Pieter Hugo in conversation with Sipho Gongxeka
Renowned South African photographer, Pieter Hugo, was appointed as Sipho’s mentor. For a period of a year Pieter worked with Sipho affording him the support and guidance of a mentor to develop the body of work “Skeem’ Saka”.
PH: Tell me about this project. How did it begin and how did it develop?
SG: It’s been a long and interesting journey for me. I’m a young photographer, a young artist. In the last year I’ve really learnt a lot. The project started as an idea of photographing my friends and I wearing clothes that reflect our own styles. I, initially, endeavored to photograph my friends in cinematic style; but later my approach developed into something that became much more concerned with masculinity – and what it means to be a man in a South African township.
PH: When I first saw your work there were visually overt references to South African gangster movies and TV shows such as Mapantsula and Yizo Yizo; during the development of this series you seem to have toned this down and incorporated these references in a more subtle way. Tell me about this.
SG: Yes, this is true. As I looked harder at the work I realised that the issues that I’m dealing with didn’t require me to stage the pictures. I needed to strip the concept down. I was photographing my friends and looking at the issues they face. It didn’t seem necessary to introduce props and external wardrobe. It needed to come from the subjects themselves. It needed to be their choice how they wanted to look. I needed to believe the authenticity of the pictures. The pictures worked better when my subjects were honest rather than staged. This is why I felt I needed to abandon the cinema ‘thing’.
PH: I think it is very commendable that you are willing to start on a path, evaluate it throughout the process and change your approach. Many practitioners wouldn’t have the guts to do so! Do you think you will come back to this staged imagery in the future?
SG: Definitely. I’m still very much interested in the relationship between popular culture and how it shapes
youth identity particularly in the community where I come from.
PH: Your pictures are very direct and there is a confrontational element in them. Do you feel that this unreserved way of looking at your friends – many of whom aspire to gangster culture – could be read as glorifying a lifestyle which demeans women and reiterates negative stereotypes of township culture?
SG: Of course this question will come up! This is a very literal approach. This is what society has produced. I’m from Soweto. Growing up in a township is hard. Like most kids in townships, I grew up without a father at home. It’s hard not having male guidance. It’s hard to be a boy. It’s hard to be a man. You never know when it’s the right time to be good. You never know when it’s the right time to be bad. The gap is filled with what popular media has given us, which is gangster type male role models. These are men who sleep around, tsotsi men who don’t care about their families and their kids, men who dress well and men who are abusive. The media glorifies these men; and we the viewers start emulating certain characters in the movies we see. This is what I grew up with. My father never taught me how to play football or how to ride a bike. The pictures are a starting point for discussion. I’m happy for people to reflect, respond and discuss, in different ways, these images.
PH: Mmmmm… I’m not sure I agree completely with you about the media’s responsibility in this. There is also a historical element responsible for this phenomenon. For instance, migrant labor also contributed to fatherless households.
SG: Yes, there is a historical element to it – men having to travel to mines to work. But we all make decisions. A lot of these men decided to not be active fathers and not take responsibility for their kids. They made choices.
PH: How important is fashion and style to you? What does personal style mean to you?
SG: I started photography because I wanted to document subcultures. The stuff about my community’s certain groups’ behavior. Stuff about pantsulas, rappers and skaters. Subcultures are interesting in this way. They bring us together but they also separate us. Being part of a group means you exclude other people from it. On a very personal level, fashion is a global language, which we use to express ourselves. I associate with people because of the way they dress. They relate to me through my expression of style. Everyone can read fashion.
PH: Do you feel that these portraits you have made reflect your personal subcultural ‘tribe’?
SG: Definitely. They are very very personal. They’re very tsotsi, very gangster, very kasi! It is my family in these pictures. When I grew up I was always looking for a gang – some sort of a ‘family’. To be accepted by this ‘family’ you need to dress the part, dress in a certain way and speak a certain way. This defines you. It gives you a sense of safety and a sense of belonging.
PH: I guess there are two types of family. The one you are born with and the one you make through life. What have you learnt from this process of working with a mentor?
SG: Hard work! Keep your camera straight. Haha! No seriously, hard work pays off. Be professional. That’s what I’m going to take from the Tierney Fellowship!