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‘It’s a moving, changing, churning place, which I love.’

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Photo>>>Andile Buka


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Feature by Alix-Rose Cowie; Interview: Tanika Hoffman

Gulshan Khan first picked up a camera in 2015 to show people what she was seeing first-hand during student protests in Johannesburg. It wasn’t long before she was shooting for the world’s top news organisations.

Now, she’s a National Geographic Explorer, the recipient of the 2020 HIPA Emerging Photographer award, and the first female South African Canon Ambassador. She hopes her work builds empathy, understanding and healing. As stories unfold on the ground, Gulshan keeps up with her camera, energised by the fast pace of Johannesburg. She shares Joburg's cultural must-sees, where to go to escape the city and what makes South African creativity so unique. 


On where you grew up

I grew up in northern KwaZulu-Natal, in a town called Ladysmith, close to the Drakensberg mountains. It's a town that’s steeped in history — many generations ago, it was the site of the Anglo Boer War, so it has a tumultuous history, but at the same time a lot of healing. If we look at the landscape, I always think of how the aloe trees rise up out from the ground, and how aloe is a salve. 

On becoming a photographer

I think I've always been a visual person, but I went through jobs working for embassies in the diplomatic field and all sorts of other things. Near the end of 2015, the Fees Must Fall protests broke out countrywide. I was helping out at the university and very instinctively, with my phone, I started photographing what I was bearing witness to. At some point I used a point-and-shoot, and started putting my photos on Instagram. I wanted to show what I was seeing. People began asking if they could publish the pictures, and it was my partner who actually said, ‘Why don't you formalise this?’. Until that moment, I didn’t think of photography as a job. In 2016, I did a course at the Market Photo Workshop, a prominent school of photography on the continent, and by the end of the year I was working regularly for Agence France-Presse. By 2017, I had started working professionally as a photographer. Everything happened very, very fast and I'm very grateful for that. I really think a lot of it is just working from the heart. When that happens, things move faster.

On the themes in your work

The core themes in my work would be social justice, equality, and human rights. Maybe we can just call it kindness, and justice stems from there. Inevitably, everything I do also ends up being related to our history. I want to really understand the world around me for my own learning, growth and spirituality, and then, beyond that, I hope to move hearts and create conversations so we start to think about how we look at the world and look at each other. The work is essentially about bridging these gaps between us. 

Production: Exceptional ALIEN (Creative Studio); Dare Content (Production Company); Chris Coetsee (EP); Matt Bouch (Producer); Jared Paisley (DOP); Andile Buka and Gulshan Khan (Photographer); Jabu Msomi (Sound Recording). Post-production: The Editors; Nicolette Rousianos (EP); Liv Reddy (Head of Production); Matt Edwards (Online); Corey-Jay Walker (Online Assist); Shannon Michaelas (Main Offline Editor); Grace Eyre and Grace O’Connell (Offline Editors); Shukry Adams (Stills Clean & Grade); Matt Fezz (Colourist); Bonsta (Sound Design).

On your relationship with travel

Travel is a privilege; it's something I don't take for granted. There are stories everywhere, so it's very valuable for me to be able to move through the world and then to translate that back to people who cannot have that kind of access. It really is a responsibility to reflect on the people and the cultures we come across with respect, with understanding, and with the idea that we're there to learn. I look at travel as a gift. 

‘Living here is like you’re getting a front row seat. It’s a very special place. It’s this emotional rollercoaster, but I love it.’

On defining South African creativity

South Africa is a unique place. We have a complicated history but what has come of that is that we're very diverse. I think, naturally, our creativity reflects that. What makes our creativity unique is this idea of trying to understand ourselves and who we are culturally. I think that now, post-apartheid, we're trying to create a sort of identity for ourselves, which is not one thing. It's many, many things and it’s a combination of all of it that makes South African creatives distinctive. 

On what you love about your neighbourhood

Melville is home; this is my community. It's such an amazing privilege to still be able to live where you can walk and get coffee and something from the bakery. I spend a lot of time at IT Corner, working. I often go to Tilt for coffee, and I think I pay Book Circle Capital’s rent because I’m always buying books there that I wish I had as a child. They primarily concentrate on African writers, Black writers, people of colour. Down the road, there's a little esoteric shop where I buy incense and oils. There are lots of thrift stores, and also a lot of places that have live music. When you walk down the street, you're meeting your neighbours; saying hello to everybody. 


Images of Gulshan Khan in Melville by Andile Buka for Exceptional ALIEN. First row at Book Circle Capital. Second row at Denzil & Jo’s. Third and fourth rows at 7th Street in Melville. Third row right of Sam by Ana Nielsen for Exceptional ALIEN.

On your relationship with Johannesburg

Johannesburg is on the edge. It's on the precipice all the time. We're moving fast, we're developing fast. It's a migratory space — people come from all over the country, the continent, from all over the world. There’s a very fast pace. It’s a moving, changing, churning place, which I love. It's wonderful to be a witness to it, and you can thrive in it if that's how you want to live. At the same time, I need regular breaks; every now and then I want to go to the mountains in the Drakensberg or get some clean air in Cape Town. So my relationship with Johannesburg is one of wonder and angst. Living here is like you're getting a front-row seat. It's a very special place. It’s this emotional roller coaster, but I love it.

