BETWEEN THE LINES WITH NEO NTSOMA

Today is a  very special day for me.  It’s the first day that this blog does what it was created for. It’s the day I am so honoured to get to publish my great sister, friend and prolific photographer Neo Ntsoma’s story. I first met her on the happiest day of her life, as the first black female winner of the CNN African Journalist – Photojournalist  of the year award in 2004. Dressed in a bright red and white suit, a top hat and wide smile with sparkling eyes, I immediately knew she was one of a kind. Since then we’ve become like sisters, meeting often to talk about anything but the work we do, have coffee, watch films, and imagine and dream about the future. Yesterday, for the first time  Neo told her story on her Facebook page.  She told it in a way that  only she can and in a voice I have never heard before;  though I recognize it, it resonates with me, I know exactly what she means – in many ways our story is  the same story.  Her story is the reason I started this blog,  the reason Between The Lines exists. Today I have her to thank again, for her courage to speak her truth, because her truth  has allowed me to see mine, again with fresh eyes and clarity (yes I am tearing up).  A re-commitment to a vision of a  future full of HOPE  that was birthed within me from the depths of despair.  So take your time, and listen to the true cost of journalism and it’s rewards. She has kindly given me her permission to re-publish her story on this blog. In her own words and pictures, My sister friend and colleague Neo Ntsoma:

I’ve never really felt comfortable to tell anyone the real reason why I quit my fulltime job of almost a decade at The Star. So I decided today would be the day I put the truth out there. Hopefully I will never get to be asked the same question ever again. I need to put the past behind me…

Why I Quit My Job To Rediscover Myself: 

Picture by Neo Ntsoma (c)

Picture by Neo Ntsoma (c)

I thought I was going to get a mental breakdown. The four years that I worked night-shift at The Star newspaper exposed me to so much. My assignments mostly involved covering a lot of violence in the city, road accidents, police raids, drowned children in lakes, inferno(s) in informal settlements and just about anything traumatic…it was intense! There was so much uncontrolled crime happening around that time. Johannesburg had earned its place as one of the most dangerous cities in the world and a very reckless one to live in and I was right in the middle of it all. It got to a point where I would even get calls from other newspapers photo desks asking for leads to crime scenes.

I suffered terrible insomnia I couldn’t sleep. Is not like anybody had forced me to work night, it was a more of a personal choice I made. I enjoyed it so much that it was more of an addiction. I was hooked! Working night was a selfish decision that I chose for myself mainly because I preferred to work in an environment that involved fewer people and manageable egos to deal with. It was more to avoid conflict of interests and decisions that sounded unreasonable at times. It would have been practically impossible to adjust and adapt to working daytime even if I had wanted to.

If I weren’t out on assignments shooting various disasters, I would just sit around at the office waiting for the next big scoop to happen. At times I would work throughout the night and leave the office at 6am the next day to be back again at 2pm of the same day. I got used to the routine so much and enjoyed it because it allowed me the time to do other things such as attending to emails from varsity students whom were working on their research on photojournalism or something in relation to that. I was always at their service. I was forever bombarded with scholarly requests of sorts. It had become a habit to find a few Q & A interviews waiting in my inbox from international journalists writing reviews based on my work. Somewhere more demanding of my time than others but I enjoyed every moment ever spent responding to those requests. I also used that time to research on photography. I would sit for hours on the computer searching lots of photo sites for new trends within photo scenes around the world. I was driven, passionate and very competitive but more competing with myself than with anyone else. That time was also invested well on reading books, lots of books on various subjects from anthropology to biographies of successful people. My huge appetite for knowledge was craving to be fed with more information, which I enjoyed sharing with others.

Being the type that enjoys getting a bit of more sleep in the morning I figured working night would suit me better considering the many other commitments that I already had. Besides, it was getting more of a routine for me to arrive 30 minutes to an hour late to work only because I had overslept a little. I just couldn’t get myself to waking up early like your average normal person. I had a good share of warnings from my photo editor and had already a few trips to the managing editor’s office. And it was starting to seem like I was being disrespectful whereas I wasn’t. So in order to keep my job I had to beg to be put on a permanent night-shift slot. Ultimately I got burned-out!!!

I later learnt that Ken Oosterbrooke also suffered from the same disorder and like me; he never allowed it to come between his commitments nor his duties.

Picture by Neo Ntsoma (c)

Picture by Neo Ntsoma (c)

By mid 2006, I no longer could cope. I remember sending Robin Comley, my former photo editor a series of text messages around 3 o’clock in the morning sharing my frustrations mostly about my unhappiness at work. About how unappreciated I felt at the office and just how fed-up I was with my life and that I wanted to resign. I was only expressing my bitterness at the realization that my life was turning into something I had not imagined or planned for.

I was unhappy about everything but mostly about the direction that my career was heading. Too much was expected of me also because I had set myself a very high standard of excellence which increased the pressure to keep wanting to achieve more. At the time I had already decided to take a break from entering photo competitions but to focus more on investing in others. There was a new breed of young photographers that had just joined the company and I took it upon myself that I would be their mentor. That was my mission and I was prepared to commit to it whole heartedly. I still feel proud to this day that I made that decision because it has produced amazing results, which I’d choose not to mention on this platform.

My insomnia increased. Again I started pitching to work late. Some kind of uncontrollable disorder had taken over my life yet again but I still maintained producing excellent work. Insomnia propelled me to push myself even harder to make up for my late coming. The one thing they failed to recognise was that I worked extremely long hours than I was paid for without ever claiming overtime. Time was not so much of an issue. What mattered was the level of commitment I put in my work.

Karen Sandison, deputy photo editor and probably the only person that understood and appreciated my dedication knew that my actions were not meant to cause any harm.

