Neo Ntsoma: Picturing People with Dignity

© Neo Ntsoma ‘Gugu Ndima, author and Speaker for the Gauteng Legislature’ [detail] 2013 from the series ‘Right to Respect’

I draw my inspiration directly from my life experiences growing up female in South Africa.


South Africa has undergone remarkable change in the past quarter century. In that time it has passed from a colonised, racially divisive state into a ‘Rainbow Nation’ of increasing cultural diversity. Between 1948 and 1994 a system of apartheid legally enforced the segregation of black and white communities, severely limiting the social and civil rights of black and ethnic citizens. In 1990, after spending twenty-seven years in prison, Nelson Mandela was released and, in 1994, became the country’s first black president. Today, South Africa is the second largest economy in the continent. Its diversity is reflected in the fact that there are no less than eleven official languages (more than in any other country in the world). Even so, disparities in wealth and privilege mean that poverty and inequality remain a significant challenge.

It is against this background that the photographer Neo Ntsoma grew up, and now lives and works. In a country where black women photographers are still a rarity, she turns her camera to many significant subjects, from the plight of poor immigrants to the assertive styles of a new generation of African musicians, actors and designers. Always, she aims to capture the spirit of her subjects and to share her feelings and concerns about them.

In 2006, she co-edited a photographic book entitled ‘Women by Women’, published in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 Women’s March, when twenty thousand women of all races marched to protest against the so-called ‘pass laws’. These laws required black people to carry a registration document that severely restricted their movement and freedom in their own country. The march was the largest public demonstration in South African history and is marked each year with the annual Women’s Day public holiday.

A contemporary cultural leader, Neo Ntsoma was named one of the ‘100 Most Influential Women’ by Africa’s largest media group, Media24, and in both 2004 and 2006 Cosmopolitan magazine included her in their top thirty “awesome women”.

Alasdair Foster

© Neo Ntsoma ‘Paul Mnisi – radio DJ’ 2000 from the series ‘Generations of Change’


Alasdair: Do you think that being a woman brings any particular sensibility to your work as a photographer?

Neo: Photojournalism is highly competitive. I realised very early in my career that men tend to view their work with passion, women with detachment. For a long time I chose assignments that didn’t necessarily interest me, just to prove I could do the stuff that guys did. But in the process I was slowly losing my ‘female voice’. So, once I had achieved a certain level of success, I felt able to change my approach and begin to feel more comfortable just being myself.

What led you to become a photographer?

I was concerned by the lack of dignity in the way black people were represented in the mainstream media. Back then, photographs were made from a white man’s point of view and they reflected the social and political inequality of the apartheid system. The images were very patronising and distasteful. It was at a time when being black and having a camera in your hand meant a fine, jail or worse. It made me want to use that same medium – photography – to reclaim the dignity and pride of my people; to prove to the world that we are not inferior the way colonial history and apartheid had asserted.

How easy is it for women to become photographers in South Africa?

This must also be a question of race. There are more white women photographers in the industry. It’s sad, but in South Africa black women only began to enter this profession in the 1990s. The release of Nelson Mandela opened up opportunities for us, and I am glad I am one of the first to make a career out of it.

The lack of black women photographers is mainly a hangover from the apartheid years. It was not safe for photographers to take images that carried any political message – and this danger applied particularly to women. Photographers were regularly locked up, while others went into exile. As a result, my generation of women was left without role models.

Even now, twenty years later, a black woman with a camera is still a rare sight in my country, if not in most parts of the African continent. Photography is still a relatively new profession for us. We few are writing a brand new history. It is our responsibility to build a photographic legacy for future generations.

Tell me about your series ‘Generation of Change’.

During the last decades of apartheid oppression, young black people had very few opportunities to enter the mainstream music industry. A youth culture emerged in Soweto [an urban area of Johannesburg] and other townships. After having been rejected by major record labels of the apartheid era, many independent kwaito labels emerged.

What is kwaito?

It’s a style of music that emerged in Johannesburg in the early 1990s, as people felt freer to express their true feelings without fear of imprisonment. Kwaito music [a variant of house music featuring distinctly African sounds and samples] was the first creative channel for young people in the black townships and it came to express their lifestyle – not just in the music itself, but in the fashions they created.

© Neo Ntsoma ‘DJ Cleo – music producer’ 2013 from the series ‘Generations of Change’

How did you become involved?

In 1992, while still at photography school, I was introduced to Jurgen Schadeberg’s work depicting the 1950s jazz scene in Johannesburg. He photographed such icons of South African music as Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, and many others. These were images of black musicians during the apartheid era captured with dignity and they awakened the artistic spirit in me. It sparked my interest in an urban youth culture project, and this has been a focus of mine ever since. It is a three-part series consisting mainly portraits with an underlying influence from fashion photography. They record three stages in the way urban youth culture has evolved over the years.

In what way?

