FNB Art Joburg
Sandton Convention
Centre, Johannesburg,
South Africa

FNB Art Prize

The camera as a passport to expression

with Lindokuhle Sobekwa

In 2024 Lindokuhle Sobekwa won the FNB Art Prize. Now represented by Goodman Gallery, Sobekwa walks us through the expansion of his practice by embracing photography’s potential relationship with performance. 

An artist working in the medium of documentary photography, Lindokuhle Sobekwa’s practice uses the camera, installation and performance to historically contemplate the present. Soaked in materialism and subtly resolving geographical and temporal distances, in his hand the camera invites absent presences, that were there when his images were made, into the present. 

Connected to the photographic constellation, Sobekwa references Ernest Cole, Santu Mofokeng, David Goldblatt and Josef Koudelka as photographers who informed the foundation of what has become a conceptual practice. Imbued in time, attention, feedback and collaboration: he hopes to encourage audiences to put a pause on passive perceptions.

Perhaps we can start with some reflection. We always talk about the impact that work has on its audience. I want to know if your practice has had any visceral impact on you. 

I think it saved me. Photography… Photography has been a platform for me to have difficult conversations. Whether it was a social issue like we see in the Nyaope series or my grieving in I Carry Her Photo With Me, there have been  things that I really wanted to express or confront and  photography became this sort of passport. With the camera in my hand, I was brave enough to push boundaries and investigate things that I would have otherwise not confronted.  

I remember receiving a box of booklets from Of Soul and Joy a few years ago after meeting Jabulani Dhlamini. It was years ago so it’s hazy, but that’s when I was first introduced to your work. Considering the momentum your practice has gained over the last few years, how would you describe the place that it is in at the moment?

Lindokuhle Sobekwa. My practice has really evolved from my teenage years, when I first shot the Nyaope body of work. Right now I am focused on expanding my documentary practice beyond the camera. The performance lectures, how I write on photographs; it is all part of the expansion. 

When I started, my practice was looking at social issues. Now it’s looking, but at the same time it’s reflecting some of me. But within that is an embedded history. I’m thinking of the photograph of Gogo Lucy Zwane In Her Garden who I photographed on Khumalo Street in Thokoza. Her garden is opposite a migrant hostel called Mshayazafe Hostel. I’m also thinking of oral history. How do I photograph something that I heard? The expansion is necessary. 

That is where you find the abstraction in photography. You cannot remove the history of our country or the context of where the photographs are taken. Maybe they can work as an archive, but that does not take away from the art function. When you look at a painting, you read it how you want to  read it. I want to encourage people not to read photography in a narrow way. Our photographic literacy is subjective. I like how people look at an abstract painting and read into it. I want people to read my photographs. I mean Santu Mofokeng says this: A photograph is an infidel and it depends on whose hands it is in. 

The prompt to read photography in a conceptual framework is as exciting as it is fitting for where we see your practice going. Tell me more about where this began for you. 

LS: When I started at Of Soul & Joy, I learned that people can really express themselves through photography. I was not a very expressive child growing up. But when I saw House of Bondage, it made me emotional because it reflected my childhood when my mom was working as a domestic worker. I have had the experiences he documented. It was as if I was looking at myself. Ernest Cole was a sophisticated image maker and this was expanded when I later went to the Market Photo Workshop. It was the books, I remember our teachers bringing us books. I remember Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies. We would be looking at David Goldblatt’s In Boksburg, we would be looking at Peter Magubane’s June 16. The feeling that those photographs left me with was the foundation that led to the conceptual work. 

I do think the public’s relationship with new media mediums is growing here in South Africa. Especially when you look at the likes of young artists such as yourself and Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo whose photographic practices embrace performance in very tactile ways. You’re opening up our minds to how we engage with photography. While I was listening to your lecture, Retracing Memory: Going Deeper at Tate Modern, one of the things you mentioned was seeing people and how there is a lot that is involved before, during and after making a photograph. Could you talk us through the responsibility that comes with seeing people. 

LS: Just to go back a little. The first chapter of Nyaope started with developing trust with Majita, especially with Maboetie who unfortunately passed away. I realised that there are so many stories that people aren’t aware of when they are looking at those images. The people in those photographs are going through a lot. I wanted those stories to be reflected. This brings me to the conversation that I had with Santu when I showed him this work. I was an excited young photographer. He said, “Show me what you’ve written, Lindo. You can clearly take photographs but what have you written?” 

That’s when we introduced the diary and one-on-one interviews with majita. Everyone got a diary; we looked at images and talked about photographs that they liked of themselves. What I’ve learned from the project, more than anything, is that majita appreciated that I was there to see them because no one was paying attention to them. No one wants to listen to them. More than photography, being there, spending time there and collaborating with them was an important rite of passage into the practice that you see today. 


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