portrait of sanza by cole ndelu

Cole Ndelu’s Portraiture Project Catches the Light


In March this year Durban-bred, Johannesburg-based photographer Cole Ndelu launched an ongoing portrait project to document and celebrate black artists and entrepreneurs in the local creative industry. Reflected and refracted light spills across each frame to magical effect, highlighting the bright futures of her subjects and adding interesting distortions to her images – each different from the next.


She shares the shining start of the collection – she hopes to capture 25 – 30 faces – and answers our questions about this new direction and what drives her art. Whether shooting editorial-style fashion stories with a conceptual edge or capturing spontaneous portraits of the beautiful people at Afropunk, Cole works with integrity and intention: to celebrate marginalised bodies and instil pride and a sense of possibility in people of colour.


Portaits by Cole Ndelu Khanyi photographed by Cole Ndelu

Khanyisile Mdletshe


Who are the people in your images/how do you choose who to photograph?

I’ve chosen to photograph my friends and peers who are creatives and entrepreneurs in the creative industry. Since the project is in its beginning stages I’ve started with photographing the people around me who I interact with regularly. The people in this series are people whose craft I admire, people with a philosophy that speaks to mine and people who have inspired me.


Tell us about the rainbow light distortion in the images, what does this light represent? 

The refraction brings romance and texture into the images. That reflective aspect is important because I believe that the people who I have photographed, and will photograph, reflect the culture and the future of black creatives in South Africa. The rainbow reflects optimism, hope and that better times are coming.

From a technique point of view, I like to create interesting work and I try to challenge myself to marry the technique to the concept. This technique is tricky to work with and you won’t have an image look like another, which is what I love about it – every image looks different and I enjoy making these because I’m surprised every time.


What drives your work as a photographer? 

I’m driven by a few things: Fundamentally, I like to say that I create from an unapologetically black and unapologetically feminine place because being black and a woman have informed and shaped my life in so many ways – good and bad. And being black and a woman informs my interaction with the world and my photographic practice. So I predominantly create work that celebrates blackness and femininity (and femininity is a spectrum which is something that I’m very conscious of).

I’m always trying to re-see marginalised bodies and celebrate them as well. I have little sisters and a lot of what I do is meant to inspire my little sisters and brown girls everywhere because I want them to grow up seeing themselves as glorious and amazing and beautiful and loved and celebrated. I also want to inspire people of all ages, in every sector (not creatives) – I just want people to know that their dreams are possible.

And I’m driven by my desire to be a better photographer – to see better, to be more creative. I just try to better myself every time I come up with a concept and step onto a set.


How do you want your work to make people feel? 

I want people to be in awe. I want to rouse an emotional response because people are seeing themselves in a way they’ve never imagined. And I want people to be inspired and proud.


Angelo Smith

Portrait of Mpumelelo Frypan Mfula by Cole Ndelu Portrait of Mpumelelo Frypan Mfula taken by Cole Ndelu

Mpumelelo “Frypan” Mfula

Njabulo Dirty Native Hlophe by Cole Ndelu 2 Njabulo Dirty Native Hlophe by Cole Ndelu 2

 Njabulo “Dirty Native” Hlophe


Find more of Cole Ndelus work here, and follow her on Instagram for regular updates. 

Interview by Alix-Rose Cowie.


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