A broken camera sharpened my focus


There’s a searing honesty to Kgomotso Tleane’s photographs. He captures the world as he sees it, stripped down and gritty. But Tleane only realised the talent he possessed after his first camera broke. All he wanted was to take better quality photos for social media. When the auto function stopped working, Tleane had to learn to use the device beyond the click of a button. From accidental beginnings, he’s become one of South Africa’s eminent photographers, known for the quality of his images and the message of empowerment they convey. “I use photography to do justice to the stories of everyday people,” Tleane says.

He realised what he wanted to focus on when he photographed an elderly woman pushing a trolley of fruit with a baby strapped to her back. To anyone else, she appeared to be the picture of despondence and poverty. When Tleane looked at his photo again, he realised he’d captured a moment of independence. He saw what others failed to see – a woman whose resilience and entrepreneurial spirit is carrying her family. Ever since, Tleane’s work has taken on a greater purpose. “What motivates me is people who contribute to society who are overlooked,” he says. Taxi conductors. Fruit sellers. Scrap collectors. Grainy images of the city are juxtaposed with hazy rural landscapes, and desaturated portraits of township life. Tleane documents people and places in a way that instils pride.

“For a long time, we’ve always seen the township as a place that we need to get out of,” Tleane says. “We need to document our spaces in a way that uplifts who we are.” Having moved from the village of Ga-Maja to Johannesburg, Tleane is familiar with both rural and city life. His photographs give credence to these places, and the extraordinary people living there. “We need someone to look at an image and see that we can do something and be something in life,” Tleane says. He took this message abroad when he attended the New York Times Portfolio Review earlier this year. Out of 3 000 applicants, Tleane was chosen to showcase his images, an experience that affirmed his belief in what he captures. “It’s really up to me to own my story and narrative in the most honest way,” Tleane says. With every photograph, the power of authenticity prevails.