In African culture, fashion has never just been about the clothes; it’s a statement about society, cultural expression and identity. An individual’s fashion style can be a kind of mask or an expression of one’s dreams. And music has always played a huge role in popular culture. This series gives an insight into how a generation, bruised by the political regime of the past, has refused to be condemned and shackled by it. I believe it is an illustration of how a nation can heal and become smarter and more sophisticated.

You also work as a photojournalist.

I’m passionate about people in general – watching them, how they act and react to the events of daily life. Between 2003 and 2007, I worked the night shift at a newspaper. I was exposed to all sorts of distressing situations. Many of my assignments were to cover traumatic incidents: violence in the city, road accidents, police raids, drowned children, fires… There was a lot of uncontrolled crime at that time. Johannesburg had earned its place as one of the most dangerous cities in the world… and I was right in the middle of it! I learnt a valuable lesson very early in my career: that no picture is worth a life. I avoided any situation that was going to unnecessarily compromise my safety. I stayed alive.

Your series ‘Their World in Flames’ is particularly harrowing.

Yes, this had a powerful effect on me. I documented the plight of families from a squatter settlement in the commercial centre of Johannesburg when their homes were destroyed by a raging inferno. It was one of those situations where I had to put fear aside and focus on the job at hand. Firefighters battled to contain the blaze – some with babies on their backs and mattresses under their arms – but many homes were lost. Families faced a bitter night in the open until emergency services arranged for them to be sheltered in a nearby recreation hall. The situation was intense. These people’s lives had been utterly destroyed, with thousands left homeless. My heart broke for all of them and tears poured down my face.

You won the 2004 CNN Africa Journalist Award for photography for that series.

Yes. I was the first woman to win the award.

What other kind of stories do you cover?

A number of my projects are focused on women’s issues. Women make the news every day, but more often than not they are victims of traditional patriarchal attitudes; of violence and poverty. South Africa is still divided by issues of race and gender. These issues are interrelated. Black women form one of the most marginalised and vulnerable groups in our society. They receive poor quality education and lack of work opportunities, suffering low pay and unemployment as a result. I believe that, as a women photographer, it is my responsibility to tell women’s stories as they really are, not just as they seem to be. Together with other black women photographers we are uniquely placed to document this situation with fairness and feeling.

Can you give me an example?

I shot an awareness campaign for ‘Marie Claire SA’ [magazine], entitled ‘Right to Respect’. The campaign features fifteen prominent South African women who had taken a stand against gender-based violence. They were all achievers in their own right and yet also survivors in a society that has still not learnt to respect its own. These women came out on the streets of Johannesburg and spoke up for the rights of women.

That photo essay was very well received. You have also documented the lot of less fortunate women…

Yes. Prostitution has always been of great concern for me. I made a series about a brothel in Hillbrow, a shady suburb of Johannesburg [above]. I wanted to show the impact of migration, especially for women. Like refugees, migrants must cross both visible and invisible boundaries. There is always great uncertainty about what lies at the end of the journey. As the division between rich and poor becomes ever wider, men must become migrant workers and end up living in squatter communities in large cities such as Johannesburg or Dakar. While women were often left behind to take care of the home, lately we’ve seen more women also crossing borders in pursuit of a ‘better life’. Many are reduced to working as prostitutes in a foreign land. I have had the opportunity to get to understand the issues that force women into these kinds of desperate situations.

You photograph many things. How would you describe your photographic style?

Photographers are usually expected to specialise in one or two fields. I’ve never been one to follow a particular style or content. I respond to what catches my attention and focus on the issue I want to highlight at that specific moment. My style and approach grows out of my exploration of the subject. But I recognise that some consistency is important and I do try to maintain a ‘signature’ across all the different genres I work in.

How would you describe the values that underpin the different strands of your work?

I draw my inspiration directly from my life experiences growing up female in South Africa. I was raised among people who were all trying to tell me what to do and what to think. Now, I want those looking at my work to have their own opinions. I don’t want to force any ideas or views upon them. The obstacles I have faced are not so special, nor have they been specific to me: my sisters, my friends and even my mother and grandmother have all had to deal with restrictions that were defined by law or demanded by culture. This is what my work is about.

Biographical Notes

Neo Ntsoma was born in Vryburg, North-West South Africa in 1972. She has exhibited extensively in South Africa and in Bangladesh, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and USA, winning many awards including the National Geographic All Roads Photography prize, and the gold medal for fine art photography at the Fuji South Africa Professional Awards. In 2004, she became the first female recipient of the Mohamed Amin Award, the CNN African Journalist of the Year Photography Prize.

She has served as a judge for numerous photographic competitions, including the Fuji Film Press Awards, National Arts Festival/BASA Arts Journalism Awards and Sunday Times Travel Photographer of the Year Competition. She is a member of the National Adjudicating Committee for the Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards, the SADC Media Awards and the Uganda Press Photo awards.

Instagram: @neontsoma

Photo © Steve Lawrence

This article was first published in Chinese, in the May 2015 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.

First published in English at Talking Pictures in February 2020.