The Man Worth a Thousand Words
Words by Phetha Motumi
Calm, in a soft grey tracksuit and white tee, was the man without a camera attached to his face. As the noise created a hum in the room, Phenyo Keitheile’s quiet demeanor settled over us as we began uncovering what that thing is about his photos over coffee. First, it began as a small digital camera he used during Visual Arts in high school. It wasn’t until a trip to China with his brother and father that his love of taking images really began. “I bought my first DSLR and it was so much fun. At first, I was shooting everything on automatic: the most beautiful views in nature and sunsets in Pretoria, obsessed with two-point perspective. Later, when I moved to Joburg, I started taking pictures of the people around me.” Once he began playing around with manual, posting on Facebook in 2014 and later on Instagram, everything seemed to take off.
Before he became known for shooting influencers, it was Sarah Langa who inadvertently gave Keitheile his big break. “She took my photography on Instagram to a different level - bringing me to the attention of other people I now work with regularly like; Amanda Du Pont, Nandi Madida, Mickyle Berling (who I’ve shot more than 20 times), Khanya Kunene (who helped style my last shoot) and Mihlali Ndamase. Those are the people where, it doesn’t matter the weather or the time of day, as long as I have my camera, it will always turn out amazing.”
Funny enough, although Keitheile doesn’t recall a particular photo sparking a love of this craft, his father may be the reason for his passion. “I found out recently that my dad used to like taking photos when he was in university. He went to school in London and there are literally boxes and boxes of photos that he took of himself, of my mom and of the city.” He cites finding those hidden treasures from the past as part of the reason for his perspective on just what makes a good picture. Even though the style itself may change from time to time, staying loose and playing around different aesthetics is something the creative enjoys.
“It changes from moment to moment. Today it could be something arty, the next day it can be something more street. It could also be more editorial or more studio; sometimes, it can even depend on what show I’m watching.” Right now, that happens to be Umbrella Academy on Netflix. While we spoke animatedly about our favorite shows at the moment, he pointed out that the show gave way to a few projects shot in a grungier style. If it was Chewing Gum, things would probably be shot from a different perspective. While he is learning a different approach to the medium, completing a BA in Creative Brand Communication, specializing in Visual Arts at Vega is what he juggles along with four to five shoots a week. “The degree hasn’t helped me per se, but the environment has. A lot of people on campus are these funky, cool kids so there is a lot to shoot; plus there are a lot people I’ve met through other people there.” That still doesn’t change who he’s inspired by.
Keitheile gushed over American photographer Mark Nguyen taking clean, monochromous shots of edgy street style as his inspiration. Considering a different perspective, Vincent Van Gogh’s life story and unforgettable work are touching to the photographer. “I admire him. Through his struggles and everything he became one of the most well known artists and one of the most well known painters. If you actually listen to his story: from having this passion to paint and needing money from his brother, it’s really a one hundred-year-old story about millenials. Van Gogh was the first millennial for sure. We get a bad rep but we’re just different. The last few generations of humans have always been at war with something. Now we’re not at peace but there’s no war.”
Instead of looking at snapshots of disaster in the past, Keitheile is shaping the present through his work. Turning bashful over the praise, he began to speak about his love of portraits and a mild obsession with the female form in fine fashion. “It’s honest and beautiful in every shape, colour and ethnicity” he says speaking on the aesthetic. “I don’t believe there is one form of beauty. Every single human being can be beautiful in their own way. It is cliché, I know,” he laughs, “I am trying to dabble in a lot of different stuff in terms of the array of people I shoot. It doesn’t feel different but there is so much I haven’t posted. I could stop shooting for 5 years but I could still post for 5 years.” Now, it seems to be about editing older images and getting things out there.
Even though his page invites you to take a closer look at bold faces styled in the latest drip, Keitheile’s travel photography is not any less intimate. “I have different images in my mind when I’m taking a picture. It is almost like a collage of the different elements it takes to create that great picture.” While he uses clothes and location to determine how portraits of people should be taken - with travel, it is a two-point perspective. “I always try to encompass the vibe of a place and then shift to landscapes of the area.”
Regardless of what he is taking a photo of, he admits to being a bit of perfectionist. “Everything has to be mentally as I envisioned it. I’ll make sure the earrings are pointing straight, the necklace isn’t leaning to one side, both collars are up etc. More often than not, I want everything to look proper.” One thing he keeps consistent is that in every shot, the model should serve face. “For some reason, I do not like smiling in shots. Maybe it is because of the grungy editorials like Dazed and i-D I am always looking at where no one is ever smiling. That lack of emotion is more emotive than a smile that tells you how to feel.” Finding a deeper interest in what lies beneath, he even made reference to the famous Mona Lisa. “If someone is not smiling, you’re like ‘what is she thinking? Is she sad, is she pissed, what’s going on?’ She has this straight face and a bit of a smirk so you just do not know. That is more interesting to me.”
The way people flock to da Vinci’s work is the same level of excitement Keitheile has for the people on his bucket list for shoots. “I want to come up with ideas and have a fire shoot with Sho Madjozi. Also, I would want to shoot someone cliché like Drake. Actually, Drake has been a lot of different people in music and style so I would need someone in the middle of being out the box who can easily get back in the box.” If that did not make sense, the photographer went onto explain that it would have to be someone who is not typecast. “Timothée Chalamet would be one of those people, he is in the middle but he also has this power to be a cool kid; Mahershala Ali as well because of my love for series and movies. Whether he’s in Green Book or True Detective, he always manages to get you invested. And the man has style.” With that being something we both wholeheartedly agree on, Keitheile continues to share.
“If I wasn’t doing this, I would want to work in advertising because I have this romanticized idea of working a desk job. Waking up at 07:00AM and going to an office speaks to me, I don’t know why. Nothing is ever what we want it to be though – it’s the human condition”. While the idea of the ad world is omnipresent to him, a love of showing off visuals will always be on the photographer’s mind. As for his moniker he says, “I misspelt it because the real thing was taken and it just stuck. It still feels right. When I am naming things I always want something I can see still being there in the long run; not something influenced by anything else but this saying has been around from hundreds of years.” With a name that can’t help but stick, Phenyo Keitheile hopes that people get an eye into his mind through his photographs. “I’m just one perspective in the billions of human beings. I want people to see how my mind works for a brief moment, even if it’s not 100% of what makes me, me.” With passion like that, who would we be to resist such a careful eye for the craft?