When I read Sipho Mpongo‘s status that he was on route from Cape Town to Pretoria and was planning on a detour in Johannesburg to see a few exhibitions. I sent the Magnum Fellow an inbox and a few hours later we were looking at Zanele Muholi‘s Somnyama Ngonyama Exhibition at Stevenson. After our walk about along with his friend Reatile Moalusi we moved to Kitcheners where Drake played in the background and we sat for a chat and this is how it went down…
Shots011: Who is Sipho Mpongo?
SM: Sipho Mpongo is a wanderer and traveler, a boy born in the Eastern Cape and migrated to Cape Town with his parents. We stayed in Langa Township and life in the township is kak, but it was cool. I learnt a lot and I developed a very critical view of life and what is happening around me.
In grade 7, I started taking pictures of my friends and haven’t stopped taking pictures ever since. I kept working and developing a few stories and in grade 12 I had my first exhibition. That was a huge achievement for me. It was like, wow, this thing I had been doing for years actually means something outside my spaces and it’s being appreciated. For a moment I felt important that all these people came to check out my pictures.
I then got a scholarship to study with the Cape Town School of Photography and I researched about the New South Africa which saw me travel around the country for seven months with two other photographers; Sean Metelerkamp and Wikus De Wet. From there Sipho Mpongo was born.
Shots011: You also served a fellowship with Magnum, how did that come about?
SM: During my research, I saw the open call and I thought this is not for me; I could never be a part of Magnum. We often lack the capacity of dreaming big, dreaming big is going to New York. I thought it wouldn’t work and I didn’t want to waste my time on Magnum. We compare ourselves within the spaces that surround us and want to achieve similar dreams. So my friends kept on pushing me to apply for the fellowship and I didn’t want to. Eventually I did since I felt like I had a story to tell.
I then applied and got accepted. Only seven people around the world got accepted and I was the second person from Africa to get the award. I was also the youngest in Africa and the first one from South Africa to participate in the fellowship. I went to New York which was amazing and I was there at the right time. It was a time when Gay rights were being issued and the killings of black people had escalated. I witnessed a lot of American history by just being there.
During the fellowship we studied a lot on how to tell stories, what is important, and what to consider since we are in a more diplomatic time. People want to see more than just pictures and are questioning a lot of things. For you to be safe as a story-teller you need to provide context and consider other avenues such as video or recording sound to prove yourself. We also learned how to share stories with people and big corporates, how to ask for money, and a lot of problems we face as young creatives.
In addition, we went to the major art shows and I met Zanele Muholi in Virginia which was amazing since I had never met her back home, it was just something else.
Shots011: How does it feel being an associate of one of the biggest photography agencies in the history of photography?
SM: It feels good, however I feel like I have a greater responsibility. I have to set an example. We are dealing with serious issues and stories, and I have to do it, I have to get out of my comfort zone and share them. Learning from the best is a privilege and an honour.
Shots011: Looking at you work, what would you say is particularly new about it?
SM: My work focuses on two things; the history of our country and the kind of democracy we have right now. Based on that knowledge, I have the capacity to document our realities and the fallacies that contradict that reality. I feel my work is different in that way.
Also, my approach of what I am trying to photograph is different. I spend time with the people I photograph, usually two days or more and get to know them before. They will only know that I am a photographer once we are done with our hangouts and getting to know each other. That’s when I ask them for a photograph. So my work is more of an exchange, a give and take between me and the next person.
Shots011: How big of a role has the internet and social media played in building your career?
SM: We live in a technological era you know, so online presence is a big thing. The online presence has been good to me. It has made people from different parts of the world aware of what I do. I really appreciate it. However my work is not based on social media. I want people to move away from social media so they can see and engage with my work, which is difficult to achieve on social media.
Shots011: Looking at your work, what would you like viewers to say about your work a hundred years from now?
SM: I am not making any particular statement with my work; it is just commentary on what’s happening right now. I comment through the use of contradictions and let the viewer question what they see so they can reach the answer on their own.
So what I hope my work will do is give a platform for that generation to question our generation and what was happening.
Shots011: Is there anything you wish you knew at the start of your career?
SM: Not really. All that I know now is the best time to know it.
Shots011: What’s next for Sipho Mpongo?
SM: I am finishing off a few projects, just taking them out to the world and starting a new one which is very personal. When you are doing something personal you need to be careful and that’s where my focus is right now.
These 10 questions originally came from a French series, “Bouillon des Culture” hosted by Bernard Pivot. They’re better known as the questions that James Lipton asks every guest at the end of “Inside the Actor’s Studio”. Their addition to this questionnaire is to get to know a bit more about Jonathan the person, instead of the artist, a bit more about Jonathan outside of photography.
What is your favourite word?
What is your least favourite word?
What turns you on creatively?
Anger and frustration.
What turns you off?
What is your favourite curse word?
What sound or noise do you love?
What sound or noise do you hate?
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Being a professional Jazz Musician.
What profession would you not like to do?
Accounting, I was supposed to become an accounted but I decided; Fuck this shit!
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
That I tried!