See­ing in Pic­tures

The Man With the Red Bag

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Though born and bred in Soweto, Andile first started fall­ing in love with the town­ship as a young soc­cer player. “We’d some­times walk up to 5 km to get to our next match, so I got to see how dif­fer­ent peo­ple lived and their struggles to make it through the day.”

Soon, he had the urge to cap­ture these scenes on film. With no cam­era of his own, he bor­rowed his cousin’s pointand-shoot. “I would barter choco­lates given to me by kids as pay­ment for soc­cer coach­ing in re­turn for the cam­era,” he re­calls. Later, he started shoot­ing on his phone, swiftly gain­ing a strong In­sta­gram fol­low­ing who ap­pre­ci­ated his doc­u­men­tary-style pho­tog­ra­phy.

Andile’s break­through mo­ment came af­ter be­ing se­lected as a fi­nal­ist in Stan­dard Bank’s Por­traits in Progress com­pe­ti­tion. The same im­age later won him a Fu­ji­film X10 cam­era – the one he’s cur­rently us­ing – in a con­test hosted by Fu­ji­film and In­sta­gram.

That cam­era has be­come his trade­mark. “Peo­ple in the town­ship know me as ‘the man with the red bag’,” he says. It’s a ref­er­ence to the bag that’s al­ways around his neck as he cy­cles through Soweto look­ing for a scene that speaks to him. Car­ry­ing his cam­era close to his heart is a phys­i­cal ex­pres­sion of the way he sees his work: He’s pre­pared to wait hours for a mo­ment that makes him want to take a closer look, be­cause each shot car­ries mean­ing.

Gen­er­ally, he prefers pho­tograph­ing peo­ple to places. “You can make a con­nec­tion with peo­ple and you a learn a lot from them. I like to shoot a can­did pic­ture, then take a posed shot – it’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween the front a per­son presents to the world and who they re­ally are.” In this way, Andile gets to tell peo­ple’s sto­ries, which is what his pho­tog­ra­phy is all about. “One of my friends once pointed out that my pho­tog­ra­phy has be­come about mak­ing the daily strug­gle look beau­ti­ful. But it’s not about tak­ing pic­tures that are beau­ti­ful. I want to take pic­tures that make an im­pact. In­stead of pre­sent­ing prob­lems, I want to find so­lu­tions. Things that I might con­sider to be small details are sig­nif­i­cant to oth­ers.”

This ap­proach has changed the way Andile passes through life. Al­though he has a full-time job, he ad­mits that his pho­tog­ra­phy re­fuses to re­main a hobby. In­stead, it’s shaped the way he lives and the way he looks at things, and in turn, his lifestyle in­flu­ences the shots he takes. The mu­sic he’s lis­ten­ing to has a spe­cial role to play in this re­gard. When he’s got jazz on the playlist, his pic­tures have a dis­tinctly old-school feel that make them very dif­fer­ent to his im­ages when he’s had hip-hop or Afropop on re­peat.

Andile’s aes­thetic lets his im­ages speak for them­selves. But he also wants to be a mouth­piece for the Soweto he loves. That’s why his cur­rent project in­volves him cy­cling 150 km around the town­ship’s 38

sub­urbs, cap­tur­ing 150 im­ages that tell its sto­ries. Make no mis­take: this is not sim­ply a case of hop­ping on the bike, point­ing the lens and then cu­rat­ing the re­sults. Andile is tak­ing thou­sands of shots in the hope that he will un­earth a se­ries that does jus­tice to the vi­brant street cul­ture in South Africa’s largest town­ship. It’s a project that’s par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant to him be­cause his ’hood is bet­ter known for its mean streets. “I’m try­ing to show peo­ple a side of Soweto they may not have seen. It’s not that I like poverty – I hate it. But I want to make my au­di­ences imag­ine some­thing dif­fer­ent. I want them to fall in love with Soweto’s shad­ows and see her beauty.”

As part of this project, he launched 31 Faces, a trib­ute to South Africa’s women in cel­e­bra­tion of Women’s Month in Au­gust. Andile views this ini­tia­tive as a chance to have 31 con­ver­sa­tions with sis­ters, moth­ers, wives and daugh­ters. And also 31 chances to dis­cover who he is as a man, through women’s eyes.

He en­joys men­tor­ing other young as­pi­rant pho­tog­ra­phers. As a self-taught pho­tog­ra­pher, he’s cer­tainly able to give an in­ter­est­ing per­spec­tive on their work.

At the same time, he’s work­ing to­wards host­ing his first ex­hi­bi­tion – some­thing which is tak­ing a lot longer than he would like but, as he says, pho­tog­ra­phy has taught him to have pa­tience. “It would be amaz­ing if I could en­ter a col­lab­o­ra­tion that would al­low me to tell my sto­ries. At the end of the day, I want to get peo­ple think­ing, to be a pos­i­tive role model. When I was a soc­cer player, peo­ple would say, ‘There’s that guy with a foot­ball schol­ar­ship.’ Now they say, ‘There’s that guy with the red bag.’ My pho­tog­ra­phy has be­come a way to el­e­vate life.”

Text: Lisa Witep­ski Im­ages © Andile Bhala

Andile Bhala with his fa­mous red bag.

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