Kgomotso Neto Tleane is a Johannesburg based photojournalist who focusses his attention on documenting the everyday lives of South Africans. He seeks out authentic stories, with a particular fascination with local taxi industry and taxi drivers – as evidenced in his photo series Zola Budd. A primary aim of his is to present alternative views in order to combat the negative stereotypes of SA. We caught up with Kgomotso to find out more about photographic journey and what he explores through his work.
What sparked your interest in photography?
I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but it happened while I was growing up. My granddad always had a lot of cameras around the house, he’d often take family portraits, and I think that played a large role in me developing an interest in photography.
Tell us about your journey so far and the various things which have led to where you are now…
After high school I came to Johannesburg to pursue my studies in law, but that didn’t work out. I found a job and got my first camera, my background is mainly street photography and at the time I didn’t have a focus or a subject matter per se, but there was this one picture I took which just kinda changed the way I viewed my surroundings. I posted a lot of my work on social media and as people became more familiar with it, I got featured in a couple of publications. I also interned at the Sunday Times and The Star newspaper as a photographer.
What fascinates you about the everyday living of South Africans, and how do you explore this through your work?
There is so much going on around us and yet we fail to notice. What I try to do is document people’s lives and their stories, it just might be that the very same person you catch a bus with every morning shares the same struggles as you, so I try and tell peoples stories through my photography.
You work across genres, from photojournalism to portraiture. How does your process and approach differ when photographing a newsworthy event like the Jeppestown strike as opposed to taking someone’s portrait?
With photojournalism there’s usually a brief that comes with it, and often when you get to the location everything is there for you to shoot, all you need to do is to make sure you get the images you were sent for. I try to add a bit of my own style too, capturing emotions and interactions. When it comes to portraiture it’s different because I get to be in to total control by directing the subject according to how I want the picture to be.
One of the things that’s quite unique to our country are taxis, or minibuses. What fascinates you about this mode of transport and more specifically, the taxi drivers?
There’s a taxi known as Zola Budd or the Hi Ace, it’s been on the South African roads for years now. There are taxis that are introduced to the roads often but this main one still dominates them – it’s like there’s a machine out there that keeps remaking it. Its staying power is one of the things that fascinates me about it.
I personally think that a lot of taxi drivers aren’t given the credit they deserve and it’s mainly because of the pressure they are under, they have to make sure there’s a certain amount of money they take back to their bosses at the end of the day, they have to make sure people get to work, they have to beat the heavy Johannesburg traffic and for some they still have to spend time with their families. There’s a lot of stuff which contributes to their behaviour on the roads, and for many of them the taxi industry is all they have.
In your bio you mention that you’re on a “mission to break stereotypes in SA” through the medium of photography. How do you endeavour to do this?
By telling people’s truth through photography. For instance, I think if people were more aware of the taxi industry and the reasons for the behaviour of the people involved in it, their perspectives would change. This goes for a lot of things – things would be a lot easier for other people if we knew what the next person is going through, because it might just be a story you can relate to.
What are some of the challenges facing young South Africans today? How do you think these can be turned into opportunities?
The one biggest challenge is finding employment. One of the causes of this is that from a young age as a kid from the rural areas or townships you are told the corporate world is the way to go, photography and other skills which fall under the creative sector aren’t considered to be something you can take up as a career path. But it’s changing now, more and more people are taking their creative skills and turning them into their careers.
You’re quite involved with the Umuzi Photo Club. How did this come about, and what’s your role there?
I applied at Umuzi this year to help develop my skills and network. I’ve been involved in a couple of projects through Umuzi, I’ve also developed other skill sets because of them. They have helped me in structuring my work and shooting with a purpose. I got to go to different publication houses to intern, and all this was through them.
What has been the most rewarding thing about working with Umuzi?
The main highlight was being able to express myself however I want, and being able to work with different people from different fields.
Is there an image or series of yours that stands out as a personal favourite, or has a particularly memorable story attached to it?
There’s an image that I recall, I took it a while after I bought a camera, It was a woman carrying a child on her back, she was pushing a trolley full of veggies and stuff she uses for her stand on the street because she’s a street vendor. I only realized after taking the picture how powerful it was, it spoke so much for me. I think that moment defined the kind of subject matter I wanted to focus on.
What projects do you currently have in the pipeline?
I’ve been working on a project which focuses the dynamics behind the culture in the taxi industry.