In this week ‘Meet’, we take a look at the incredibly passionate and talented South African self-taught photographer and film maker, Justice Mukheli @justicemukheli . In his work, Justice focuses on telling Authentic South African stories where he uses familiar emotions, faces and characters to make them relatable. We recently caught up with Justice to chat about his passion for telling stories, how he built his career and what he’s hoping to achieve next:
Tell us a little bit about your background, where you grew up, what your family life was like and where you lived.
Hello my name is Justice Mukheli. I was born in the township of Soweto, Johannesburg and spent my childhood there. I’m one of four kids, I’ve got a twin brother. We are the middle kids and we have an older brother and younger sister. Our upbringing in Soweto was beautiful, very adventurous, fun and we loved exploring all the time. My childhood was filled with love and art and all expressions of art. My mom is an artist in her respective field. She used to sew clothes and she baked beautiful cakes. My father was a truck driver but he was also into music. Not as a musician but he loved listening to music. He once drew a picture of himself, my twin brother and I listening to music; that experience with him is what sparked my interest in art. My family is very loving and we are all very close. I also had an amazing relationship with my grandparents from both my mom and dads’ sides of the family.
You are a Film Director/Photographer. Have you always wanted to be in the industry? What was the dream?
Yes I’m a film director and photographer. I actually really didn’t want to be in this industry at first, mainly because I didn’t know anything about it. Growing up I had other dreams for myself. I had a dream to be an athlete because I was very athletic. I had a dream of becoming a musician so I got into music and I did well but I was more of a producer than a singer or a rapper, and the genre of music I was interested in was Hip Hop. I also had the ambition to be in IT so I grew up with a huge interest in computer programming and understanding how computer systems work. But I never really had the chance to have my own computer as a child. So, my twin brother and I bought scraps and put them together and made a computer.
How did you get into the business? What was your big break?
I got into advertising by chance. I used to make t-shirts and illustrations and we used to make poster designs for people. Because we loved graffiti, we thought creating posters for people would be another way of getting our graffiti art out there. So we would make these posters which had our graffiti tags on them so when people would put up their posters, our name tags were on them. Then through that we met someone who was working for FCB JHB and told us he needed our help to design and illustrate stuff. They called us in to come help them with a campaign for Vodacom. We made these illustrations for them and they ended up giving us an internship which lead to us becoming full time employees. I worked at FCB for three years then moved over to Ogilvy for three years. There I grew an interest in photography because I would work on campaigns that were selling products to black people and the photography work created was not authentic to South African people. By this I mean they were not shooting real South African people, they shot East African people and West African people and they obviously don’t look South African. So I thought that if I really get to shoot South African looking people then the work would be relatable, and I started shooting my own campaigns as references, and I was able to convince my creative director and the client to trust me with the work. That’s how I got into photography and photography got me into directing because the film industry was using a lot of night photography as reference for their pictures. So someone said to me why don’t you try to do directing, and I tried directing, because they thought my photography had narratives, so that’s where my journey started for me there and now I’m directing full time. It’s beautiful.
What, in your opinion is the most important quality in a film director?
I think the most important quality in any film director or any artist is to align your work with your purpose, create from within and not to create to fulfill the expectations of other people.
Who has served as your creative inspiration? Which particular film director has influenced you the most?
I wouldn’t say that there has been one particular director that has had a big influence on me. There are many people that have influenced me even outside of the film industry. I am inspired by Bradford Young, an American cinematographer. Also, I love Ava Duvernay, an American filmmaker who mostly works with Bradford Young. I am influenced by film directors but also by my history and the history of our country. I am inspired by people like the Soweto uprising struggle hero Stephen Bantu Biko, that captured some challenging times from the past through their writings. People like Biko really inspire me because they were able to be creative, to have a voice and to stand up for their beliefs, in times where it wasn’t as possible and as easy but they still fought, and they were heard. This is a huge influence in the work I do because I create with the hope that my stories breathe the same sentiment and life as those struggle heroes that inspire me.
