By: Phumeza Langa
When one first meets Sthe, you could be led to assume that he is quiet, bit nerdy and happy to just sit and observe life without fully intending to engage in it. As time goes, you come to realise that he is a very knowledgeable, forever curious and wanting to learn and always looking for opportunities to collaborate and share ideas with others. Then you learn that he’s a photographer, something I wasn’t quite expecting to find out but all the more glad because for lack of a better word, I find his work to be thoughtful. And so, I had to make time and find out how and where it all began for him…
Who is Sthe Ngcobo? Background/upbringing and how did your career begin?
I am from Pietermaritzburg, born into a troubled family like most people born in the 80’s. My mother had three children, I had an older sister, who is late, myself and my younger brother. Half of my childhood was spent in Pietermaritzburg, with aunts from my paternal side of the family. Those years were not the easiest or most memorable years of my life. I have fewer recollections of happiness and joy as a child than I have as a young adult. The tension and bad blood between the two families had a negative effect on me and my upbringing. Being sidelined and mistreated became a norm…laying a foundation of the person I have grown to be.
In time I moved to Nelspruit, lived with my step-mother, her son and my father in a place called Matsulu. I matriculated and later moved back to Pietermaritzburg and furthered my studies in Human Resources at a FET college. My love for photography began as a hobby. It started with taking images of the sunset images, of insects and other odd objects. It grew to be a therapeutic exercise for me and helped me deal with difficult childhood memories.
I slowly ventured into events photography, from small weddings, traditional events, small parties and personalised shoots. All this was done as a hobby, a side job that brought in a bit of income to add onto my salary.
Over the years, I grew to depend on it and have been working at refining and package myself as a brand that can deliver beyond expectations, without losing the essence behind the initial reason for taking up photography.
What have been the greatest lessons learnt throughout your journey? Especially when you started in the industry?
In Pietermaritzburg, exposure was and still feels limited. Moving to Johannesburg was a difficult decision to make but a worthwhile move. I was looking to get more “exposure” and make some new connections as well as a more open market. Although what the reality was quite different:
- Coming from a simple background, I soon learnt that “you are on your own.”
- Being too kind may mean exposing yourself to exploitation and manipulation, which find you providing your services for free or less or no significant value.
- Trust is a limited concept. Not everyone is worth trusting with your ideas, concept or services in general.
- The biggest lesson has to be: “Believe in yourself and your dreams. Your value does not depreciate because others cannot see it or appreciate you. Become your biggest fan and source of motivation. Don’t ever forget who you are and what you stand for.
What have been the challenges in your career thus far and how have you overcome them?
I’ve found that pricing for a new target market has its challenges, especially when you’re getting started in a new place with a different cultural base and way of thinking. Adjusting to a new environment, with different personalities is also something one has to get used to. I found that the best way to overcome these for myself was to first experience what the big city had to offer and slowly learn more about the different characters who inadvertently had similar traits. Once I got the hang of that, I managed to keep to myself and not try force matters where I’d come out a loser or inconvenienced.
How did you identify your area of specialisation in terms of photography? Or are you still discovering it?
I see myself more of a street photographer. I identify with capturing emotions and moments as they happen and I’m currently enjoying learning how to manipulate light and direct my shoots. I enjoy creating or capturing work that will leave everyone more motivated to either change their current situations for the better or challenge them to change their environment or impact others in a positive way. Given that money is in editorial, I do want to one day contribute towards a spread or two and perhaps get my work on billboards. Remaining unique is what I have my eyes on and am continuously in pursuit of staying true to that.
Your project #Eye_Fuze_Images is a compilation of portraits that you started in order to start the conversations about the lives of men, the preconceived ideas that they have about manhood and the ideas that others have about them. How did you start to tackle such a project and what has it revealed thus far?
“Women empowerment is futile without us men changing our perception and how we value them.” #Eye_Fuze_Images is more than just the name of my registered company. It is what I believe in and my way of encouraging other young adults into engaging in more positive and stimulating conversations. The aim is to find workable solutions to issues that are faced by individuals, in a manner that will not blanket each individual’s challenges under a single “holistic” approach. Understanding our frustrations is a starting point towards finding solving to the challenges that we face. That is what I aim to do and hope to one day achieve. That is what #Eye_Fuze_Images is about.