I was constantly thinking new ideas and never-seen-before concepts that I wanted to create for the betterment of the newspaper and myself. I even went as far as collaborating with Robin Orlin, the internationally renowned choreographer and created an award-winning series that caught the attention of the Art scene both in South Africa and in Europe…The Babysitting Egoli Series…photographed at the Johannesburg Art Gallery!

Award Winning Picture, shack dwellers watch as their homes razed to the ground. Picture by Neo Ntsoma (c)

Award Winning Picture, shack dwellers watch as their homes razed to the ground. Picture by Neo Ntsoma (c)

What the judges said: “Mohamed Amin photographic award: Neo Ntsoma, The Star, South Africa Topic: Their world in flames Judges’ Citation: “It stood out as a news piece in that not only did the photographer manage to capture the intensity of the event, but she did so in a very unusual way. She produced a very attractive set of photographs that were technically superb, visually very attractive, the sort of photographs one felt you could enlarge and frame and hang on your wall, and yet they were photographs of a tragedy.”

Then I suggested to be allowed to specialise, a decision that was turned down by management, as they couldn’t see how that would benefit the newspaper. I knew then that my future with the company was nearing the end. All I really wanted was to be given a chance to take control of my professional future with the hope that the company will give me the much-needed support by making sure that I am progressing wisely down the right path. Much to my surprise it turned out that we were not on the same page regarding my future plans hence they couldn’t hear me out. They blindly failed to recognize the bigger picture and the prospects of how much value that could add to the company.

Just being a senior photographer based on the fact that I was a little more technically experienced than my juniors was not good enough for me. That was not my ultimate achievement aspiration. My goal was a lot bigger than what was on offer but more to do with the craving for freedom to focus more on special assignments type of projects. The type of assignments that would require that I choose my own team based on their strengths and specialities. A team of special reporting experts that would work with me on various subjects while I create images that would make one think that they were reviewing a Master’s or PhD thesis when viewed. Highly intellectual material! Not the average hurry up and wait daily assignments that I used to do. I wanted to step out of the norm, find my own voice, be on a league of my own but I needed a pair of wings to fly that far. I so much wanted to revolutionize the industry but I knew there was no way I could achieve that on my own without the full support of my employers. Not even an associate editorship position could have fulfilled that desire. I think my over ambitious aspirations scared my editors or perhaps the industry was not yet ready for my over the top ideas.

Still in 2006, I got nominated for a MTN Women in the Media Award alongside the likes of Ferial Haffajee, who was then editor in chief of the Mail & Guardian and the first woman to ever hold that position, Ruda Landman whom most people may know from Carte Blanche, currently a non-executive director on the board of Media24 board and Sue Valentine, a Nieman Foundation fellow. Surely being nominated alongside these industry heavyweights was a good enough reason to encourage my editors to review my proposal. I was ready for growth and needed to be groomed for a more advanced role.

When my editors failed to show up at the awards ceremony. it clearly spoke volumes. All my efforts and dedication towards my work and the company were unappreciated but also a clear indication of condemnation at least that’s how I took it. I felt even more trapped, like a rat in a cage.

All Star to the End. Picture by Neo Ntsoma (c)

All Star to the End. Picture by Neo Ntsoma (c)

Thoughts of suicide crossed my mind several times but I could not let myself entertainment them considering that my child needed me to still be here for him…but truth is I was not coping. Dealing with so much emotion all at the same time, I was burning up inside. I had reached a breaking down point but no one could notice neither did I have the courage to disclose my situation to anyone except the occasional text messages to Robin sometimes sent out at some very awkward hours, at times with parts of the truths distorted.

It had come to a point where I couldn’t force myself to be remorseful over a relative’s death or that of a friend. My heart was hardened from covering the deaths of those that died in the most horrific ways. I had seen and photographed a lot of corpses before, some with missing body parts, brain splashed onto the ground, people trapped in cars, the Ellis Park stadium disaster where I had to photograph close to 30 corpses lined up together awaiting to be identified by relatives.

Shortly after my resignation Robin Comley, was appointed photo editor at The Times, the sister paper of the Sunday Times and suggested that I join her as chief photographer. As much as the offer sounded attractive and the fact that I was indeed qualified for the position, I turned it down mainly because I needed to take a break from the pressures of mainstream, shooting hard news. If only the offer came a year earlier I am sure I would have jumped at it with eyes closed. I had already lost the passion for Journalism and I couldn’t do it even for a million bucks. I didn’t have the heart for it any more. I so badly wanted to be left to mourn the passing of my mother even seven years after her death. I wanted to be left to rediscover myself.

If you can’t stand the idea of having your current or previous ‘manager’s job, you need to think long and hard about what’s next. I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but something inside of me was telling me I shouldn’t continue down the career path I was on. I felt strongly that it wasn’t getting me closer to where I wanted to be, though that destination was largely unknown, and I had to get off that road. I just needed some Me time. What more was there for me to still wanna explore or challenge myself with? Nothing!!!

Not even that one picture that probably could have put a smile on my editor’s face and turned me into an overnight superstar was not good enough to change my mind about leaving. I am referring to a photograph of Fezekile Kuzwayo boarding a flight to Amsterdam. Thee “Khwezi,” the alleged rape victim was relocating, a move that was prompted by persistent threats from President Jacob Zuma’s supporters. Being the ONLY photographer at the airport at that particular time, that picture could have earned me a lot of respect from my editors including the international media landscape at large but I had to let it pass.

‘I’ Neo Ntsoma witnessed “Khwezi,” as she walked right passed me, with all the access I had, a camera in my hand but I just couldn’t bring myself to capturing that moment. She had found freedom and she needed to be left alone. That moment gave me all the reasons to stick to my decision because I had nothing left to prove to anybody anymore. I had found my own freedom!

THE END

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