilled confidence in me. After seeing the work I made at jazz fest, I began to share more freely with a lot less fear of scrutiny and criticism. I began to understand that black and white images are forgiving and pleasing to the eye, but the place they have carved in the contemporary medium of photography is solid. They are almost always strong. I love the noise in the image – it remains a friendly reminder of the film photographer I used to be. This image makes me very grateful for the talent given to me, and even more accountable to the title ‘photographer’.” – Neo 

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