What or who inspires you?
Being able to make a difference in someone’s life is what inspires me the most, whether is younger or older than myself, if I have gone through similar frustrations that I have faced, I am always willing to help. It is not everyone who can make the correct choices in their lives when they are faced with challenges.
Sometimes as people we make dreadful choices that have serious repercussions as well as compromising who we are as people. It is sad to see when people end up becoming a shadow of what they could have been. I am really inspired by ordinary heroes and heroines who, against harsh circumstances in life, rise to influence or impact on others positively.
Do you want to – and are there any plans for collaborations with other photographers?
Collaborations were one thing that I hoped for when I first arrived in Johannesburg and when those didn’t happen the way that I thought they would, I did become defeated a bit but I was able to take it upon myself not to allow that to get to me or distract me from what I wanted to achieve.
I would love to collaborate with like-minded photographers and other creatives who are passionate about changing perceptions the best way they can.
Is there a competitive nature amongst photographers? Is there camaraderie? Or does each one do their own thing but you keep tabs on each other?
Yes, I believe there is huge competition in this field. I have seen some instances where deceit and downplaying other people has seemingly been the norm. Contesting for the highest paying agent and getting the most recent event in town has somehow created an environment that isn’t conducive for collaborative work or helping each other advance/polish their skills.
I have somewhat stopped myself from keeping tabs on some photographers because of the untrusting nature they are operating under. It feels like everyone thinks the next person is out to prove a point or something. As for “camaraderie”, that somehow feels like a reality only to people in close circles or cliques. Breaking into those circles comes with sacrificing a few of your own personal values for the sake of belonging, something I am not willing to lose or give up.
Austin Malema started quite an intense public discussion about the rightful crediting of photographer’s work by media (and some well-known personalities) via #CreditThePhotographer – what are thoughts on this subject?
This is a very touchy point…I feel that a lot of photographers fall for the idea that exposure without compensation equates to confirmed bookings by clients they are promised to be exposed to. I believe in financially compensating anyone for work completed instead of just giving them a mention. I have not seen or heard of any white photographers working for a mention or credit.
Credit/exposure does not pay the bills. You cannot use that to buy a house or food and most importantly upgrade your equipment. I have a strong feeling that this industry is as complicated, harsh and deceitful as the entertainment industry. There is alot of information, details and knowledge that is not really openly shared with budding photographers.
I think that online courses on what goes into the whole photography business could help a lot of individuals like myself learn a little bit more about the trade and help us grow in our respective fields.
What is next for you and your work (your business)?
- Have the opportunity to exhibit some of my work.
- To see a few awareness campaigns up and running.
- Have a studio I can one day call my own.
- I would like to improve on any area that I need to, learn more about the technical side of the business and better understand the business that I am in, and ensure that I can continue to “bring the bacon home”.
- Travel the world, starting with my own country/provinces, exploring the cultural diversity and understanding how inhabitants in different areas, under different upbringings, deal with various challenges similar to what we are facing.
Do you have any words of wisdom or key learnings that you can share with other people considering pursuing an entrepreneurial life or even pursuing a side hustle / an opportunity that helps them fulfil a passion (that may fall outside of their 9 – 5 employment)?
The entrepreneurial life isn’t for everyone and we need to remember that we all have our strong points and weaknesses. Starting on this path just for the sake of doing it because everyone is doing it could be a huge and costly mistake. Giving up on your 9-5 for the sake of being counted amongst those doing it for themselves can be a trap that can ruin your life one day at a time.
Life without purpose or passion can be costly. It’s necessary to be aware of your calling, to use your natural talents to help you make something out of yourself. Follow your calling, learn what you will need to make it a success and live off it, is important. What I always keep in mind is that you are who you allow yourself to become and you are as strong as you allow yourself to become.
Which other photographers or visual artists do you follow / like their work?
- Victor Dlamini
- Mpumelelo Macu
- Andile Buka
- Bryan Peterson
- Zeno Peterson
“When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!” ― Ted Grant
To view Sthe’s work or get in touch, you can find him on the social media platforms below:
Facebook: Sthe Ngcobo