What road blocks did you face when you were starting out?
I have a lot of roadblocks and this might sound political but the biggest and first one is that I am black in an industry that is predominantly white so being my skin color means I have to prove that I am just as good. Also, I grew up in a community and went to a school that didn’t prioritise English. So I only realised quite late in my life that English is very important and that I had to equip myself and learn the language in order to compete and create on a global scale. But as I started learning English I soon realized that I had dyslexia. Reading and reading out loud was incredibly hard for me. And as a result of my dyslexia, my use of language is not the same as other people. That has been a challenging roadblock, but I constantly push and fight and overcome this shortcoming.
What has been your biggest achievements so far?
My biggest achievement is to rub shoulders with people that are qualified in this profession. Being able to pitch and compete against them, and mostly win against them with all the shortcomings that I have have. Another big achievement for me is when all odds were against me, I still rose above and I didn’t let all those challenges define me or pull me back and I just continued to push and go against the grain. Because all I have is myself, my ambitions and my dreams. I am the only person who can make it happen, so even scratching the surface is a big achievement to me.
What do you find Is the hardest challenge balancing your work and personal life?
To be honest there is no challenge balancing my work and my personal life because my work is my personal life and my personal life is my work. I love my work so much that I can’t exist without it. Being a photographer and film maker is as vital as breathing to me. It is so intertwined that the lines are blurred and there is no differentiation or way to separate the two. They are one and they feed each other for me to be me.
What is your self care philosophy?
I try to always be present in the moment, be aware and participate in all the decisions and all the smallest things of my life and in my life. I try my best never to be in pilot mode and that is self-care to me…giving myself my undivided attention at all times, to be present and show up in my own life.
Take us through an average day in the life, the first thing you do in the morning through the last thing you do at night.
The first thing I do in the morning is to meditate for 20 minutes. Then I do my workout routine at home, mostly cardio. Next I have a shower then go to the office. Once there, I first check what I have to do for the day and get on with it. When I am finished, I either pick up on a backlog of photographs that need to be scanned, processed or edited, or I look at references and do some writing (that I do on my Dictaphone) for an ad or project that I’m working on. At the end of my workday, I drive back home, make some food and do some more research. I’m always researching ways to better my craft whether it is photography or directing. I’m a bit obsessive that way. If I don’t have anything to do, this is where you will find me.
What does you perfect day look like?
My perfect day is if I can wake up, go to my mom’s house, walk my dog, drive to the office, drive back home, maybe find a moment with my partner, take a walk in the park, come back and just hang out and talk. That’s a perfect day for me.
My biggest vice is obsession and selfishness in my creative process. It’s hard for me to include anyone in my creative process but the people I work with don’t know that.
Something you can’t live without?
I love fashion, I love peace and quiet, and I love being in my own bubble without any disturbances. I’m almost like an introvert. I can’t live without having an opportunity to just shut out the world and be in my own space. I can’t live without clothes because I love fashion and I can’t exist without being creative because that is my fuel to life.
What is next for u?
I don’t know what’s next. A lot is currently happening in my life. So for now, I’ve decided to focus on being a commercial film director. That part of my career is growing fast and I think that it is the next big thing that is about to happen in my life. I’m not sure in what form but It’s going to be in the space I’m currently working In.
Sweet or Savoury? Savory
Hot or cold? Hot
Lips or Eyes? Eyes
Smoothie or Juice? Smoothie
Coffee or Tea Tea
Describe yourself as a person in 3 words: Loving, passionate, impatient.
Your favourite thing in your closet right now? Rick Owens pants, 5 pairs
What’s on your cell phone playlist at the moment? Mali Jazz, a mix that I created.
One book you read that positively shaped you? Soolah by tony Morrison
Favorite Tv show? “Explained” on Netflix and “when they see us”
One superpower you would like to have? Spreading love, and making love infectious
Best gift you have ever received? My partner bought me an ipod- my best gift so far!