Buhlebenkosi Nonqandela, is the creative behind the awareness project “The Use of Conceptual Photography As A Therapeutic Tool of Trauma Shared online”
Upon viewing the awe-inspiring photographs taken by Buhlebenkosi and learning about the inspiration behind the concept of this project, I knew I had to publish a piece about it, more so because there are so many people who are struggling with internalized trauma and people who find it difficult to open up about their mental health. This project fused people’s stories with photography that best reflects the feelings, thoughts and emotions attached to them.
I fell in love with the idea before it came to life and when it finally did I could not wait to write about it. I compiled a few questions for the young creative in order to better understand the concept and to share it with my readers.
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- WHAT IS THE USE OF CONCEPTUAL PHOTOGRAPHY AS A THERAPEUTIC TOOL OF TRAUMA SHARED ONLINE? (where did the idea come from?)
Conceptual photography is creating photographs; it is also described as methodology or a type of photography that is staged to represent an idea. The ‘concept’ is both preconceived and, if successful, understandable in the completed photograph. I am using conceptual photography as a healing therapeutic tool for narratives of trauma shared online. To briefly explain what I mean by therapeutic tool is that therapy sessions can involve photography and can be used as a medium of healing. Therapeutic photography involves taking, analysing and using photos for the purpose of personal healing, growth, or understanding, whether done consciously or subconsciously. By actively constructing, exploring and reflecting on photographs by pairing it with creative writing, you are able to learn more about yourself and how you see the world, which is what I tried to do with this photo series for myself; as my own therapy.
Mental health is something that is overlooked in our communities or seen as an ‘attention seeking plot’ and as someone who has a constant battle with panic attacks and anxiety, I chose to base my project on mental health and creating portraits that visually present trauma and emotions that spark conversations about mental health, especially within the black community. The idea came from following a viral tweet posted by Keabetswe Jan (Ojewa ke eng – whats bothering you), after reading the replies under the tweet I saw that a lot of responses lingered to depression, sadness, anxiety and trauma. I got the idea of taking those responses (replies) and creating images responding or reinterpreting the tweet and I was influenced by Dale Yudelman’s ‘I am’ photo series about immigrants in South Africa looking for jobs by leaving notice cards at convenience super-markets and created pictures from the text from the notice cards, my photographic framework, therefore was referencing from Yudelman’s photo series; by responding to texts shared under the tweet and use similar approach of placing text next to the image
2. TELL US ABOUT YOUR STUDIES AND THEY LINK TO YOUR CURRENT PROJECT.
I just finished my fourth year (btech) in photography at the Durban University of Technology. My project is work produced for school. As a fourth-year student you’re required to have a research topic for your thesis/dissertation, which also has to link to your photographic work therefore, my photography series is based on a research topic for school.
3. HOW DID YOU GET THE PROJECT ON ITS FEET? (take us through the steps you took in order to use the specific stories shared by people online)
At the beginning, I was not certain about my topic and my project, Initially I wanted to photograph immigrants/foreigners living within South Africa, especially immigrants who have lived in South Africa the longest and those who were born in South Africa by foreigners and live in South Africa as citizens. I wanted to photograph how their surroundings, culture and religion influenced their personalities and I wanted to produce images that broke various tribal and often xenophobic stereotypes that are associated with the different ethnic groups, cultures or religions of the foreign nationals living in South Africa.
As the year progressed, through multiple consultations with my supervisor, I realized that I was more interested in exploring subjects or topics that directly relate to me and my own lived experiences. I then decided to move my concept in a new, more personalized direction. Due to the high amount of people sharing their experiences on the tweet I recognized the potential and saw that as an opportunity to use photography as a medium and responding to the tweets by conceptualizing and constructing images.
After finalizing my proposal for this project and contacted a selected number of people who shared their stories and people who have influenced my work immensely, I started doing my practical work. When I started the project, I used DUT drama students and graduates to work with me because they are the vessels of expressing emotion and getting the message across. As the year progressed, I started taking random portraits of my surroundings, not every portrait needed to have a subject in it, taking pictures of my surroundings or void spaces that would visually contribute meaning to my project.
4. WHAT WAS YOUR PRIMARY INSPIRATION FOR THIS CONCEPT?
After reading ‘Zip Zip My Brain Harts‘ by Angela Buckland and going to her solo debut show seen at the NSA Gallery in Durban. I found the book to be so intimate with the photographs in it, she takes us through her journey and gives insight on various life issues/struggles. She photographs the little details from her own experiences in the hospital with her family and son. Her book influenced my photographic style; I intended to show the emotion of pain and trauma in every picture and getting the message across to the viewer. Buckland’s work inspires me because of how she visualizes the unspoken world about what it means to parent a disabled child in South Africa. She photographs the reality of raising a disabled child. She visually presents the pain and trauma that she goes through as a parent, she expresses emotion through her photography in her book.
The book details emotions of pain, confusion and trauma in black and white images. Her images are thought-provoking and very informing especially to a crowd that has never dealt with a disabled relative. She gives an educative insight; this inspires me because my aim is to have my photographic work educate people about mental health issues and also to visually present traumas that people aren’t ready to discuss especially within the black community.
5. THE TITLE OF THE PROJECT MAKES US AWARE THAT MOST OR ALL THE TRAUMA STORIES WERE TAKING ONLINE, WHAT MEDIA PLATFORMS DID YOU USE?
My photographic series is centred on a viral tweet posted on Twitter.
