Interview with South African photographer Neo Ntsoma from Majority World

Recently interviewed for Vision Magazine, Neo Ntsoma speaks about how her career began, what challenges she needed to overcome to make it to where she is today, and what we can look forward to in the future thanks to the "Generation of Change"; the youth that are making a difference in South Africa post apartheid.

Although snippets appear in the magazine article, we thought you would enjoy the full interview here!

1. Can you tell me how you became a photographer and why photography was something important to you?
 



South Africa was still in the throes of apartheid when I became one of first black women to make it to photo school. Although it wasn’t a profession I had intended to pursue, but I am happy I did because it turned out to be more of a calling than I could ever have imagined. My initial interest was in film and television, but because of race restrictions at the time, I could not fulfil my wish.

When I first got introduced to photography, my interest was more in portraiture and fashion hence my training in commercial photography. My decision was influenced by the lack of dignity in the images I’d see of black people in mainstream media and often photographed from a white man’s point of view. The images were very patronising and distasteful. That experience motivated me to use my camera to reclaim the dignity and pride of my people, to prove to the world that we are not as inferior as colonial history and apartheid had dictated.

My ultimate wish was to be the first woman of color to have a picture on a billboard…that was my dream. I suppose that explains the fashion influence in my portraiture and documentary work.


2. What role do you feel your photographs play in the world? What do you feel your own experience brings to your photographs, both in terms of subject matter and aesthetics?

 

 



I capture images that will serve as a historic record - a legacy that I would like to leave for next generations of African photographers, particularly women. I am very hopeful that the images that I create will someday be a part of a collective of images by African photographers that could perhaps change the biased view of the black/African image that the Western schools curriculum has for many years forced upon their learners and manipulated the minds of those who consume and believe in it.



Even in the 21st century, my continent is still viewed by Westerners as a “Hopeless Continent”. Poverty, famine, darkness, corruption and tribal wars are still the only thoughts one would have when gazing at images associated with Africa in most Western media.

Photography played a major role in shaping our democracy and it still continues to inspire and nurture the current transformation. But the pictures that the world will always remember are still those from the apartheid years - photographs of brutality and cruelty that did so much - both in South Africa and in the rest of the world - to bring about freedom. This is an important era in my country and it should also be celebrated in pictures. My exhibition series entitled Generation of Change gives an insight into how a generation once bruised by the political situations of the past has refused to be condemned and shackled by it. An illustration of how a nation can heal from its past and become smarter and more sophisticated.



3. What has your experience been as a female photographer in South Africa – have their been particular obstacles to overcome as a woman in a male dominated world?

 

 



It was not easy to study at an institution known to be “an all-white Afrikaans institution”. I found myself being the only black person in my class. A bigger challenge, however, came in the form of a letter from one of my lecturers, suggesting that I didn’t have what it took to become a photographer and that photography was not an “appropriate discipline for black girls”. I was dismissed from the course based on those reasons.

Without any experience in the field of photojournalism only an inquisitive mind I got my first break at The Star newspaper, one of the biggest newspapers in the country. I became the first black woman photographer to work in the same photo department that launched the careers of the famed Bang-Bang Club. This ‘club’ comprised Greg Marinovich, Kevin Carter, Ken Oosterbroek and João Silva, who documented political life in South Africa primarily from 1990 to 1994, produced some of our nation’s most uncompromising and gritty images that won them Pulitzer Prizes as well as World Press awards. They set the bar high for all subsequent photographers who joined the paper. This was to be the beginning of my relationship with the paper that launched my career in mainstream media.

I never felt any form of discrimination from my colleagues whom were mainly white and male. We were a very close-knit group. We did a lot of things together in and out of office, helped each other out with things like editing our portfolios etc. However, I often found myself under pressure to prove my worth and to gain the same recognition. I worked with industry ‘superstars’ who were winning awards year after year and I let that motivate me to aim for the same level of excellence.

I never felt any form of discrimination from my colleagues whom were mainly white and male. We were a very close-knit group. We did a lot of things together in and out of office, helped each other out with things like editing our portfolios etc. However, I often found myself under pressure to prove my worth and to gain the same recognition. I worked with industry ‘superstars’ who were winning awards year after year and I let that motivate me to aim for the same level of excellence.


4. When did you become involved with Majority World and how significant has it been in your work as a photographer?

 



Between 2002 and 2003 I was a tutor at Pathshala South Institute of Photography in Bangladesh under the leadership of Shahidul Alam. He had a vision and a plan to launch a photo agency that will promote works of photographers from the majority world countries, including Africa. I became one of the first photographers to join and I’ve never looked back ever since. Still the best decision I've made in my career to date.

Not only has Majority World exposed my work all over the world through exhibitions and publications it also gave it a voice and a completely new meaning. Twelve years later, I can proudly say that people know of my work in countries that I cannot even read the language.

There is so much untapped talent coming out from these regions. It is just unfortunate that a lot of it might never get to be shown anywhere. We need more agencies such as this one to promote and nurture these talents. A lot of photographers residing within these regions still battle to find paid assignments mainly due to the influx of foreign photographers assigned by international photo agencies who come to document our lives and take our stories to the world like we lack the skill to do so ourselves. If only these organisations (without mentioning names) could consider the services of local photographers more often. For as long as we still allow this to continue, we will forever feel that Africa is misrepresented and mis-imaged in the western media.


5. Is there any particular photograph, or series of photographs, that you are especially proud of and if so can you say a little about why? 
 




That’s a really hard question. Each photo I show I am really proud of, and I’m proud of each photo for different reasons. Every photo included in my portrait series has a story. However, I think my most recent favourite would be that of South African Afro Pop singer Nhlanhla Nciza of the group Mafikizolo. Not only has this image endorsed Nhlanhla as the first entertainer to grace the cover of Forbes Woman Africa (Aug/Sep 2014 Edition) and deservingly so.

I first photographed Nhlanhla in 1999 as a young lad starting out in the music industry and I was also relatively new in my field. This was at the time when the country was going through political and economic transformation under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. It was a new era for South African black youth as we were all trying to make a name for ourselves to live up to the expectations of democracy and freedom.

Just like Nhlanhla, the people featured in my series come from previously disadvantaged backgrounds; but today these South African stars walk the red carpets with camera bulbs popping, accept record company platinum plaques, and feature in TV ads, glossy music videos, TV dramas and international blockbuster movies.

I not only witnessed their raise to stardom. I have been there all along when ‘some’ emerged as a struggling artists to becoming celebrities. Their story is my story, together we share a common historical journey. I am a part of the movement that I am documenting. Every decade things change. Soon, the present will become the past. I am proud to be here in this life to record these changes as they unfold. It was only a matter of time before this cover happened and it gives me great pleasure that I had to be the one to make such history.

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