Africa is synonymous with misfortune, famine and poverty – at least that is largely what the international media would have the world think. But, within that pain, there is much more than the spirit of the have-nots. Phumlani S Langa sits down with a collective of photographers who are aiming their lenses and their work towards dispelling general misconceptions about the continent.
Last Friday, I had the pleasure of being part of a visual presentation by this exciting collective, I See A Different You. Their work is inspired by the beauty of Africa and her people.
I meet with Deji Dada and Ongama Zazayokwe at their offices next to Constitution Hill in the Transwerke Building. Hillbrow is just around the corner and the avenue is humming with activity. I walk up the stairs of the old building to Studio 14.
I’m greeted in the hall by Dada, a bearded man with a snazzy dress sense. The idea to create proudly African photography first came to the pair in 2011.
Zazayokwe, rocking short braids, explains their emergence: “We were still in advertising then and, of course, the research we did influenced us.”
The brothers were working on an advertising campaign around Soweto and noticed that when they searched for the hood on Google, only poverty porn and crime statistics popped up. This didn’t sit well with them as they are both from there.
“It isn’t the Soweto we know. Then one of our colleagues, Innocent, went to Kenya and sent us an image of a guy sitting on a bike. We couldn’t believe how cool this guy was and that’s because that negative energy was also starting to affect our views of home,” says Zazayokwe.
They decided to venture out in the hopes of uncovering and shooting a different perspective of Africa. Most of their shots are panoramic views and they opted for this stylistic choice to accentuate the background – Africa – with the subjects playing a secondary role.
“We are not the heroes, the environment is,” Zazayokwe says.
The collective has now morphed into a reputable publishing house and advertising agency that has done work with some of the biggest brands in the country.
In fact, at the time of this interview, they were plotting a new campaign for sneaker brand New Balance.
Their first trip was to Senegal, which sparked the idea to rope in other photographers to be a part of the team.
“Sometimes we are outsourced as directors to provide the vision for a campaign,” the reserved and also well-dressed Zazayokwe says.
Dada adds: “We have also jumped into the digital space as well as social media, much like a creative agency. So not only do we do the production aspect of it – shooting and prepping the kind of content that should go out – but we also manage social media and are even on the PR tip, where we deal with influencers and organise activations.”
Diamonds in the rough
South Africans are starting to realise that our own flavour is what the world wants. Take for example the success of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and, more recently, Sho Madjozi. They are selling Afrocentric notions of bold pride and patriotism – ideals that should be encouraged across all art forms.
This group is definitely among these artists, but how do they feel about that?
Dada says: “It’s beautiful for me. I was born in the US then moved here. This has always been something I’ve tried to focus on – unravelling the diamonds in the rough. Both of my parents are from here, well, Nigeria and Zambia. What’s great now is that we have the eyes to showcase for or the ears to hear the work.”
The brass tacks of the mission is creating a positive from a negative. Although these guys are up and running and have a fully functional company, the bottom line and all that other corporate jibber jabber doesn’t come up in our chat. It almost plays a secondary role to the artistic mission at hand.
This also presents some challenges.
“The scale of things is tough. Even though it might seem like each project is similar, there are things and hiccups that come about. It’s always a learning curve,” Dada says.
Zazayokwe chimes in: “Being a company that has only been up and running for five years, you’re always out to prove yourself on the next project.
“People trust, but not enough to give you those big budgets. It’s a difficulty as a small company, but it is a good challenge,” he says.
The pair presented an iPhoneography course at the Casa Carona event last week at the picturesque Nirox Sculpture Park in Sterkfontein.
They offered a few pointers to help increase your skills with your camera. But, aside from the mechanics involved in taking a good image, they placed a large emphasis on the story.
Zazayokwe says: “Nobody can tell your story better than yourself. It’s very important that people always represent their own story when they take an image. And make sure it’s positive.”
Dada adds: “You can’t start telling your story if you haven’t started writing it or if you haven’t picked up the camera. It’s about making it a habit and getting yourself to practise how you might go about building a narrative.”
They hinted at a collection of work that will have any gallery full to the brim with people ready to see it. Without giving away too much, it sounds like a collaboration involving African royalty and the department of arts and culture is in the works.
After a chat that I felt could go on all afternoon, I’m involved in an office ritual where every visitor to the studio must take an office mirror selfie. Everyone in the room stands on an iron table in front of a tall mirror to capture the moment.
. Take a look at some of the work and let us know if it invokes any feelings of a different you. Be sure to follow the collective on all social media platforms