6. WHAT WERE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES YOU FACED DURING THE PROCESS OF CAPTURING THE PHOTOGRAPHS THAT YOU HAVE SHOT AND INCLUDED IN YOUR CONCEPTUAL PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT?
My biggest challenge was trying to create a project that is relevant and important. I didn’t want to just create a project for school, but I wanted it to start conversations based on the reality we live in. Those tweets are stories shared by people daily and after reading replies under Keabetswe Jan’s “Ojewa ke eng” tweet, it became draining and emotionally taxing for me because I felt like I’m reading the same story just by a different person, every day I read something about rape, suicide or trauma. At a point I felt like I’m also crumbling down and failing to finish the project because of all emotions, most of the work I produced was created when I was in a dark place as well. The picture below was taken in studio and all I had in mind was to create something that portrays anxiety and panic attacks based on my own panic attacks.
7. WHAT MAKES THIS PARTICULAR BODY OF WORK DIFFERENT FROM THE ONES YOU’VE DONE BEFORE?
I wouldn’t categorise myself as commercial photographer but I have done a lot of projects for different brands and companies, these include fashion range projects, corporate work, make up range, nude photography, landscape photography, architecture photography ,wedding photography and maternity shoots; but I created this series because I wanted to do something that will mean something to me as an artist and to others. By creating these portraits as expressions of trauma, the viewer is guided through the internal and external struggle of a person living with any mental health disorder; And using my own stories and experiences, I am capturing the raw essence of trauma. Through this personal journey, I have grown and found that depicting my fears has become therapeutic, as well as a gateway for others to express their oppression and begin their own healing process and also raising awareness within the black community at large that depression or any mental health disorder isn’t a myth or something that only affects white people and break the stigma against mental health ;while using photography as my own therapy and healing process.
8. TELL US ABOUT THE BOOK.
The book is a photobook that consists of 30 portraits. It’s a simple Black and white portraits photobook that consists of the body of work I have been doing for the whole year. You could say it’s a portfolio for school purposes hence I haven’t considered publishing it or making money out of it; However, at the DUT photography department we are not restricted with our work, in fact we are encouraged to publish or sell, however at this very moment I am not looking to sell or publish but continue with project; break into creative spaces to exhibit and reach out to a larger audience.
9. WHY DO YOU FEEL IT’S IMPORTANT FOR VISUAL ARTISTS TO CREATE ARTWORKS INSPIRED BY EVERY DAY MOMENTS AND/OR TRAUMAS?
I think art can be used as a moment to contemplate and negotiate healing, it can be a tool and medium over which we work through the complexities and nuances in how healing can be imagined from an individual to a collective perspective.
Art transports and suspends the artist and the viewer into a space where visual language translates lived experiences for the purpose of critical introspection and imagination. It’s important for artists especially black artists to create work that is part of our daily lives and use that to break stigmas.
What we witness in art is that the moments of imagination (ideas/concepts) and manifestation (making of the work) and the process in between is the negotiation of finding ways to actualize. It is that moment when we view the work we experience, the potential and possibility of healing. Everyone has different interpretations of my body of work, another visual artist and poet was inspired by my portrait and wrote a piece on it, that shows the importance of creating artworks that other people will relate to.
by SIR LSH
10. TELL US WHAT YOU WANTED TO ACHIEVE BY SHARING THIS PROJECT.
This photographic series seeks to explore the use of conceptual photography to explore and respond to narratives (tweets) shared online. This study presented the idea of conceptual photography being a therapeutic tool that can be used to deal with mental health issues, to prove that photography can be more than just a means of documentation but it can also be a healing process from mental health issues. This project seeks to highlight the real issues we face, traumatic experiences, unemployment, social identity, financial crisis etc.
The first viewing of the exhibition happened at the Durban Art Gallery’s technical centre on the 24th of October 2019, alongside my colleagues who also had their own unique projects on display. I am planning to have another exhibition at the beginning of the year 2020 with new portraits as an extension of my photo series.
above: BUHLEBENKOSI AND SOME OF THE DRAMA STUDENTS SHE WORKED WITH ON THE PROJECT
11. HOW HAS THIS PROJECT SHAPED YOUR THINKING AND/OR PERCEPTION OF SOCIAL MEDIA’S ABILITY TO IGNITE CREATIVITY?
As a private person, my perspective and thoughts of sharing on social media drastically changed because I saw the power of social media, the most shocking part to me was how people were willing to share their depressing stories, traumas and thoughts to strangers on the internet. Stories of rape, trauma, painful infidelity, loneliness, and every kind of misfortune cascaded from that initial tweet.
Going through the tweets was an area of interest as a social media user and because of my own traumatic experiences which I could not share openly to strangers online, this evolved into a topic and also a question I kept asking myself ; why do people talk about their feelings and emotions on social media. Is it soothing or is it because they get feedback and support from other people on social media or maybe someone is listening? I wanted to explore that through photography as my very own healing process to my own trauma, so yes social media is a powerful tool that can be used to address a lot of current issues.
12. WHICH IS YOUR FAVORITE PHOTOGRAPH THAT YOU CAPTURED FOR THIS PROJECT?
My favorite picture is not in the photo-book. It’s a portrait I took of another creative artist; the portrait was inspired by the uproar of Gender-Based Violence issues and the alarming number of women going missing and killed every day.
I created this portrait for the women who have been assaulted, abused and silenced by the world.