Seeing in Pictures
The Man With the Red Bag
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.”
Andile Bhala with his famous red bag.