Jozi photographer Gulshan Khan 'finds the epic' in modern Muslim life in SA

Award-winning Khan is a judge in National Geographic's #ExploreWithNatGeo photo competition, which invites amateurs to capture special moments

07 March 2021 - 00:02
A girl rides the carousel at the Sultan Bahu Fete in Johannesburg.
A girl rides the carousel at the Sultan Bahu Fete in Johannesburg.
Image: Gulshan Khan

National Geographic Explorer and award-winning photographer Gulshan Khan doesn't wade into Arctic waters or Amazonian forests to document the lives of the people or the wildlife who inhabit remote parts of the planet. Instead, the Joburg photographer turns her camera on her own country and the Muslim community in which she grew up, producing memorable images of everyday life.

Find the epic in every day is the theme of National Geographic's #ExploreWithNatGeo photo competition, brought to you by Samsung Galaxy S21 5G in partnership with the Sunday Times, which launches today. This is your chance to follow in the footsteps of trailblazers like Khan, whose photographic legacy enriches our understanding of the world.

"I'm documenting the community to whom we owe our ancestry," says Khan, whose photographs of contemporary Muslim life in SA have been acquired by the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town.

The camera can be a weapon, says Khan. "In history, it's always been someone coming in to take a photograph — 'the other, the native'. But I'm not separate from the communities I photograph. I identify culturally as a Muslim. The Muslim community in SA is diverse due to migration — forced and voluntary." Her intimate knowledge of the community gives her an insiders' perspective and, mostly, people welcome her.

She's respectful, but her respect doesn't stop her — the first female South African Canon EMEA ambassador and first female photographer of colour to be hired by Agence France Presse in SA — from pushing the limits. She's won accolades in a profession dominated by white men.

"Much of this is new territory to navigate for women of colour," she says, paying tribute to one of the first black female photographers from SA, Neo Ntsoma.

Gulshan Khan.
Gulshan Khan.

Khan was raised by working-class parents with "big hearts" in pursuit of social justice. Their open home reflected these values and, more than once, Khan would come home to find a person's body laid out on the floor because her parents were supporting a family who needed to conduct a funeral.

One of her assignments for the Wall Street Journal during the pandemic was to photograph inside a funeral home, where she saw people trying to uphold tradition and customs despite the restrictions of Covid-19. She says: "I saw a person in a plastic bag with a window to see their face and the body was not dressed, but the clothes were put on top to preserve the customs and people's humanity. It was astonishing and very sad to bear witness to this."

Part of Khan's work in 2020 was to document the profound disruptions in our lives, but she also made time to reflect on what photography means to her.

"I was grateful to be the recipient of the Hamdan International Photography Award for emerging photographers in 2020 and be able to take some time off to reconnect with myself and my family. I have been working non-stop," says Khan, who launched her career in 2017. "I looked at the idea of production and how we are feeding this massive machine and not taking time to look back at what we produce.

"The pandemic has forced us to look at our immediate surroundings: at who we are in the world and where we are. If we do not recognise our humanity and that of those around us now, when are we ever going to?"


The Find the Epic in Every Day competition is designed to be a celebration of everyday life and the remarkable moments we live — especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. This competition gives South Africans a chance to share their reflections on their own daily experiences, or on their experience of the natural world.

One of the magical moments in Khan's career came just before lockdown, while she was covering the memorial of Joseph Shabalala, the founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, in her hometown of Ladysmith.

"I grew up listening to their music," she says. "As we were walking through the fields of their home Watersmeet, young boys joined us, serendipitously playing Ladysmith Black Mambazo. That was a poignant moment."

Ameenah Mthimkhulu attends prayers at Rasooli Masjid in Pretoria.
Ameenah Mthimkhulu attends prayers at Rasooli Masjid in Pretoria.
Image: Gulshan Khan

Every week from March 7 to April 3, 10 photos will be selected, and 10 wild card entries will be added to them. The first 1st prize is a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G smartphone plus accessories, worth R70,000. The second and third 2nd and 3rd prizes are a Samsung Galaxy S21+ 5G, and a Samsung Galaxy S21 5G, respectively. The winners will be announced on Earth Day, April 22.


Post your photo on Instagram, tagging @NatGeo_Africa and @SamsungMobileSA, adding #ExploreWithNatGeo, #GalaxyS21 and #withGalaxy

Khan will be on the judging panel which will select the winners from the top 10 finalists, whose photos will be published in Lifestyle and online at TimesLIVE.

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