Andile Bhala is a documentary and street portrait photographer from Soweto who is perhaps best-known for his evocative portraits and depictions of the people of South Africa and the places they inhabit, from Soweto to Johannesburg city.
Charging much of Bhala’s work is a rich duality. It is the ability to see both the character and condition held in the frame, producing images that are as much about the immediate environment as they are about the people living in or passing through these environments.
Over the years, Bhala has been working on a series titled God Moves, a striking collection of images that manage to merge portraiture and landscape photography through shadow play and the natural procession of the characters that populate these images.
In Leihlo la Sechaba (Eye of The People), a new group exhibition at North West University (NWU) Gallery, Bhala shows a number of images from this series. We reached out to the artist to find out more about God Moves, his journey with photography and what guides his lens.
Hi Andile, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. First off, could you tell us a bit about your connection with photography? You’ve mentioned that it is something of “a beacon” in your life.
I played soccer my entire life. Documentary filmmaking was my first love, but due to resources I had to find a way of telling my stories and photography happened in my life after my USA soccer scholarship got cancelled. I have always seen things in a different way, and I found it easy to project my perspective of things through image-making of my family, friends and people from my hood. I started playing around with my cousin’s analogue camera, and later on I got myself a phone that allowed me to engage visual through mistakes, learning and advice. I fell in love with the art called photography. Through years of practice, I gained the ability to document, write and edit my photographs.
The minimalist landscape works you have on show in this exhibition are from God Moves, a series that you’ve been working on for a few years now. How did you first start working in this style and how has it developed?
My projects are a project within a project. The first phase is Sunday People which developed into Amanzi, which developed into God Moves. I was shooting the project Amanzi one afternoon and I kept hearing voices: ‘amagents wait for me I am about to catch this fish… mina ngiyakushiya omama uzongithethisa.’
The dying light was so amazing, when I looked up I saw kids running on top of the wall that divides the dam, I started observing this poetic movement.
Next day I went to the same spot, waited for hours, but no one came through. A few weeks later I saw them again through my window. I took my gear and set up in the sun waiting for them. They started walking on the wall heading to the main dam, because I was shooting to the sun, hidden details of the strong contrast between light and dark created the amazing silhouettes, lines and shapes and it started shifting my perspective on how I should play around the idea of identity, subculture, gender, territorial, urban art, aesthetic and belief of African spirituality.
In your other series, you’ve focused on spirituality, contemporary masculinity, water and everyday street portraits. What is at the heart of God Moves, thematically?
The visual landscapes that show that the urban space is controlled by private sector and religious interest that are deeply connected to water. The project explores how the wall contributes to the experience of the urban environment and how the history of the dam and worshipers are connected. The images explore freedom in one line, a space where humans can move and exist freely.
Similarly, the characters in these images are silhouettes – they are simultaneously anonymous and recognisable. What would you say is the animating factor behind these works? What’s bringing these characters to life?
To tell a story frame by frame has always been something I have been interested in. Opening ourselves to people’s stories has helped me to treat people as people, not subjects, and to connect to each bantu I photograph. The idea was to let the camera narrate the story through reality and the everyday movement of people.
When you engage the wall, you will realise that some people are walking towards the mountain to pray, some walking towards a small dam (amanzi) for baptism, and there are kids walking and running in excitement to go swim – freedom in one line. Their energy brings them to life.
So much of your photographic work is about the people of South Africa. What keeps drawing you back to this?
I’m related to the pavement. I’m walking these streets and cycling these streets. Black stories are more of the same: the good food ekhaya, the struggle, the love, the families, the unsung heros, my sisters and brothers who are homeless, educated and unemployed. My subject matter is inspired and influenced by my everyday life.
There are so many layers on what we are trying to do so photography helps me to try to understand South Africa and understand myself.
I’m lucky to still lift the camera, the sad thing is that we have gifted people in South Africa who have decided to be silent.
Lastly, any advice for aspirant photographers working on the continent?
THIXO LUTHANDO! Inspiration comes from life, research and an enquiring mind. Read, listen to those that came before you, keep photographing because the story deserves to be told. Don’t be far from people you are photographing, speak to them and while at it never forget to take the works back to the people you have photographed and their communities. If you’re honest, your work will resonate anywhere in the world without you being there to explain it.