Intimate Strangers: When the madam is away, the help will slay

Puleng Mongale's photo series Intimate Strangers will be released in instalments. The first part is a social commentary on labour relationships in South Africa.

Soweto-based creative Puleng Mongale has just released the first of an ongoing photographic series titled Intimate Strangers. Without revealing too much of what is to come in the next two parts, Mongale explains that Part 1, When the madam is away, the help will slay, can be seen as a social commentary on labour relationships in South Africa.

“Part 1, When the madam is way, the help will slay, is about living your best life when you can,” says Mongale. “And for most of our grandparents and even our parents that opportunity only came when their boss (the madam) would step out. My grandmother who lives in the Free State once told me a story about how my mother and the older siblings would take turns in sneaking her last born into the shop she worked at so that he could be breastfed and this only happened when her boss was out. So the madam is basically someone that you work for but can’t be free when they’re around.”

Working with photographers Kgomotso Neto Tleane and Khotso Bantu Mahlangu, who shot and co-directed the project, and make up artist Nompumelelo Mpumie Ntenteni, Mongale styled the sets for the series herself. The images can be seen on Mongale’s blog Where It Rains and on her Instagram feed. We chatted to her about the project.

Tell us a bit about yourself. 

My name is Puleng, it literally means “where it rains” or “in the rain”. I was born in Orlando East in Soweto. When I was eight years old my parents moved to Naturena – a previously white-only suburb – in the South of Joburg, which is where I am still currently based. I studied Public Relations for a year at Varsity College (Sandton Campus) and then went on to study towards a degree in English and Communication Science through the University of South Africa (Unisa). I graduated in 2014.

Can you explain the name of the series “Intimate Strangers”? 

Intimate Strangers is actually a hint, at this stage I can’t really divulge much about the name because I’ll be telling you what the project is really about and I don’t want to do that. What I can say is that it’s an on-going series and it’s going to take on different forms. But there’s a consistent thread throughout and I think people will only catch onto this on the third drop. The second drop is going to be a bit of a mind fuck but it’ll make sense as you follow the series and I want people to figure it out on their own.

What are the themes?

Part 1 – When the madam is away, the help will slay – can be viewed as social commentary on labour relations in South Africa. Each part will tackle a different theme and people should look out for that.

How long did it take?

The conceptualising stage took the longest (a few months) because the project took on so many different forms. The shoot only took two hours but we still didn’t know what to expect because a project is never really done until you release it and the release breeds new insights so it really is an on-going process.

How do you spend your time? Is this a creative side project?

I’ve been unemployed for almost four months now. Before that I was working as a copywriter in an advertising agency. After encountering issues related to racism, systemic oppression, classism, etc. I fell ill and was hospitalised for depression and anxiety. I decided to take a break from the industry (employment in general) and found comfort and healing in working on my passion projects. Intimate Strangers is not a side project, it’s one of the many projects I’ve been working on for some time now.  I spend my time conceptualising and collaborating and I am also shooting a documentary called BLACKest.