15 Sep Documenting narratives: Photography as an archival tool
South Africa is home to many stories and it’s often the case that when called to mind, these stories have an accompanying image – usually a single photograph. From the days of black and white film images to the nationwide #FeesMustFall movement which was documented via countless images and shared across social networks worldwide, or more recently, the demonstrations at Pretoria Girls High, choice images will come to mind.
Then there are the lesser known stories that remain largely undocumented and therefore, unknown on a larger scale. These are the narratives that most often, are not circulated on social media and don’t show up in search results. The thriving economy of South Africa’s taxi industry, for example. Or the quiet perseverance of an all-women soccer team, the longstanding family business that sustains a community, and the self-made businessmen who ride the city’s streets collecting recyclables for a living.
While still largely unknown and under-documented, there’s an increase in South African photographers who are committed to documenting and archiving these narratives for both current audiences and for generations to come. We spoke to a few of these photographers about photography as an archival tool, their personal challenges and approaches to documenting nuanced narratives, and what they’d like future generations to look back on.
Kgomotso is perhaps best known for his recent collaborative project with Rendani Nemakhavhani, The Honey which posits the narrative of a fearless and infamous couple: Bra Gavini and The Honey herself. His other work includes extensive documentation on Johannesburg’s taxi industry, from the ranks and drivers to the queue marshals and gaartjies. Kgomotso’s also put out a series of photographs on the informal recycling industry in Jo’burg which follows the lives of the recyclers who move about the streets on a daily basis. For Kgomotso, South Africa is in a crucial moment of change and it’s up to the change-makers to be part of the documentation.
“I believe that our different experiences mould the manner in which we receive the world around us, and this leads to a lot of us having varied perceptions about the things around us. Photography is one of the many ways in which we can see how different people perceive and interpret the world. I think it’s important in the sense that it’s more personalised on the side of the person documenting and it’s essential in helping to build or break certain narratives.”
“Times keep changing and I think at an even more rapid rate now with technology and the way we share information. It’s very important that we document and archive these narratives so we can all have a point of reference. We need these references in order for us not to get lost in someone else’s narrative, and they can be useful in educating those who may not really understand some of the cultures and narratives. It’s also very crucial to document in the most honest way possible. This is one of the biggest challenges, being a really honest documenter. As much as it’s how I view my surroundings, I can let that interfere with the true sense of what’s really happening. And then it’s up to the viewer on how they receive what’s being documented.”
“I personally believe we are in a very crucial time in South Africa when it comes to our narrative. So much change is happening right now and so much is being said which was never said before, we see this through a lot of things like music, politics, education, fashion and so much more. We are part of a really big and important change. It’s crucial that we document this change and archive it for the future generation. Again I think a lot of our generation is archiving a lot of work without realising it, the internet is playing a huge role in that. For me it’s only starting now, let’s have this conversation again in 2026.”
Shirin Motala is a freelance documentary photographer who travels between Durban and Johannesburg and has come to be a mentor to many young creative individuals at the Durban Centre for Photography. Through photography, Shirin aims to accentuate the nuanced spaces and stories that exist amongst us all by challenging traditional notions of, and approaches towards documentary photography. Shirin has focused her lens on many a business owner in the Durban CBD, uncovering their stories and platforming the histories that come with them. She believes that as South Africans, we need to constantly interrogate and re-interrogate ourselves and our history, and that providing a widespread visual archive can aid in doing so.
“For me personally, whatever the reason, humans respond to visual stimulation. It’s one of the ways we learn about the world as infants. Photographs are like historical traces, that we might intentionally look for or stumble upon, but a trail nonetheless that has a multitude of destinations. And where it leads you has infinite possibilities through reflection and asking questions.”
“By documenting these visual representations, we create an archive that others are able to continuously reference at different times from different viewpoints. More than just creating an archive of previously undocumented/under-documented narratives in SA, I think there’s a widely-recognised need for these narratives to be documented by us, for us and that’s amazing. Undocumented stories often stare you in the face, you just aren’t paying attention to it because you’re desensitised to it from your closeness or familiarity to/with the subject. Research and sourcing historical documents (which are likely to be scarce) is always a challenge, especially when working with something that has been un/under-documented.”
