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INTERVIEW WITH PRECIOUS NGCOBO (article first published : 2003-04-17)

Precious Ngcobo keeps her camera in an anonymous grey toilet bag. "It's safer than a camera bag when I'm walking around in the townships," she says. It is the only sign Ngcobo gives of being anything other than completely self-confident.

Young, articulate and with a ready smile, Ngcobo is determined to make her way in what still seems to be a man's world. She is a photography student at the Durban Institute of Technology, but she has already had a solo exhibition in the Tatham West Gallery.

"I came up to Pietermaritzburg to see the exhibition of Clint Zasman's work," she says. Zasman was the Natal Witness photographer who was murdered in 2001. "I had a portfolio of my work with me, and the people in the gallery asked if I was an artist." She explained that she was a photographer and showed them her work. Mduduzi Xakaza and Kobus Moolman persuaded her to submit a selection for a West Gallery exhibition: "they were excited by the idea of a young black woman photographer," she says. And so the exhibition was put together and took place during March and April.

"I never knew Clint as a colleague but I know his work and I find it inspires me. He was a photographer who could capture a moment. I look at it and say, 'Wow - that's what I want.'"

Ngcobo, who is 24 years old, comes from Hammarsdale and grew up in a family where photography was part of life. "My grandmother, who died in 2000, worked with the Home Affairs Department in Pietermaritzburg as an ID photographer," says Ngcobo. Her first plan was to study advertising, drawn by the photographs she saw in magazine advertisements while she was in high school - and she is paging through a pile of magazines with a critical eye when we meet. She did a one-year diploma at Damelin but knew that the smooth and glitzy world of ad-speak was not where she wanted to be.

"For me a camera is not a tool, or a weapon. It's my eye," she says. "It's a way to tell a story without talking or explaining. I feel I have found a way of communicating with ordinary people." Ngcobo believes being a woman is an advantage here. "There's an element of surprise; people don't ask questions when they see me. They wait until I have taken the photograph."

And it is taking these photographs of ordinary people that Ngcobo loves. She has no wish to become a wedding photographer, someone who takes posed studio portraits, or a news photographer. She likes to capture ordinary moments in the day-to-day lives of the people she sees around her. As we talk, she pulls out a contact sheet from her latest set of pictures, pointing to one of two elderly women, sitting in the sun outside a house and knitting while a couple of chickens scratch around at their feet. "That's what I like. I enjoy people in their own environment, doing their own things. It's social documentary," she says. "Newspapers will never let you use more than one photograph for a story. I want to tell my stories through pictures, not words."

She is currently studying photo-journalism at the Durban Institute of Technology - and is one of only three black women in her class and the only one specialising in that particular field. "I'm the queen of photo-journalism," she says with a wicked smile. But it is not the career she has in mind in the long run. Its lessons are useful but Ngcobo has her own plans for the future.

She knows she still has things to learn and that doing what she loves will not be an easy way to make a living, but she shows the self-belief that is a vital part of the road to success - in any field. "I think I can make my living documenting people and showing the world around me through my photographs," she says. "I really believe it is a calling."

When she finishes her studies at the end of next year, Ngcobo says she would like to travel, possibly work overseas for a while. But she is determined to get her work known nationally. "I don't wait to be given assignments," she says. "I always carry my camera. It's not about obtaining a diploma; it's about getting pictures."

Ngcobo is a member of the Imvunge Street Photographers project of the Durban Art Gallery. The members of the project meet once a week, sharing their knowledge and experiences. She has also been invited to be part of a township photography workshop which aims to encourage youngsters into photography. As a Zulu speaker, she is at an advantage, and as a woman is immediately a recognisable figure. "I need to get out of the studio," she says. "I like it when people recognise me and greet me in the streets - it's cool." Margaret von Klemperer




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