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Featured: Sipho Mpongo’s Pictures of Youth

Sipho Mpongo is a young photographer who together with two other photographers, spent 6 months traveling around South Africa last year documenting the ‘born free’ generation (you can see our highlights from the Twenty Journey project here). A born free himself, this journey gave Sipho the chance to encounter first-hand the myriad experiences of his fellow South Africans, which profoundly affected the way in which he sees the world, and by extension, photographs it. His documentary style images are intimate and capture an innocence that is symbolic, perhaps, of an optimism for the future which currently feels so lacking in our society. Sipho was recently awarded the prestigeous Magnum Foundation Human Rights Scholarship, which will see him travel to the States for a mentorship at New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts where he will continue his investigation of youth identity.

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What made you decide to join the Illiso Labanto photographic mentorship programme?  

I was still in high school doing Grade 11 when I joined Iliso Labantu. I wanted to learn more about photography and what impact it plays in our communities.    

What have been some of the major challenges you’ve overcome and learnings you’ve gained since then?  

Dealing with the financials of photography. The best picture sometimes needs the best equipment… and people telling me that photography is just a waste of time.    

What inspires you to take photographs and what do you hope your images will inspire in those who see them?  

Everyday life around me. I question life a lot, sometimes it’s depressing but fun most of the time.  

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What camera do you use and why?  

I use Canon 5D Mark2, it’s the only camera I have and it is the best quality.    

Has taking photographs changed the way you see and interact with the world around you?  

If I had to choose where to live in the world, I would prefer to live in my photographs. Photography is a process, a therapeutic process for me.    

How has your perception and experience of the born free generation changed after shooting your series Born Frees last year?  

It has changed. Being a born free myself, I have changed after shooting that series which is an ongoing project. To know more about the project. Come to our exhibition at Commune1 in August this year.  

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Do you consider yourself a visual storyteller? Please tell us about this.  

I consider myself a social historian more than a visual storyteller. I am worried about our history as Africans which we know nothing about now. I want to make sure that does not happen for the next generation of children in Africa.    

In the past your work has been quite personal in that it focused on your own experiences or those of the people around you. Would you say that your travels last year have influenced this at all, and if so, how will this affect your work moving forwards?  

My personality is my work, those who know me are likely to understand my work better… sometimes I don’t understand my work too. Traveling has broaden my thinking cap but my life is a symphony of moments. I am ready for the next challenge.    

In what ways do you think your background will continue to influence your work?  

Imagine you’re dreaming a world where people speak the same language but do not understand each other and do not understand their actions. You then become a psychological translator for them to them. Each day you liberate a person. When you wake up, you realise it is better to dream.  

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Do you have a favourite theme or subject matter that you like to photograph? What is this and why does it appeal to you?  

I know that I love getting closer. I work with emotions. I need to feel the picture I am taking.    

What does being awarded the Magnum Foundation Human Rights Scholarship mean to you and your work?  

Photography is a tricky thing. This scholarship means that I will be taught more skills to tackle the contemporary issues in South Africa. I got this award at the right time as we are going through a major change in South Africa. My work will improve as I will be facilitated by experienced and talented photographers of all time like Susan Meiselas.    

Do you have a project in mind that you can tell us about which you’ll be developing for this opportunity?  

Along the lines of black lives in American through an African eye. “African-American”… I don’t know if that makes any sense.  

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Which South African photographers’ work do you admire and why?  

Ernest Cole. For his bravery and energy.  


An excerpt from Sipho’s Twenty Journey entry on 27 November 2014 in Botshabelo:  

You want know to the truth nothing but the truth? Here is how I feel about South Africa as a young boy from the township.  

It’s nothing new seeing a sixteen year old pregnant girl. It’s nothing new witnessing murder in my community. It’s nothing new hearing stories about loan sharks. It’s nothing new witnessing foreigners supporting crime in my community. It’s nothing new hearing my grandmother pray each and every night for better days. It’s nothing new hearing ANC representative promising my community a change. It’s nothing new hearing that a white person is better than a black person because of money. It’s nothing new when a twelve year old boy smokes weed. It’s nothing new keeping quiet about the drug dealers next door, but blame the boys smoking drugs on the streets. It’s nothing new when a teacher doesn’t come to school on a Monday morning. It’s nothing new seeing my people joining different churches hoping for a miracle. It’s nothing new sleeping with a broken heart and an empty stomach.  

Then suddenly I had an opportunity to see South Africa from all angles.  

It was really strange to me because most of the things I thought I knew about South Africa when I was in Langa township were suddenly challenged. I stayed with afrikaner, English, Indian and coloured . I had a chance to see how they live their lives even if it was for a moment. I will not lie, white South Africans live a better life than black South Africans. The problems they have are not like the ones we face in the townships and villages. I felt really strange in their environment because I am not used to it. The life they live is the dream that me and my people dream about everyday. In rural areas all the young people have left for big cities to chase their dreams.  

There are really poor people in South Africa and really rich people in South Africa. While the technology is advancing rich people’s lives, it also destroys poor people’s lives. Even the rich black people pretend to be white.  

The truth is us black people in the townships are fucked in this country. It will take some time for our lives to change. We also need to change our state of mind first.  

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