• FAMILY MAN: Photographer Jabulani Dhlamini's current exhibition, uMama, came from his realisation that many township children were raised by single mothers. Picture: SUZY BERNSTEIN

  • FAMILY MAN: Photographer Jabulani Dhlamini's current exhibition, uMama, came from his realisation that many township children were raised by single mothers. Picture: SUZY BERNSTEIN

PHOTOGRAPHER Jabulani Dhlamini's compact career is one to keep your eye on. His current exhibition, uMama - a culmination of the Edward Ruiz mentorship he was awarded last year - is a photographic interpretation of single motherhood.

"For me, my projects are not far-fetched. They are my life experience, something that is personal. I use photography to tell my story," he says.

As a young child, Dhlamini first lived with his grandmother when his mother left home to find work. When he was about 11, he went to Soweto to live with his mother.

"I could see my grandmother in my mum. I could see her sacrificing to make us happy. I wanted to do a body of work celebrating their strength. What I've seen is that most of the children in the townships have grown up with single mothers and grandmothers."

As a young boy in Soweto, he came across his mother's camera, took it to school and shot the entire roll of film. In those days, as he points out, when you had a film processed, they would give you a free roll of film. Although his mother had gladly paid towards his first attempts, after teaching him how to load and unload the film, she encouraged him to find a way to pay for this newfound passion himself. There were enough children who were happy to pay R5 for a photo of themselves and so he managed to keep his career as an aspirant photographer afloat.

Over the years, there were several doors that opened for him. He used every opportunity to learn all that was being freely handed out to him. He used to get his prints made at a store at the Carlton Centre, and the other photographers would critique his exposures. He listened and learned, and slowly f-stops and apertures became part of his inner dialogue.

He became aware of how he was able to take some of the financial load off his mother, by helping to provide for the family with his photography. At that stage, it was just a way of earning money.

"Coming from the background that I do, it helped me a lot. I could even afford some of the things that my mother couldn't buy."

When a friend put his name forward to shoot a matric farewell, he earned a large sum of money, which enabled him to buy what for him was his first real camera: "It cost R600 from a pawn shop. I was very happy with the first roll of film I processed."

Together with his cousins, he started working the community, looking for opportunities to get work. His greatest joy was when people were happy with the pictures: "I didn't realise it was a career option."

Relying on the "mouth market", he continued taking photographs. "In 2006, I had to shoot a girl who was graduating at Vaal. When I was there, a friend introduced me to a photography lecturer. It was then that I found out that one could study photography, and I decided I wanted to come back the following year. I began my course in 2007."

During this time, Jakob Doman, one of his lecturers, who became aware of Dhlamini's love of documentary work, encouraged him to spend three to four hours a day on the streets taking photographs to become a better photographer.

"I took that advice seriously and I would go six days a week to Sharpeville. He also taught me to spend time with my subject." Sometimes he spent three to four days, chatting and getting to know his subjects. "When I do portraits, I like to see who they are, not how I perceive them."

It was during this time that he started a body of work called Ubuntu Bathong (Myself in Them).

This body of work got him a place in the Stephen Shore master workshop funded by the Roger Ballen Foundation.

"I learnt an important lesson there that has shaped my photography. When Stephen looked at my images, he asked me if I work with a tripod. I began to work with a tripod. It has taught me to take time to compose a shot. When I was shooting handheld, the shot could change at any time. The tripod added a formality that gave me greater control."

During the Edward Ruiz mentorship, Jodi Bieber was selected as his main mentor. Bieber says: "The first time I saw Jabulani's portraits I was drawn to them. I knew by mentoring him I didn't have to focus too strongly on the aesthetics of his work but more to encourage him on how to find his way to tell his story. I challenged him into finding different ways of conceptualising the project and the importance of the editing process."

Dhlamini points out he had to go beyond the portrait work he was au fait with and find further ways of relating his story. One way in which he has captured the "layers" is by photographing personal items belonging to some of the people in his work. While being mentored by Bieber, he learnt to stand by his images and gained strength in that.

He speaks about his portrait of a Mrs Mahanke, one of the subjects in his exhibition.

"When she was a mother, she had to look after her children alone and now she is looking after the grandchildren. Her life is dedicated to that. The financial dependency on her is high although she doesn't work. In our culture, every old person is your mother."

He explains how supportive this woman has been to him throughout the process, and how overjoyed he was when she received the booklet with her portrait in it. "That is what makes the work so worthwhile for me."

Throughout our time together, the names of photographers who influence his work that consistently come up include Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Goldblatt, Santu Mofekeng and Pieter Hugo. He is currently working on a project that involves children: "In a tennis court, if you hit hard, the ball comes back harder. In the same way, when you love children, they love you back."

Another long-standing project is "Penny, Penny".

"It's about the 5th of November. If you walk in Soweto on that day, people wear funny clothes. If you give them money they will dance for you."

But his main focus remains family, and most notably maternal figures: "This issue of single parenting, somebody had to say something about it. As a social documentary photographer, I need to take those issues and discuss them. By seeing these images, people will begin to think about it. When I meet people, I explain what I do. And I hope it can make people think. In life we have choices. To increase our choices, we have to be more aware. I was not informed at an early age about photography being a career option. I didn't know and it wasn't in my choices. When we are informed, it makes us think about it. I now ask myself after doing this work on single mothers what my role is. I have learnt so much from my mother about taking responsibility."