PlayIsWinning – An Interview With Thanda Kunene
When PowerPlay asked us to “Find and interview a South African who has overcome their fears using tenacity, heart, desire, determination, courage, belief or commitment.” It was an easy choice. We’ve wanted to chat to one of our favourite photographers Thanda Kunene for a while and as you’ll see in the interview below, he fits the brief perfectly. Get to know the chilled cat after the jump.
DIY: I guess we’ll start with an introduction, who are you and what do you do?
Thanda: I’m Thanda Kunene, I believe that I’m an audio/visual designer because I work a lot with sound and visuals.
DIY: And where are you from?
Thanda: I was born in Durban and then moved to Port Shepstone, went to school here in Durban, then back to Port Shepstone for a year and then back to Durban… I’ve been everywhere because my parents were separated. So one year my dad would want me to live with him, the following year my mom would want me to live with her. My dad stayed in Ladysmith this one time…
DIY: So growing up you moved around a lot?
Thanda: Yeah, so I’m very nomadic, even in terms of lifestyle and everything, I keep moving around.
DIY: I assume you’re an only child?
Thanda: Yeah, but I’m not like a brat or anything, I was very independent from a young age. I think my parents allowed me to be that kind of guy. I’m not very fussy, I’m pretty laid back and can provide for myself. I’d say I’m inclined to what I do right now because of the things I saw and heard growing up.
DIY: Such as?
Thanda: My dad is a heavy record collector. You always hear guys say things like “My dad listened to Curtis Mayfield” but my dad collected South African shit, he listened to premium South African music all the time. He’s from a small rural area up north, so he’s not a township guy, he’s a guy who comes from the farm kinda area. He’s a chilled guy, an academic… He was the guy who put me on to just chilling out. You can do whatever you want in life as long as you can afford to provide for yourself and your family. He was very artistic too…
DIY: So he put you on the artistic path?
Thanda: Ya, he wasn’t like “Don’t do this because it doesn’t pay.” He was like “If you don’t do it, you’re going to be sad.”
DIY: If you can make it happen for yourself then by all means…
Thanda: And if you can maintain it, then go for it.
DIY: And your mother?
Thanda: My mother is very domesticated. Very caring and she likes to make sure everything works out well. If you’re an artist, be an artist well, if you this, be that well. My dad was the laid back one but my mom is the lady who pushed me. She still is that kind of person, she just likes taking care.
DIY: How were things in school?
Thanda: I went to an Afrikaaner high school…
DIY: Was it a very mixed raced high school or were you one of the few black guys?
Thanda: I’d say it was like 80% white and 20% black. Like 50% Afrikaans, 30% English and 20% Zulu. It was such a crazy experience because the English guys didn’t like the Afrikaaner guys and vice versa. The Afrikaans guys were like “Heirdie fokken engels se mense…” and the English guys were like “These fucking Afrikaaners bru…” and we were the middle guys, everyone was looking out for us. We just came out of this crazy scenario in South Africa with everyone being racist and you get to this town and the white people hate each other. So that’s my high school experience. (Laughs)
DIY: How’d you get involved in art and which one drew you first?
Thanda: I’m a music guy. I studied piano, classic, I wanted to study jazz but you have to go through classic before you get to anything else. The teacher was horrible and I’d challenge her, she would shout and I’d be like “Why don’t you say it nicely?” When I moved out of my dad’s place in 1999 to my mom’s place where she lived with this other lady she had these mixtapes with like early DJ Fresh stuff so there I heard all this new stuff. From there I started to go to record shops and would buy records, the music would be great but the art was amazing…
DIY: So you got into the visual side like that?
Thanda: Yeah, everything I’m into is either music or pictures, not really illustrations. I like them because they’re cool but I’m more into photos. Some people don’t really understand it, they call themselves photographers but all they do is take pictures of parties. I hate that shit and don’t really do that much. It’s not even about the money, it’s about bonding with your subjects.
DIY: What kind of style do you like to shoot, are you more into snapshots or setting everything up and making sure the lighting etc is perfect?
Thanda: It depends dude, I do more documentary vibes. I don’t post any of that stuff online though.
DIY: Are you saving it for a book or an exhibition?
Thanda: It goes for exhibitions and editorial uses. That’s what I do the most, editorials.
DIY: Are you self taught or did you study?
Thanda: I was self taught then I studied. I actually started studying fashion… Okay, let me tell you everything… When I finished matric I studied sound engineering and post production for video and sound, dropped out cause I was in Joburg and things got hectic. I was living off dj money and had to pay everything out of that money. Towards the end of the year, mid-August, I had to help my dad out with the money I’d saved for studying. I didn’t mind making the sacrifice because he’d helped me so much, so I had to drop out. Then I got evicted because the guys I was living with spent the rent money on cocaine. They were these church guys that changed all of a sudden. Cocaine in Durban and cocaine in Joburg is different. Cocaine in Durban just keeps you alive and breathing but cocaine in Joburg is like “I’m the man.” so you need more all the time.
