The Teddy Sambu short film is a positive African story. It is a reflection of the hard reality of common lives, the gritty determination required to make positive changes and the generous, selfless, contributions of business and individual mentors.
Mentored by the Ginkgo Agency’s director of photography and sponsored by the Imara Lightwarriors project – an opportunity created by an investment group, Imara Holdings, Teddy Sambu is a young African photographer who is embarking on the journey of a lifetime.
The Imara Light Warriors Initiative offers emerging African photographers the opportunity to develop to their full potential. The initiative offers a two-year scholarship and unique opportunities in which to exercise the craft. The Ginkgo Agency followed Teddy on one such opportunity – a photographic assignment to the Okavango Delta.
In order to tell this incredible story and gain exposure for the initiative, the agency created a media package that contained a short film, still photography and a written profile piece for print and digital consumption.
Teddy Sambu reaches out his right hand, tips the fingers of the man he is greeting. He smiles, makes eye contact. Their fingers make a snapping sound as they release the grip and touch their fists to their hearts. With Teddy Sambu, even a handshake is a long story. He speaks to the man, explaining why this setup of cameras is rolling on the backdrop of a Khayeltisha sunrise. “These guys are here to make a film about Teddy Sambu, ” he says. Teddy often refers to himself in the third person. It’s as if he considers himself the observer of the inspiring life’s journey that is unfolding.
Teddy casts a slight figure, framed against the backdrop of this sprawling township. His expression is wide-eyed, unimposing, gentle, sincere. A little nervous. He is a humble bloke. There is no pretence, only genuine gratitude and a desire to learn. He’s grasping at all he can after an early life scarred with tragedy and challenging circumstances.
“This is my Khayeltisha,” he says sweeping a hand over the sprawl of tin roofs and smoking chimneystacks below. “I want to use my photography to tell a positive story about this place. I want to make a change.” He could have said that he wanted to use photography to get the hell out of here, to get rich. He didn’t.
Another bloke strolls over for a handshake; broad smile, offering a cigarette. Everyone in the hood knows Teddy; he’s the go-to-guy for family portraits. Teddy declines the smoke, but is happy to drag up another anecdote. The film crew is getting antsy.
He turns to the camera, pulling the hood of a sweatshirt over his head, and readies himself for his first-ever interview. Maybe it’s to ward off the early chill, the boyish grin suggests that it may be someplace to hide. This is a big deal. He is a young photographer about to embark on the greatest journey of his life.
Tomorrow he boards an airplane for the first time, says goodbye to the only town he knows, and flies to a foreign country to shoot his first corporate commission. Expectations are racked. His mentors, his bursars; they’re keen to see his stuff. They want to exhibit his images. Family back in the Eastern Cape wouldn’t recognise this kid, the boy they sent to make good in the city.
Given the odds against cracking it, they’d be slack-jawed at the news of him making it this far.
Teddy doesn’t boast his passion for photography, he beams it. He picked up a camera at the age 15 and despite the cost of film and developing, managed to produce a collection of images, one of them a portrait of his late mother. The images sparked interest by others and presented a realisation in the boy’s mind that people may be interested in paying for his work. Photography did not appear as an outlet of artistic expression – it offered a means to survive.
When it was time to leave his village and fend for himself in the city Teddy found himself scraping an existence against the grain of unemployment. He knocked on the doors of the township, offering the service of family portraiture at the hand of a borrowed point-and-shoot camera.
Given the ‘luxury’ of the service he was offering to people on the breadline, success was improbable. But there is a kindness about Teddy, a quality that reciprocates in those he meets. You want to hug him. Heck, you want to shake his hand at the least, offer some kind of return of his gentle naivety. People opened up to Teddy, and business trickled into the makeshift studio – a canvas backdrop pegged to a barbed wire fence.