“Most of my information is sourced from informal research – anecdotal, lived experiences from community members, leads arise from each person I interact with. I’m actually finding my dad to be a good contact because he grew up with a few of the very people I need to interview and photograph, so this project is taking an interesting turn.”
“I’d like future generations to look back and see transformation within various South African societies and of our nation as a whole, or not. What ideologies lead to a successful change as documented in the narrative, and which ideologies fell short. More than that, I’d want them to see and think critically, to ask questions, to be more aware of their histories. Here’s where the ‘who what where when why’ comes in, the notion of postmodernism where, what determines how you interpret anything – including a photo, a life event, or a movie – is determined by your personal history. There is no one definitive truth.”
If you’ve ever seen the documentary series Woza Sisi, you’d know the name Dahlia Maubane. Dahlia finds a niche in documenting very nuanced stories and providing incredible access to the narratives she photographs. To date, Dahlia has photographed all women soccer teams, the living spaces of students in Johanneburg communes, and of course the many women who work as street hairstylists in Jo’burg’s CBD. Looking at the range that digital cameras have brought to photography, Dahlia looks forward to a vast and multi-dimensional archive for future generations.
“Photography is a well-suited medium to document narratives and communicate ideas. It enables one to pause and record moments and memories. Narratives, cultures and individuals exist, but photography gives them stance. It brings another dimension to help create meaning and further understanding.”
“Research is an integral process when producing a body of work. I look for visual material as guidance and reference on a certain subject to help build a solid narrative. I have noticed in most cases that there is a lack of imagery easily accessible around topics I have dealt with, i.e. informal trading in inner Johannesburg. I am then challenged to rely on personal experience, written or oral research to create imagery. This also enables me the freedom to interpret the narrative without any boundaries or influence.”
“This does not mean that there are no photographers documenting; the images are just not accessible. This is where archiving plays an important role. As a photographer, it’s important that my images are clearly labelled and correct keywords are indicated before publishing them.”
“It’s exciting just imagining the type of photographs that will be archived for future generations. Currently, archives are filled with black and white iconic images from political and cultural events in the apartheid era. Now that digital cameras and cell phone cameras are prevalent, almost everyone takes pictures of their activities and shares them on social networking platforms. Also, people share “professional” photographs, which would normally be displayed on galleries and museums in those platforms. So, the future generation will definitely have access to array of narratives. They will have a clear understanding of our day-to-day domestic activities and social, political and cultural events. The narratives will show diversity and loads of colour.”
Nhlakanipho ‘Hippo’ Nhlapo is a Jo’burg-based photographer and videographer. Earlier this year, he put out the first episode of a new documentary series called Alone which focuses in on mental illness, spotlighting the narrative through intimate shots and pertinent stream of consciousness – style monologues. He also finds a niche in compelling portraiture, which he chooses to present in striking black and white imagery. For people to find the strength and value in their own intimate stories is what Nhlakanipho says is needed most.
“Photography I feel transcends all boundaries, because it’s visual you know? Although there is a certain amount of visual literacy needed to understand the message behind photographs, it can be understood by anyone and everyone. This is why I think photography is a well suited medium, or rather a powerful medium.”
“The challenge is not finding these narratives, the challenge is seeing that we have strong stories that need to be told you know? The thing is, I think we are in many ways still the “dark continent” because we aren’t really telling our stories. I mean, we really don’t know how people live, where they come from, and I doubt we even care sometimes. I personally am very interested in people in general, I want to know all I can about them. It’s sort of an obsession, I want to know how they react to certain things. So I love having random conversations with people I don’t know or wouldn’t normally interact with and see what story I could get from that.”
“This is why I predominantly capture portraits that are in black and white and have heavy contrast between the shadows and the highlights with the eyes being the focal point of the pictures.”
“Black and white because, well I think this quote sums it up very well:
“When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!” – Ted Grant.”
“And heavy contrast, because a person isn’t clear cut. There is so much to a person, what you think you know about them usually turns out to be the total opposite. I just want people to give a fuck you know?”
“Lastly, I think our archive will show how crazy the time we are living in is or was, hey. It’s fun and full of madness, where the youth is just fucking shit up. How a simple hashtag started a whole uprising my dude. It’s just fucken crazy bruh. I want them to see how we had a voice.”