Open up to togetherness with Ruth Motau, South Africa’s first black woman Photo Editor and uTata Madiba’s photographer.

We visited Soweto to meet the first black woman photographer employed by a South African newspaper and who then, became the country’s first black woman photo editor of three top newspapers.

Ruth Motau is humble as a cup of coffee but her work has been published in the New York Times and Washington Post.

The legend reflects on her career, and the stories and people behind the images that she captures in black and white. 

Images that have not only become iconic and important emblems of South Africa’s photographic history, they also capture life, at once raw, powerful, solar, dark and empathetic in intimate essays.

With her parents’ faith and blessing, this artist boldly entered her chosen field at a time where photographers saw, first hand, a nation on a knife edge.

“In 1993 when I was hired as an intern, the photography industry was male dominated. I wasn’t even aware that I was the first black woman to be employed as a photographer… All that I wanted was to be the best I could be,” comments Ruth.  

While pursuing new projects, like her latest titled Black Beauty, Mrs. Motau sees her greatest achievement as sharing her skills.

“My mentorship doesn’t really have a name because I’ve been mentoring students for a long time. Even while still working at the newspaper I had people that I used to mentor… I know how it is and how it was not to have a mentor.  The space and opportunity that I was given,  I want to give it back.”

We asked Ruth what guidance and advice she’d give to young photographers?  

“Work hard. There’s no shortcuts to anything. Know your camera. Find mentors if you don’t have. Find a niche of how you want to do your work. It’s ok to copy other people and what they do but ultimately you’ll find your own way to be you and be yourself,” says the storyteller who describes herself as a social documentary photographer whose goal is to give a voice to the voiceless. Something she’s managed to do time and time again through her work. 

“The concept of Mandela himself was humility. I’ve been his photographer a few times… and everytime that he meets someone he would introduce himself, even though people would know who he was. That for me was humility. 

Asked about the meaning of Mandela Day… 

Ruth touchingly responds, “For me it means living a life of purpose. Living a life of serving other people. It’s not a once off thing, it’s an everyday event.”

This trail-blazing artist’s way of making the world a better place would be a photography school to encourage black children to make this a career. If anyone can do it, it’s Ruth Motau.


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