Lindokuhle Sobekwa, I carry Her photo with Me

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by MACK Books (here). Spiral-bound hardcover, 18 x 22 cm, 80 pages, with 40 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by Neelika Jayawardane and the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The South African photographer Lindokuhle Sobekwa learned his craft over a decade ago through the Of Soul and Joy photography education program, an artistic initiative based in the eastern Johannesburg township of Thokoza where he grew up. As he started to take photographs, Sobekwa realized that photography could be used to tell stories that actually concerned and interested him. In his work, he tends to represent his community in Thokoza and its transformation, and to reflect on the lingering effects of apartheid. In 2020 he collaborated with the French photographer Cyprien Clément-Delmas (the two met through the Of Soul and Joy program and became friends) on a photobook. Titled Daleside, it created a portrait of a small and isolated Afrikaner suburb southeast of Johannesburg. 

Sobekwa’s new photobook, titled I carry Her photo with Me, documents his search for a lost sibling. The project started in 2017, during his Magnum Foundation Photography & Social Justice fellowship. The book concept is based on a hand-made version he made a couple of years earlier (which was included in “African Cosmologies” at the FotoFest Biennial Houston).

I carry Her photo with Me is quite exciting as a photobook object. Its spiral-bound hardcover construction with hand-scribbled notes throughout echoes the feel of an intimate journal or scrapbook, a format that works particularly well with its content. A photograph of laundry drying outside by a shack envelops the front cover of the book. The artist’s name and the title don’t appear anywhere prominently, reinforcing the motif of a personal diary. The essay by Neelika Jayawardane, printed in a separate booklet, offers more details about Sobekwa’s family and places his specific family history in a wider context.

This body of work was inspired by a family photograph Sobekwa came across in 2017 while reading the bible that belonged to his mother. The photograph captures five family members and Sobekwa as a young boy; his older sister Ziyanda wears a green cardigan and a floral skirt, almost disappearing against the green bush behind her. In that photo, her face appears cut out, replaced with a sharp white square. This project is a journey to understand his sister, and find peace after a traumatic childhood accident. When Sobekwa was seven, his sister chased him into the street where he was hit by a car and ended up in the hospital with a broken spine. Ziyanda disappeared after the accident and returned home only a decade later. Seriously ill, she passed away not long after. This book engages both with the “memory of his sister and the wider implications of such disappearances”, a common trend in South Africa. 

No one in Sobekwa’s family wanted to talk about Ziyanda, her life becoming a highly taboo subject. To attempt to reconnect with her, the book retraces Ziyanda’s life over the decade she was missing, with Sobekwa learning about her life through people who knew her. The opening spread pairs the original photograph with Sobekwa’s handwriting “I carry her photo with me Ziyanda whose face is missing in the family group portrait she never take pictures”. 

I carry Her photo with Me goes on to map Ziyanda’s disappearance, via assembled snapshots of places she visited and people she encountered, filing in the missing years. One of the first images shows a hostel, the place where his mother found Ziyanda; there he discovered connections to some of the people who knew Ziyanda and were friends with her. One spread pairs two photographs, the girls pose on beds and look straight into the camera; one of them wears white underwear (or a bikini) and the other one a polka dot dress. Another photo shows a woman in a red sweater on her bed turned away from the camera, with Sobekwa’s writing next to it noting, “Some of my sister’s friends didn’t want me to show their faces. Like my sister who never wanted to take pictures.”

The spiral binding of the book feels particularly intentional. It divides the photographs into two parts, symbolizing the disjointed and fragmented nature of the project and its memories. One photograph shows the mother on a bed, deep in her thoughts, as the spiral breaks the image into two, reinforcing the sense of tragedy and loss. In another picture, his mother stands in a tent city (where they moved after their home burnt down and they lost everything), again split into two. The very last spread pairs a small square cut-out of a photograph, depicting a woman’s head; perhaps it symbolizes Ziyanda, and the area on the right is a handwritten page from Sobekwa’s diary. 

Sobekwa’s series also relates to many of the larger issues that continue to haunt South Africa, like migration to urban areas in search of employment and the trauma of disappearances of loved ones (in illegal gold mining or the violent separations of families). Looking back at the project, Sobekwa notes: “It has helped me to be okay talking about it, to talk about such things with my family, for the first time in my life. Though a person doesn’t just heal overnight – it’s a process that I’m still in. I hope someone out there who’s looking at it can also benefit from it in some way or another.”

As a photobook, I carry Her photo with Me is innovative in both its content and presentation, and is similarly beautifully produced, thoughtful and elegant throughout. It offers a powerfully creative approach to re-imagining fragmented personal histories. Working on this project helped Sobekwa to heal and to find connection with what was lost. It definitely stands out as one of the strongest photobooks published so far this year.

Collector’s POV: Lindokuhle Sobekwa is represented by Magnum Photos (here), where he became a nominee in 2018 and a member in 2022. He is also represented by Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and elsewhere (here). His work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Send this article to a friend

Read more about: Lindokuhle Sobekwa, MACK Books

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Articles

Róisín White, Lay Her Down Upon Her Back

Róisín White, Lay Her Down Upon Her Back

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2023 by Landskrona Foto (here), Breadfield Press (here) and Witty Books (here). Softcover, 12 x 18 cm, 200 pages, with about 80 black-and-white photographs ... Read on.

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter