South African photographer addresses the stigma of mental illness in Africa

As a sufferer of depression, photographer Thembela "Nymless" Ngayi is out to change perceptions of mental illness.

From the Series

Stigma towards mental illness is still pervasive in the African community. In particular, African men are considered weak for exhibiting signs of mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. This perception bars sufferers from seeking help for potentially devastating conditions. With a personal understanding of this problem, Cape Town-based photographer Thembela "Nymless" Ngayi created a series of portraits titled, Depression: The Great African Horror Story, to bring this abstract topic to life.

“When I went through my lowest point last year, I lost interest in everything. Colours faded and it was a dark period. So with this series I wanted to show what I went through exactly,” Ngayi explains.

A public relations executive by day and photographer in his free time, the Eastern Cape-born creative is slowly making himself heard in Cape Town’s creative spaces. His latest series features a man in the throes of depression, pictured alongside a woman who plays multiple roles in the imagery, explains Ngayi.

“At first, she represents society. In some shots, you can see her not paying attention to the man's suffering, the same way African communities ignore the topic of mental illness and depression. There's a shot where she hands him a knife, which represents the sharp comments and name calling one experiences once they have admitted to having some form of depression,” he says. “She also is sympathetic after his demise, the same way society will only take notice once you've taken your own life. Also, I tapped on the belief of spiritual entities that we as Africans rely on to solve problems. She is there guiding him through this time.”

Ngayi says his photography is meant to make people feel uncomfortable about topics that are ignored or not widely discussed. “I want society to understand how to deal with and treat a person who suffers from a mental illness of any form,” he adds.

Also the founder of Organized Crime, a collective space that brings creatives together, Ngayi says his creative pursuits form part of a bigger movement to lift the lid on African stories.

“Young African creatives are the ‘new gold’ if I may say so. We have regained our confidence and using our stories to carve a new wave of incredible art. Our stories are incredible and we tell them with authenticity using creative mediums.”

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