DIY: Because it’s a status thing…
Thanda: Yeah, that’s what it’s like in Joburg, everyone puts pressure on you. So these guys just weren’t paying rent and I came home one day and the locks were being changed. I didn’t even know what I’d gotten myself into, it was crazy because all of a sudden I was homeless.
DIY: Where’d you stay after that?
Thanda: A friend of theirs who was homeless as well but lived in his car was like “Okay dude, you can stay with me, I’ve got extra blankets in the boot.”
DIY: Yussis, the struggle is real…
Thanda: It was a real struggle. I then went to stay with my cousins in Soweto and managed to eventually borrow money from them to come back to Durban. As soon as I got back home I deposited the money into his account. About five months later I started studying again, this time it was fashion at DUT and that’s where I discovered photography properly. I was in the library all the time reading editorials and looking fashion photography and thought it was so nice. I can design, I can sew, whatever, but photographing it drew me more. I finished studying, saved money and bought a camera. I’d had film cameras before but it took a decade to get your pictures back. So I got this digital camera and from there on I started attending parties. At the time there wasn’t a lot of people shooting parties and everything was still real. So yeah, I started shooting and met lots of different people and moved forward from there.
DIY: How important was networking in getting your name out there and learning new things and how much has the scene changed over the last couple of years?
Thanda: I think dude, to sum that whole question up, the internet changed everything. When I was living in Joburg, Braamfontein was a dump. You go to Braamfontein now it’s bucket hats and Jordans and everyone just wants to be seen. It’s progress in a sense but you can’t have the whole area looking like that. Why are we doing this again?
DIY: To be “different”.
Thanda: Exactly. The shops there are cool it’s just when you see people looking the same and people go to coffee shops to be seen and not to have coffee, you know? The internet does that. You see somebody cool post a photo of a shop on Instagram and then you have to go there so you can be seen. It’s “Checking-in Syndrome”. Before it was all word of mouth. 5 years ago if you threw a party you told someone and they told someone else and when you get to the party, it’s packed. Now you have to have a Facebook page and a Twitter page and it’s all about who else is going.
DIY: Let’s talk more about your photography. When did you start making money out of it and how?
Thanda: I met Al Nicoll at a party he was shooting alone, he walked up to me and we started talking… It was actually after I was homeless again here in Durban (Laughs). My friends helped me though, and then I met him, I told him I was looking for a job as a photographer’s assistant, just taking my chances, you know? I was looking for a job everywhere. He gave me his card and I called him, two days later he called back later saying he had a job but needed to see what I could do first. We had a meeting and he was like “I take these kinds of pictures, can you do that?” I said I can try, he just needs to show me what to do because we have very different styles. Did the first job and carried on from there. We were busy all the time, just working, working, working. I eventually got tired of working with him, we’re just too different and it was time to not be an assistant anymore.
DIY: How did you start getting work on your own?
Thanda: It’s easy for me dude. I have a portfolio that I just send to people. I do traditional stuff and a lot of people can’t shoot that. I like that kind of stuff and my portfolio is full of it. I have a couple different portfolios I send out depending on what’s needed, portraits, documentary etc.
DIY: And word of mouth? You’ve created quite a name for yourself now, especially in the young creative scene…
Thanda: It’s mainly because I’m open to things. I’m a very open and social guy. I’m laid back but I’m social, I’m always there. And I don’t compromise what I think, I say whatever I want. Nobody isn’t going to hire me because I’m outspoken, they want to hire you because it’s real.
DIY: These days people want that authenticity.
Thanda: It’s a cycle bro, when the majority of the market is censored and nice and sweet, the 10% of people doing something different become in demand. It gives you freedom to do what you want because it’s authentic and different.
DIY: What do you think distinguishes your photography from everyone else?
Thanda: Expression man, I don’t want perfect pictures, other people want perfect pictures, I want pictures that tell a story.
DIY: And lastly, what piece of advice would you give to young creatives who are struggling, facing being homeless and struggling to pay rent?
Thanda: Just chill out, there’s so much to life. If you believe that you’re meant to do what you’re doing, then you probably are. You can’t give up, a lot of people say “I tried this and it failed so I went back to the office.” Just be that guy who is going to inspire everyone else by seeing it through. It’s a long journey. Whatever you do, just keep at it and go against the odds.
Meet more of PowerPlay’s inspiring heroes on their website over here.