The photographs make you look twice. First because they are pretty, stylized shots, speaking the language of fashion photography, and then again because of their setting.
Pimville, Kliptown and Orlando in Soweto, Alexandra are not usually names that conjure the hipster lifestyle, freedom, beauty, or high fashion. It’s crazy that they don’t – because a place can be many things. But for outsiders – local and foreign tourists alike – these are places of struggle, yesterday’s and today’s. Contested sites, the home of angry youth, history’s heroes, today’s service delivery protests. They are place names packed so full of significance, the names alone threaten to overwhelm you.
But for twin brothers Justice and Innocent Mukheli, and Vuyo Mpantsha they are the backdrop for recapturing the best moments of their childhoods, and also the main event, the star of their photography show.
“I see a different you” is their photo blog, started in December last year as homage to a place, to family, and to style. It showcases a series of images shot in locations around Johannesburg – including Yeoville, Melville and Braamfontein – in which, one or more of the trio is artfully posed.
I meet the three 20-somethings in Rosebank on a Friday after work. They all have day jobs in advertising, as creatives at Ogilvy and Draft FCB. The blog is something they do after hours, early mornings and on weekends. “Because we are artists the work we do at work is not enough. We need something to clear our heads,” says Justice. “With no CI, no brief and no guidelines,” the others add.
“Afterwards we feel like we have achieved something amazing.”
So to call it a hobby would be to minimise its significance.
The trio radiate energy. They belong to a generation of young people who have grown up believing in themselves, and believing too that they can be many things. In fact, with a bit of determination they can be anything.
My first question is: Are the photos “advertising or documentary?” They answer – “definitely documentary”. And it is “they” – the three seem to think as one – they finish each other’s thoughts and sentences as the conversation moves along. Not stealing ideas but with respectful intro’s “Vuyo tells the story better,” or “Let Innocent tell you”.
“We wanted to document our childhood,” says Justice “to show our family album to the world”.
“The blog is about recreating moments we loved in our childhood.” And by all accounts it was a happy one. The three met at church in Pimville – in primary school – their parents were friends. We are “practically family”.
They didn’t get off to a great start – “When we introduced ourselves I said ‘Hi, I am innocent’ and Vuyo said “I am innocent as well’. We thought ‘He thinks he is funny’. Then we met again at the basketball courts – and said ‘There’s that weird dude”.
But the “weird dude” and the twins had a lot in common. They sang in the church choir, skateboarded, and shared a style sensibility. The friendship was cemented.
Back to the blog – they also shared a common inspiration. Old pictures of family showing fathers and grandfathers dressed up formally in suits, and buffed brogues. “We are literally trying to walk in our fathers’ shoes”. The scenes in the photos are also recreations of places that shaped their childhood, a first kiss, learning to ride a bike.
The locations came next – “When you are young, everything is about fun,” says Innocent. “You don’t judge a place about how broken down it is,” adds Justice.
“If I see a nice street I just want to skate it, if I see a nice patch of grass I want to do somersaults on it,” says Innocent.
“When we started we were also inspired by the idea of changing the general perception of these places – which we know is not a true reflection. We are able to see them differently. And when we look at two sides of the story we choose to look at the positive – and try find beauty in that place.”
“We have a relationship with Soweto, a long-term one,” says Justice. They all smile, and one of the trio adds: “She’s our babe”. We talk about Pimville, where they grew up. I ask what it’s famous for and they tell me: “It’s close to Kliptown and it’s the home of Maponya Mall.” They are super-stylish but admit to not being brand-loyal. “It helps financially”, and they shop downtown where all the bargains are to be had.
Pimville also has its own golf course, they tell me, and is known for its beautiful girls”. I ask if they play golf – They say they’ve tried it but liked the greens because the grass is perfect for doing backflips.
They admit to a bit of Attention Deficit Disorder – although in their cases it sounds like they are just good at too many things – self-taught artists, illustrators, musicians, and photographers. As teenagers they made extra money by fixing computers for the neighbourhood. They also wanted to be athletes. Their path to advertising was through a mentor, Neo Mashiga,executive creative director at Draft FCB.
They say what’s special about the photos is that “every shot has pride in it”. That’s what drew me to their work. They say people connect with the photographs because they identify with “that’s where I am from”.
We talk about a sense of belonging and having a city identity. National identities are tricky, too inclusive, sometimes frightening – xenophobia being their most extreme expression. But somehow cities can contain everyone and more and more you hear people identify themselves by the city they are from rather than the country. I am a New Yorker, from Johannesburg, a Capetonian.
“I see a different you” is about sharing the family album – made possible by a digital generation who has the means to create and distribute content, stories, and ideas without borders. It started with a Skype chat from Kenya when Innocent travelled there for an ad campaign he was working on. “He sent us a photo of a guy on a Honda motorbike at a carwash. Everywhere there were happy people smiling. We saw such cool in it.” They admit to having been quite shocked by it – “it’s not what we expected to find in Kenya”.
Innocent’s “I saw it and thought let me take a photo and send it – I didn’t want to experience it alone” is the anthem of their generation.
“Our ultimate goal is to make people see places differently – because the world is missing out on amazing things”.
* To see more of their work go to: http://iseeadifferentyou.tumblr.com/ This piece was first published in the Mail&Guardian. Thanks to @MzansiGirl and @kileleblog for sharing their discovery