Young township photographer Sipho Mpongo is heading to New York

This is the story of a boy from Langa who went to a school dance with a “stolen” camera and found himself and his camera on a plane to New York.

Sipho Mpongo was born in the tiny rural town of Nqamakwe in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, a mountainous area fringed by forest. As a young child he was brought to Cape Town where he was raised in the oldest Cape township of Langa. Despite the persistent fear and uncertainty that hangs over impoverished communities, it is one of few places where the only tools you are given to realise your dreams is passion and determination. There is little money for schooling and very few of the youths who grow up here will make it to a tertiary education.

Yet despite these challenges, a handful of great South African artists, musicians and sportsman have emerged from its cramped quarters and concrete playgrounds and found international recognition in their field of excellence. At the astonishingly young age of 22, Mpongo can count himself among them.

The soft-spoken young man sits next to an impeccably made bed, a plastic bucket hangs on the wall behind him and his camera lies next to him, always close at hand. He tells the story of his first dabble in photography, as a young boy of 11 on his way to a dance at Thembani Primary School where he was a grade 7 student. On his way out he grabbed his aunt’s camera. “I stole it,” he shrugs, “because I wanted to take pictures.”

His decision to take the camera turned out to be a catalyst that would forge him a path to a tertiary education at the prestigious Cape Town School of Photography and the honour of being the only South African ever to be chosen for the Magnum Photos Human Rights Fellowship in New York.

“Something interesting happened there,” he says, referring to that night of the dance.

 I ended up just taking pictures of people. I didn’t care if I danced. I think at that moment, that’s when I realised I wanted to explore photography.

From then, he took pictures wherever he went and visited galleries exhibiting the works of other photographers just to pick up as many tips as he could. In Grade 11 he made the decision to become a photojournalist in order to tell the stories of what he had seen growing up in a township like Langa.

Mpongo joined Iliso Labantu, a mentorship programme for photographers from townships that offers extensive training. Through this he was offered a scholarship to study photography at the Cape Town School of Photography. It wasn’t easy for him as photography is an expensive profession, but Sipho worked hard and it paid off when he was awarded Top Student of 2013.

A few months ago a friend sent him a link to the Magnum Foundation application forms. “This is for you,” his friend said. And he was right. Mpongo sent in an application together with an essay on human rights. Early one morning he received an email that came through on his phone. “Congratulations” it said. Mpongo initially thought it was a joke. “I thought it was one of those spam things  - you’ve won the lotto”, he laughs. But it wasn’t spam. It was Mpongo's ticket to New York as the very first South African to be accepted to participate in the Magnum Photo Fellowship, an intensive, six-week programme at New York University.

It’s a dream, an illusion. I’ve wanted this for years. Seeing this one text and realising the dream is going to be real. At that moment I sat down. My first thought was "wow". I’ve always wanted to go to New York, but to go for my work feels like a reward.