An interview with photo journalist Felix Dlangamandla

A friend recently took some interest in work I had done a while ago. I read through an interview I did almost two years ago and thought it wasn’t actually as bad as I would have thought. Who knew.

“You must make me famous Felix,” said rugby player Etienne Botha to news photographer Felix Dlangamandla.  Twenty four hours later Botha dies in a car crash and Felix is on the scene. “Its 06:00 in the morning and the accident just happened. The first police car had just arrived.” What Felix viewed as photographing the scene, the police saw as tampering with evidence. He was subsequently detained.

“I got arrested at the scene and was held up in a van, handcuffed in the freezing morning”. No charges were made and Felix was let go. This is just one of the many trials that this news photographer has faced. Others include being shot at with rubber bullets, being chased and most recently travelling to earthquake ravaged Haiti.

It’s a sunny Johannesburg day and 34-year-old Felix Dlangamandla is sitting outside the Media Park cafeteria. After blurting out that I’m a fan he agreed to do an interview. I get the feeling that this is a man who is serious about his passion, photography.

“I love my job. There are times when I just sit and wait for that call,” he says excitedly.

Felix Dlangamandla at his desk in Media Park

Growing up in the Eastern Cape, Felix describes his course in photography at the Vaal Triangle Technicon as “expensive for a rural boy”.  From his grade 10 year in the senior secondary school outside Aliwal North, Felix knew he wanted to be a photographer.

“On the news one night, the cameraman panned to a bunch of photographers photographing a scene”. He immediately told his grandmother that he wanted to be like them. His grandmother played a big role in his development as a photographer as she paid for his tertiary education. “At the time I lived in Sharpeville and I tried saving money by walking instead of taking a taxi and by not eating, I would eat when I went home for the weekend.”In this regard Felix was quite unlike anyone in his class of 12. “On the weekends while others partied in the  basement I would be developing my pictures and getting ready for a shoot the next day. While most students were boozing, I locked myself in the studio.”  In the end he surprised a lot of people with his dedication and was one of the four of his initial class of 12 to graduate.

Today Felix is still as enthusiastic about his photography. “Photography is me, I don’t see me doing anything else”.

After getting his three-year diploma, Felix worked with Paul Velasco, then picture editor of the Sowetan. In 2003 he started working at the Beeld office in Pretoria. He got his first break working with Leon Botha. From Botha he learnt to set a high standard for himself and his photography. At this office Felix was part of a team that he regarded as family. “When you’re that dedicated it adds another element to your photography, it’s a type of trust that unintentionally flows from you.”

Felix currently works at Foto24. On the 12th of January an earthquake hit Haiti, and it’s this event on the other side of the Pacific that has changed Felix’s life and photography forever.

When the subject arises Felix looks away and stares into the distance. He is hesitant before answering. “Only when you see it does the severity hit you. It’s huge and words cannot describe it.” Felix tells of the logistical nightmare of getting to Haiti. He and his colleague Erika Gibson had to fly to New York in order to fly to Santo Domingo and finally hitch hike into Haiti. They stayed at the airport while dozens of Haitians slept outside the gates.

“The people have nothing left. When you see it and that smell hits you, you realise that this is reality and you need to adjust. Then something happens in front of you and you have to switch off. You’re here to work and your photos should show other people the levels of devastation.” Felix speaks five languages; unfortunately none of them is French, which is the language most of the Haitians around him were speaking, making communication difficult, to say the least.

The photo Felix Dlangamandla took of Chelisma Fabiena

Felix recounts the morning he photographed the death of 15-year-old Chelisma Fabiena.

Near the debris of a fallen three-story building he heard two gunshots go off. He rushed to where the sound came from and found a girl who had just been shot in the head. “When I got there she was still fresh, I could see the blood still streaming down. This girl survived the earthquake and was killed for looting. All she had stolen was two framed flowers. ” The photo captured the humanitarian disaster of Haiti and was on the front cover of Beeld the next day.

“After seeing something like that you are very emotional but you have to realise that this is your job and you’re here to work. You shut down and start thinking about lighting, composition and angles. You need to capture the emotion”

After getting the shot, the girl’s family arrived. The family carried the girl for 3km to what was her home.

For a while, Felix stares into the distance. His left eye twitches and a silence proceeds. He tells of other horrors from Haiti that haunt him.

Back home he has also met his share of challenges. He, or rather his mother, was sworn at by Shabir Shaik, he was hit by Trevor Manual and has been chased by a farmer. In the latter case he and a co-worker went to do a story about a farm killing.  However, when the farmer saw Felix he chased him for about 300 meters.

“It’s unfortunate but I understand why he did it, if he had a gun I think he would have shot me. Someone had killed his wife, and here he sees a black man right in front of him. I’m sure that if we were to meet again we could sit down and talk about it. Nobody has the right to kill in this country.” And for his country, Felix has a lot of pride and love. He was inspired by masters in photography such as Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Jan Hamman and Dave du Toit. This inspiration has paid off as he won the 2007 SAB Sports Photographer award, a Mondi Photography award and an SA Hockey Photographer award in 2006.

Felix’s goal is to help aspiring photographers. He wants to share his knowledge with young photographers and is doing so through giving lectures at varsities and colleges.

His advice? Be patient. Get as much guidance, experience and training as possible. There is no quick fix. He also suggests that you tell a story in a creative manner and think about the elements of photography that you are using to tell the story.

Felix has not yet gone for any therapy, but finds relief in his passion for photography and sport. “A camera is an expensive piece of equipment. It’s so fragile. You have to look after it and love it. I talk to this baby of mine and when I have time at work I dust the lenses. I make my art through this camera.”

With a similar love for playing and capturing sport, the 2010 World Cup means you’ll be hearing a lot more of Felix Dlangamandla.

Haitian girl injured in Earth Quake

‘In Haiti, I saw this girl with a bandage around her head and a swollen eye. As I walked past her I took her picture. She heard the camera go off and turned around and looked at me and something told me: “Don’t take this picture”. I felt very sorry for this girl and gave her all the money in my wallet, which was $40.’-Felix Dlangamandla

This is another one of Felix’s photos taken in Haiti. “I had never seen a person being burnt before. The smell  stays with you. Kneeling down the smoke comes right into you.” 5: Felix loves sport. This is a photo he took at a soccer match.

This is another one of Felix’s photos taken in Haiti. “I had never seen a person being burnt before. The smell stays with you. Kneeling down the smoke comes right into you.”

Felix loves this photo

When I asked Felix which of his photos captures the new South Africa, he described this one. It was taken at a comrades marathon. The man was struggling but the woman stopped and helped him across the finish line. “Sometimes you don’t recognize these small things. This spirit of ‘comrades’ should be a standard thing.”

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