Themba Mbuyisa is one of South Africa’s most decorated young photographers – with a decade long career and a variety of accolades and residencies to his name. Though, Themba is the first to tell you that he’s still figuring it out. Figuring out one’s artistic point of view tends to impress upon us that we indeed should have it all understood; before the work even begins. Over the last ten years, Themba has walked between the worlds of highly stylised, editorial works and a personal affinity (or rather, calling) to use his lens for documentarian, archival purposes. This speaks to a commitment of deep learning and trust; that for Themba, he didn’t need to know why he was drawn to image-making. He simply had to create.
Themba’s accolades include being a Sasol New Signatures 2016 finalist, the ELLE Magazine Style Reporter 2016 award winner, recognised as by Mail and Guardian 200 young South Africans to watch list in 2016, a 3rd place National Award from the World Photography Organisation at the Sony Photography Awards in March 2015 – and participation in the Rural.Scapes – Arts Residency in São Paulo, Brazil, to name a few. Then, Themba made history as the first African photographer to reach the finals at the 32nd Villa Noailles Fashion and Photography festival in Hyeres, France, in 2017. All throughout this, Themba’s edification as a photographer was underway; with each moment building upon a point of view that led him to redefine the purpose of his work. More on this, later.
‘young men’ by Themba Mbuyisa.
Mpho Sebeng by Themba Mbuyisa.
Photographed by Themba Mbuyisa.
In 2012, Themba left a degree in BSc Mathematics, explaining that “I found photography through fashion. This was about a decade ago – I was surrounded by people who were into fashion, mostly students. I had just dropped out of Wits after a really difficult second year, so I started hanging out on the streets and connecting with interesting people. My friend, who was a fashion designer, and I went to an exhibition at a photographic school. I remember being so impressed by the energy there; in that moment, I knew I could fit in.” Without any direct professional photographers within his proximity, Themba knew that he had to figure out this pathway with neither guidance nor idols to look up to; though, he was inspired by his childhood memories, saying that “the only reference of photographers that I had were the guys that sat by the mall and used to photograph us as kids, and we’d pay them for the prints – or, those guys that walk around the township with their cameras and they’d come into family events and bring us small copies of the photos. I knew that there was something about photography that connected people and that told stories of people’s lives.”
I used the term ‘calling’ earlier and while we tend to refrain from allowing the merit or depth of someone’s work to be defined by the accolades they receive; it is remarkable that in just two years, the ripple effect of Themba’s work had spun outward – across the world. This is certainly a calling – a kind destiny, articulated by Themba’s curiosity to simply see this intriguing artform through. As Themba notes, “going from a BSc in Mathematics to pursuing photography was an act of bravery, I see that now. All I did was do the work; it sounds simple, but showing up and doing the work is what led to my work being seen by wider audiences here and around the world. I had to trust that this was a pathway to make a living and to be creatively fulfilled, at the same time. I took it a day at a time, a week at a time – and now, it’s been over ten years.”
For Themba, there was a dichotomy in his artistic development; a pull in two directions that seemed to exist in opposition, with Themba describing that “I had two views for a long time. I saw fashion editorials and campaigns as one thing and then portraiture and documentary story-telling as another thing. That has been my battle, I think. In the beginning stages of my career, I did a lot of self-portraiture which led to a lot of awards and residencies. Locally, this kind of documentarian theme wasn’t financially sustaining, so I balanced it with fashion and lifestyle photography, particularly through my relationship with Elle Magazine. In the beginning, I didn’t do a lot of personal work – rather, it was instant bodies of work that would be published. I think a lot of creatives start this way, and find themselves pursuing longer, developed personal works further down the line.”
One of Themba’s most recent bodies of work, Colours in Soweto, can be seen here and is a sartorial and architectural symphony – celebrating the iconic neighbourhood of Soweto and African dress sensibilities – by photographer Themba Mbuyisa and stylist Mpume Mdunge. Themna explains that “Colours in Soweto is a synthesis of this ‘battle’. Its fashion, but with the backdrop of Soweto – it focuses on the Black community in many different ways – the images are trendy and current, but it has the power to spark conversation around history and culture. I see now that the two views can merge to be powerful stories.” I ask Themba how, after ten years, when most people start to feel like ‘veterans’ in their industries; is he able to connect with what more he can do? Themba answers, saying that “I am always learning. Photography in the personal work space deals a lot with research and the ability to reflect on that research; and then, creating something from there. The minute you think that you’ve figured it out, you immediately put yourself in a space where you are going to miss out.” It is only through reflection that Themba has been able to get to this point in which more of his vision has started to reveal itself; “the work that I’ve been doing over the years has been threaded with one thread. I can see that I have been getting better and so now, I’ve taken some time off to step back and see the whole view of what I’ve been working on subconsciously as a larger body of work. I am asking, at the moment, that in these ten years – what have I been creating and asking? How can I go forward sharing this with my community?”
When asking Themba about his relationship to warmth and colour – two instinct features of his works – he shares a story that blows me away. On the privilege of being born African and pursuing photography in this life, Themba says “I went to a photography festival as a finalist and this moment happened that I will always, always reflect on. This was in 2017 and I went as one of ten finalists. I was the first African photographer to ever be selected. One of the judges was Tim Walker – he was looking at the portfolio I had brought, which was mostly my editorial, fashion work. Though, that wasn’t the work I had initially submitted. I was nervous when I was selected – and thought I had to bring some professional work, rather than the documentarian, personal style that I had submitted for the 32nd Villa Noailles Fashion and Photography Festival. Tim said to me, ‘you have the most beautiful light in Africa. You have the privilege of waking up to the light that falls on the continent, everyday. You should use that and focus on that’. I realised I had made a big mistake, I had brought in studio work – and not the work that I applied with, which used light to tell stories of young men. I understood then that yes, being African is a privilege and my work can reflect that.”
Written by: Holly Beaton