Siphiwe Mhlambi sees soul, not just beauty, in music

Those who have an addiction to jazz understand how a photographer, like Pretoria-based Siphiwe Mhlambi, has a life-long addiction to, and passion for, jazz photography.

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His childhood was rough and homeless. When a lady took him in at age 9, and gave him a small camera which took him two years to learn, the healing began. At age 13, he started schooling, walking some 25 kms between school and home.

“Every day I faced bullying and had fights at least four times a day, just to get to school. I would offer my bullies a cigarette just to avoid fights. When my father was released from prison in 1988, I asked him when I was born. He couldn’t remember. I had no ID, no ID number. I didn’t exist.”

Years later, young Siphiwe was taking pictures of Nelson Mandela leaving prison. His hard upbringing is unabashedly explained in his TEDx Talk:

“Colour can distract, but black and white photos can capture.” Hence, Mhlambi’s love affair with black/white photos which zoom in on contorted facial expressions, the subject’s muscular movements, the handling of the often shiny musical instrument, the emotional breakdowns of mothers losing their sons to gun violence. “I don’t want to see beauty. I want to see the soul.”

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His debut jazz solo exhibition in 2008 displayed his archives from 1990 with 90 pieces in A zero and E1 formats. With an expanding archive of 28 years under his belt, Mhlambi launched his second Exhibition in 2020 called “Expressions”, and the third one in October 2021 which was accompanied by live stage performances of six of his chosen jazz bands at the National School of Arts in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

Musicians comment about how Mhlambi displays a rare sensitivity to their playing and to audience reactions as he tries, in a non-conspicuous way, to click that best shot that highlights what the musician is feeling.

“I shoot in an artistic way. It’s not a spectacle. I see beauty when I hear the song. In the past 30 years, I’ve learnt to read the artist, how he’s feeling when playing, if he has problems at home, etc.”

Singer Ziza Muftic says of Mhlambi, “Just when I feel drained from coming off the stage, to see the photographer gives me energy. I was smiling to someone across the street, and Siphiwe just snapped a photo of my profile and captured my feeling at the time.”

Trumpeter Prince Lengoasa: “His way of photographing – he’s less obstructive in his approach. He goes under pianos, but doesn’t interfere with the stage. I ask him, ‘Where were you when you took that picture?’ He’s very sensitive towards the stage band and audience.” Legendary reed man McCoy Mrubata applauds Mhlambi: “He’s highly regarded as one of the best. He knows how to capture artists.”

Bassist Concord Nkabinde: “As independent artists, we don’t always have all the resources to capture and package what we do well, so Siphiwe has come through so many times doing photo shoots and helping us prepare. He captures new and established artists, and is a passionate story teller. So when he was honoured at the SBJJ (Standard Bank Joy of Jazz) 2019, we felt it was long time coming. We love him for his passion.”

So, how does a professional photographer survive during these pandemic times? Mhlambi sighs:

“It’s tough. I started as a commercial photographer, made contacts, have a few retainers with corporates, like Anglo American portraits. I engage them, not just stick a light in front of them and click. They like that.”

Mhlambi also mentors young photographers, and supports those important arts resources, like the National School of the Arts, by hosting concerts and exhibitions. “I do what government and corporates should be doing. This is my third exhibition and concert lineup with no sponsor. I print my own works for display as well.”

When the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz 2019 gave Mhlambi an award for his “support through the lens that captured jazz icons”, musicians, in turn, heaped much appreciation for his passion and honesty.

See more: SAJE South African Jazz Stories Episode 1: Expressions: (September 2020)

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