‘Outside Joburg is this place called the Cradle of Humankind … it reminds me of how small we are in the greater scheme of everything.’

On getting out of the city

Because my work is often so taxing I see so much beauty but also the ugliness of reality I really appreciate being able to go to a place where there are lots of trees and moving water. NIROX Sculpture Park is testament to how we're moving away from the white cube of the gallery to view art. It's this beautiful space with lots of trees, some manicured lawns, a little dam, and in between all of this, as you're walking, you come across all these sculptures. They surprise you and shock you and make you feel all sorts of things, which is a really fantastic and unique experience. They often have live performances there, and there’s a wonderful restaurant called ‘And Then There Was Fire…’.

All images at Keyes Art Mile by Andile Buka for Exceptional ALIEN. First row of Everard Read Gallery. Second row of Circa Gallery. Third row of Momo Kuro restaurant.

On the Cradle of Humankind

So just outside Joburg is this place called the Cradle of Humankind. It is where some of the earliest-known fossils of humans were found. To think of the possibility of all civilisation having come from this very spot is something to be proud of. It reminds me of how small we are in the greater scheme of everything, in our history. The Maropeng Visitor Centre there — as a museum, as a place of knowledge production — is incredibly designed. I’m a sucker for beautiful architecture and design that’s really contextual and organic. The structure rises up out of the ground like an anthill or a heap of sand, and it’s symbolic of all these fossils coming out of the ground in the same way. There’s so much thought put into how everything is laid out and how you experience the knowledge imparted to you.


On cultural must-sees in Johannesburg

Keyes Art Mile is an art hub and a really modern space. Johannesburg has many galleries — The Market Photo Workshop, where I studied, has exhibitions all the time — but I also really love when artists put up work in the streets. There's a photography school in Thokoza that runs an initiative called Of Soul and Joy, and when they have their annual exhibition, they print large-scale pictures and hang them on the fences in Thokoza. Through The Lens Collective at Victoria Yards is another exhibition space and photography school doing really great work in photography. 

On good places to eat

You can go to visit the galleries, enjoy the art and then go for lunch to Momo Kuro, which I absolutely love. There are few restaurants from the Momo group in Johannesburg, and I love how unique they are in their approach. Each Momo specialises in specific food: ramen, dumplings, skewers or bao buns.

First, second and third rows of Gulshan at NIROX Sculpture Park by Andile Buka for Exceptional ALIEN. Fourth, fifth and sixth rows of the Cradle of Humankind by Gulshan Khan for Exceptional ALIEN.

On the importance of history

The Apartheid Museum is a must-see to understand our history and our context. It has the right level of poignancy and visually visceral work to create that movement within your heart and your stomach, when you understand how vicious and challenging our history is. At the same time, it's beautifully designed in a way that takes you through a journey.


On a favourite place to unwind

When work ends, and I have some time to go and chill somewhere, you'll find me where there's jazz and live music. One of those places is The Marabi Club. It’s in the Hallmark House hotel and it's really beautiful: it has an old, jazzy vibe with dimmed lights. 

On where else to visit in South Africa

The landscape of the country is so diverse. We have mountains, we have deserts, we have beautiful dams and rivers. We have the ocean, warm and cold, on either side of the country. The Drakensberg, which extends across two provinces, is absolutely stunning. My sister and I grew up going to The Cascades, which are these little waterfalls and pools in Kwazulu-Natal where we used to swim. In winter it gets cold, and you go to Little Switzerland to play in the snow. There's the Kalahari, which is a desert — vast areas of arid land, which is beautiful. You can see the Big Five animals in South Africa, which is a very privileged experience not everyone gets to have. Cape Town is one of the most beautiful places in the world; you can visit the circle of Kramats, a shrine to Muslim saints buried there. You can see fields of Namaqualand daisies if you come in Spring. Limpopo is lush and green, Durban has warm water, which is wonderful to swim in.

All images of the Apartheid Museum by Andile Buka for Exceptional ALIEN.

On the South African concept of ubuntu

As I see it, ubuntu is a value system or a way of living. It's humanity; the way we should live as people, not just as South Africans. At its core, it is love, and I say ‘love’ politically. We affect those around us. I think ‘I am because you are’ is the essence of love. 

On window or aisle seat

Absolutely a window seat. I get very upset with myself if I don't check in in time to get a window seat. It's like getting an egg without the yolk. It's really a tragedy. 

On a song that sums up Johannesburg

South Africa has the roots of kwaito and jazz, now amapiano is taking over the world. So it's very difficult for me to choose a song. If I had to be literal in terms of the title, the song ‘Johannesburg’ by African Express. What a vibe. If you asked me this again I might say Miriam Makeba or TKZ. 

On Johannesburg in one word

The edge. 


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‘It’s a moving, changing, churning place, which I love.’