Figures and Fictions: Sabelo Mlangeni

In this film young photographer Sabelo Mlangeni leads a tour of the mean streets of central Johannesburg and one of the spartan mens' hostels in which his Men Only photograph series were shot

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Video Transcript

It’s a story of most young South Africans. We all move from the countryside to the city to better our lives and to find jobs. The idea was not to… I didn’t come to Johannesburg to work as a photographer but the idea really was to find a job for myself.

This is where I used to stay here. After moving from Hillbrow, I stayed in this building with friends, Sipho and (indistinct). I studied photography when I was still at home then while I was working.  Searching for a job I saw, ‘Market Photo Workshop’, on a board and I went inside. I went back there and while I was sitting outside the intermediate class was starting they were like, ‘Why are you sitting outside’, and I said, ‘But I don’t have money’, and they said, ‘Sit down here, we’re coming now’, and then they called me to a class and from then they gave me a bursary.  I explained myself and my situation and they gave me a bursary until my advance.

….The One outside (is saying). ‘Women are not allowed inside. How did they get in?’ (calls answer to man).

It used to be for immigrants coming into the city but now it’s a home of taxi drivers, security guards, people who are working in the factories and people who have moved to the city to find jobs.

So I started right at the end of 2006 to visit the hostel. That wasn’t really to make any photographs, I was just going there to visit and drink beer and come back home and sleep over. And slowly I started to come with a digital camera because I wanted to see how they react. And I saw the reaction: ‘Which newspaper are you from? No, We don’t want to be photographed’ and things. And then I came with the ‘point and shoot’. But after I came with the Yashica 6’ by 6’, people started introducing themselves to me.

Photographs are powerful. Sometimes, it’s very important to understand the people. I don’t like the idea of just coming and clicking and going. If you want to get that sense of intimacy, that richness, you need to spend time and understand the people… understand what they like… what they don’t like before even taking a camera and shooting.

There are so many interesting things in a hostel besides everything. You find guys wearing skirts not because they are gay. I find it very interesting because nowadays we are very frightened to hold hands and walk in the streets because of the stigma of being called a homosexual. I found the men were more open about that. They didn’t care. No one would say anything because he’s wearing a skirt. Those kind of things which, as men we are losing now. Some other men don’t even want to be hugged. They’re going, ‘No, no, no., don’t give me a hug.’ I felt like they were very free.

I started working on Country Girls in 2003. I discovered this group of gay guys living in a small town in South Africa and I felt like they were very united. As much as there was hate, they were together and fighting for who they are. When I was there I discovered that they don’t want to be called ‘man’. If you call them a man, it’s like a big insult. They want to be called ‘women’, sorry ‘girls’ so I felt that Country Girls would fit very well for the project.

Sipho has got a very interesting story because his father beats him up very strong because of his sexuality but what I like about him is the minute his father stops beating him up, he takes his high heels, puts them on and walks in the streets so, ‘Even if he beats me up,’ he says, ‘he can’t change who I am’.

My work is not about poverty really because I try all the time, even if it’s the space but I try to get people in their happy mood, in their daily life but in a very good presentation. I try to find beauty in a place where there’s no beauty, when you look at it and think there’s no beauty there. But all the time I try to find that thing that makes their life move on.

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As young adults, many South Africans leave their homes in the countryside and head for Johannesbury in search of work. In this short film shot in the inner-city district of Jeppestown, photographer Sabelo Mlangeni explains how he got his start as a photography student (thanks to a bursary from the Market Photo Workshop) and  goes back to the rough and ready block where he spent his early days in the big city.

"It's the story of most young South Africans. We all go to the city to better ourselves and to find a job"

–Sabelo Mlangeni 

Working exclusively in black and white and often choosing portraits of the poor and the marginalised as his subject matter, Mlangeni is coming to be seen as one of the heirs to the documentary photographic tradition of David Goldblatt and Santu Mofokeng. His work is raw and direct but he insists less about poverty than the search for beauty amidst deprivation and hardship