Tshepiso took the road less travelled and discovered that the possibilities are endless.
Tshepiso Mabula is a freelance photographer for Buzzfeed News in the US, based in Johannesburg. She is an alumnus of the Umuzi Academy, a local learnership programme that partners with Investec in order to develop the next generation of creative talent. She tells us about the courage it took after her upbringing in a small Limpopo village to pursue her passion for photography as a career.
What sparked your drive to become a photographer?
I stumbled upon photography in 2012, when I was still trying to figure out what the next phase of my life was going to entail. I went to visit an uncle of mine, and he showed me a body of work by a photographer he loved. Then I started looking into the work of different photographers, such as Cedric Nunn and Jodi Bieber, and I loved the way they used images to tell different layers of a story. That’s when it all started for me.
You’re an Umuzi graduate. How has the initiative helped you get where you are today?
My time at Umuzi helped me understand how the creative industry works, and what it takes to survive within it. More importantly, it helped me find my voice and find the confidence to be able to unapologetically tell the stories that I want to tell, and to be specific about what kind of work I’m trying to create.
You were a New York Times Portfolio Review participant in 2018. Tell us more about that?
I took a chance when I applied to be part of the New York Times Portfolio Review. I was selected, and with the help of Umuzi, and my own fundraising for it (I printed images that I made over the years and sold them via social media, as well as creating a GoGetFunding crowdfunding campaign), I was able to go to New York. I got the opportunity to share my stories and voice with editors and other people outside of South African media spaces, which is basically where my work has been seen the most. That’s also how I got in touch with the Editor from BuzzFeed News.
You grew up in Limpopo. How did your upbringing make you who you are today?
Those humble beginnings play a big part in the kind of work that I create now. In the village where I come from, I’m literally one of the only people to pursue anything that’s creative. And I constantly have to keep explaining what it is that I do for a living, because it’s a weird thing for people: you take pictures; that’s your job.
But in the same instance, the fact that I’ve taken such a different path is almost inspiring for some people, because the possibilities are endless when you see that you can literally do whatever you want with your life, and make a success of it - if you really want to.
“The fact that I’ve taken such a different path is almost inspiring for some people, because the possibilities are endless when you see that you can literally do whatever you want with your life.”
How has your background influenced your work?
Because of my experiences and getting to this point in my life, my stories revolve around black working-class people. What I’m trying to do every day is take people who are often on the periphery of society and put their stories at the forefront.
What gave you the courage to actually pursue something you love doing?
I got to a point in my life where I thought I could either settle for making a living doing a mundane job, or I could go out on a limb and seek to be happy. And I discovered that photography makes me happy. It’s the kind of thing where, even if I’m not getting paid for it, I enjoy the challenges that come with it. That alone made it worthwhile for me to pursue.
What advice would you give ambitious young women wanting to go to university?
Keep betting on yourself, and do that with the understanding that it’s going to be difficult. It’s hard to stand up and say: actually, I’m valuable enough to dream of even going to university, even though it seems impossible. When you take the decision to bet on yourself, everything else is bearable, because you know that in the end, all the hard work and tears are going to culminate in success.
How do you keep inspired and stay on top of your game?
I think it’s about simple, everyday things… like looking at what other black creative women are getting up to and staying up to date with the happenings in the world. For example, I recently joined Women Photograph, a platform for female photojournalists that also provides support for women who pursue documentary photography projects.
And then in my community, I’m part of a young women’s group called the St. Mary Magdalene Guild – it’s a sisterhood of young black women who meet to share their struggles and help each other through the challenges of everyday life. It’s also about understanding that at no point in my life can I rest on my laurels – I always need to keep pushing and upskilling, because that’s the only way to survive.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger high school self, what would it be?
I would definitely say keep calm and try to enjoy every day. I rushed through most of my high school life, because I was in such a hurry to be an adult and stand by myself, without understanding that, actually, I was rushing through the best years of my life.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
I dream of having a space for young black people in my neighbourhood where they can come in and nurture their ideas: whether it’s a small business or an artistic project. I’d like to do this in the same way that people have stood up for me and helped me out; the same way that Umuzi has given me a platform to become the person that I am.