It was at this place that Teddy was found by another professional photographer. “This guy, Damon Hyland, he was looking for someone to share his knowledge with,” Teddy says. “He found me. God sent him. I could not believe it. Amazing. I have known him for two years. He arranged a professional Nikon camera for me, taught me how to use it, and he gave me jobs, lots of jobs, capturing images. He has become like… he is my brother, my father, my family.”
Hyland’s mentorship and connections to like-minded professionals unlocked the opportunity of a bursary offered by Imara, an African investment group. Teddy went from snapping his subjects at two-megapixels a frame to attending full-blown tuition at the Cape Town School of Photography.
And now, this. The plane is shuddering against the throttle. Teddy is fiddling with his seatbelt, wondering if the buckle is the right way around, hoping it will click, praying that this twin-prop Boeing will land him safely in Botswana. He’s not alone. Athol Moult sits beside him, poking a finger at a map of the Okavango Delta. He is briefing Teddy on the impending eight-day odyssey.
The mission is to travel the length of the delta, from the frontier town of Maun in the south to the delta’s panhandle in the far north. Teddy will navigate three rivers and is expected to capture the story of the rivers as the lifeblood of the region – the source of survival for the animals and people that have settled on the banks.
Moult is the visionary behind the Imara Lightwarriors project – an opportunity created for emerging photographers to develop to their potential. The initiative offers a two-year scholarship and unique opportunities in which to exercise the craft. Moult tells Teddy that his pictures will be used in Imara’s corporate communication. Teddy shifts on his seat and looks out of the window as Moult reiterates the fact – it’s show time.
Everything is new. Teddy has never spent the night in a safari lodge, travelled by boat or slept in a tent surrounded by wild creatures. He has never laid eyes on an elephant, crocodile, hippo or any other beast browsing this oasis expanse. The spotlight is on. People are prodding him, speaking in a foreign language, cautioning, chiding, advising, steering him in every direction. It’s an overwhelming cacophony of input, enough to make the average bloke run for cover.
Teddy smiles through it all. Sometimes he hums a traditional song. But mostly, he smiles. His shoulders are hunched, eye to the viewfinder. His reply to the sensory overload is to observe, record all of this stuff on camera. Today he is shooting the image of a woman who weaves baskets for a living. Tomorrow - who knows? It doesn’t matter.
Teddy is not looking ahead. It’s this moment that appeals, the woman and her craft. Inside the incessant tide of caution against what may be, Teddy is quietly offering the frenetic professionals that surround him a lesson of his own. All that matters is now, and inside of this little hut.
Time evaporates when boating the Okavango Delta. The routine of navigating narrow papyrus channels, slowing to view a crocodile, stopping to photograph a fish eagle, starting to make way for a wading bull elephant, marvelling at the sunset, setting up camp, breaking camp, beginning again. Days blend.
It’s easy to scoop up complacency as a companion on this journey. It’s a mistake a photographer can’t afford to make. Out here, opportunity passes in an instant. Teddy has been advised to look for the finer detail in the familiarity of every sweep of the meander. He nods at his mentor and rests a heavy lens in his lap. After many days and a multitude of camera clicks, the mission is almost complete. And still, he’s waiting. Finger on the shutter, eager as ever. But there is a change in the guy. He’s got his shirt off. “Chillaxing,” he says.
Legs stretched, Teddy is warming in the sun after a swim in the crystal current of the river. Last night’s fireside review of his photographs revealed a collection of startling reflections of river life. There is one image, that of a young man, body arched like a bow, absorbing the afternoon light. Every fibre of his body is sprung with effort as he poles a dugout mokoro canoe across an expanse of lilies.
This photograph tells a story far beyond the physical. It’s everything that his commissioners were hoping for. And there are more. This picture is one out of a burgeoning selection. Teddy’s eye has found them all. He has earned this moment in the sun. He has got what he came here for. Most importantly, he knows what he wants to do when he gets home. “I want to take more pictures of Khayelitsha,” he smiles.