When the photographer turns the camera on herself

10 April 2016 - 02:00 By ROBYN SASSEN


Phumzile Khanyile is in love with the self-portrait. "It's like being in somebody's shoes; that is what makes me understand what I'm doing. And there's nothing I find more intimidating than my camera. It stares at me and shows all my flaws. I'm never comfortable to make someone else create my vision; I always challenge myself first," says the photographer. Khanyile, 24, was recently named the third recipient of the Gisèle Wulfsohn Mentorship, under the auspices of Johannesburg's Market Photo Workshop ."It's about social issues, and the courage to confront and represent difficult things of a political, a sexual, a social nature," she explains, referring to the legacy of Wulfsohn, who died in 2011, and whose photographs focused on democracy, HIV/ Aids awareness, gender issues and women's rights.Khanyile is thrilled to have US-born photographer Ayana V Jackson as her mentor.story_article_left1The notion of being mentored in the arts has taken on a momentum of its own. Gallerist Teresa Lizamore, based on Jan Smuts Avenue, Johannesburg, has a mentorship programme, as does the Barclays L'Atelier art competition.The aim is to take a young artist who has talent but is not yet street-savvy by the metaphorical hand into the art world.For Khanyile, the 13-month opportunity is a dream come true. "The mentorship opens doors for crits, the publication of books and exhibitions, but nothing is a given. Everything's contingent on a committee's opinion of my work's quality."But the cherry on top, for Khanyile, is the chance to be mentored by Jackson. "She was my first choice of a mentor," Khanyile beams. "When I first met her, in February, I was very nervous. But we spoke of everything except the work, which put me at ease. And she said the most interesting thing to me. I didn't know how to explain how I choose what to photograph. She told me not to stress. She said: 'You are already in the process of creating; once you're comfortable enough to start photographing, it means it's resolved in your head.'"Khanyile's love for the self-portrait is similar to that of Jackson and other contemporary local photographers such as Zanele Muholi and Nandipha Mntambo. "It's hard," she says, "because you're constantly transforming. I use the self-portrait because I never want to inappropriately create a face for something."mini_story_image_hright1Jackson, who has exhibited widely and has a sociology degree from Spelman College, has been coming to Africa since 2001. "It enabled me to leapfrog into multiple identities: a slave, a woman, a photographer."Now she's leapfrogging into another role. "It's going to be an interesting challenge for me too," she says from New York where she was exhibiting. "I don't have a teaching background, so a lot of support I will give her is around her research methods, introducing her to other artists and giving her critical feedback on her own ideas."Born in Tladi, Soweto, Khanyile has big dreams. She also has an instinctive eye for good composition, but she knows a career in photography is not only about making pretty pictures.Her current work is about stigma. "It's influenced a lot by my past, my family. I have to figure out why I had issues with certain things."But going forward, I wish for my work to still be relevant - and around - 10 years from now. If there's a story for me to tell, I will tell it."

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