What began as a photography blog on Tumblr has now evolved into the major South African creative agency I See a Different You, which works with major companies across the globe to change the narrative on Africa through an art-based approach to branding and the consumer market. Here, Landscape News speaks with Innocent Mukheli and Vuyo Mpantsha who, along with Innocent’s twin brother Justice, founded the Soweto-based creative agency in 2011 and have since watched as it’s influenced their country – and continent – from the outside in.
The transcript of this interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Give us a little background to your story that began in 2011.
Mpantsha: Funnily enough you can say, I See a Different You started off with an image taken in Kenya, on the streets of Nairobi. We were in South Africa, and another partner of ours in Kenya sent this beautiful image of a guy on a bike, styling. He was so cool, styling just on his bike, his boda boda. This image was like, what? Are you sure this picture was taken in Kenya? We thought Kenya was a village. He was like, “Yes there are villages, but there’s still a city, and there’s cool people, there’s everything.” I’m like, “Yes, the media is not showing us enough of Kenya. They only show us the starving children or the negativity.” That’s what the media shows of all of Africa.
We thought to ourselves, if that’s what we thought of Kenya, then it means that’s what everyone thinks of South Africa or Nigeria or whichever African country it is, because we don’t tell our own stories. And then we decided to tell our own story of where we come from, which is South Africa, and we called it ‘I See a Different You.’
Since 2011, what has been the progress, and how you have grown?
Mukheli: We realized that the story was bigger than just where we are from. We then wanted to showcase to the whole world that, as Africans, we are also smart, tech-savvy, metropolitan, talented, cool, all of those things.
Being in advertising, we saw a gap. We saw a gap that there is a need for African content for all retailers, for all stores and whatsoever. If you go online or you go to banks, you see the imagery they use is only American-looking people, and it’s never relevant to the people in the country that they’re in. By seeing that gap, we then progressed I See a Different You from a blog to a production house that is changing the narrative and telling the story by creating content and imagery that is relevant to the consumer in the places that they are living in.
You guys are involved in all types of media.
Mpantsha: Yes. We used to take pictures of ourselves for I See a Different You and people would say, “That is just so nice, you guys are just stylish.” We would be like, “Okay, cool. Thank you.” Then we decided to make our own clothes, and everybody loved it.
Then, when it comes to film, photography and film are brother and sister. They go together. It’s just that one is moving, and one is not. Most of the clients who we create content for, they also want us to do film. We ended up moving into that space where we do photography and film because it tells a better story when it’s moving and when it’s got sound.
When you have shot a film now, you need the music to go in the background, so we would look for music and not find it. And we used to make music, DJ when we were growing up. So we’re like, let’s make the music too.
When the commercial is out or the video is out, the people are asking, “Whose song is that?” “We made the song.” “Oh, you guys make music as well. Send us the music.” That’s why we ended up being such a whole big thing.
How do you relate the work that you do with what’s happening right now in terms of climate change and the environment?
Mpantsha: At the beginning, as much as we wanted to show people a different Africa, they already had a perception of Africa. So how do you teach them to believe in Africa? You teach them through the environment. So we went to our environment that people saw as dirty, babies crying, there’s crime, people can’t live there – we went to those environments.
We dressed nice and we shot ourselves in those environments because we celebrated the environment that we lived in. Then from there, people started to see the images, and they started to see the beauty, not only asking about the pictures we were shooting but the places we were shooting in.
When people start to realize the beauty of where they come from, then they start to take care of their places. That’s how we play to the environment. Also we’re working with WWF. We shot an awareness program that they wanted to shoot and talk about. We shot it, and we edited, and we added the music as well.
In terms of art being at the forefront of people taking action for climate change and not on the sidelines – what do you think of this?
Mukheli: I totally agree because art is communication. Art captures history of time in a place. It’s the best way to document an era. As an African artist, it shows our communication of what we are going through. I feel like Africa is very proud, Africa is happy that the world now knows who we are. They are listening to our voice, and our voice must be heard, and it’s important for art to be at the forefront of everything.
Mpantsha: What Innocent is saying is so true because it’s how you communicate to people. With art, when you communicate, you touch their souls. You touch that place where they’ll never forget. It’s easy to just say, “Guys take care of your environment please or else we’re not going to see a better future.” People say that a lot, but if you don’t talk to them in a way that can touch them, then you don’t have them on board.
What exciting projects are you involved in at the moment?
Mukheli: We fortunately won two big clients. We are now the creative and content agency for a new fashion brand and Diesel. There are two more other brands that are coming through that we cannot confirm yet. We are growing as a little young agency.
Mpantsha: Global brands realize that if you want to talk to Africa, you need to talk to them the way they talk. You can’t just do a global thing and then expect them to follow it because it’s global. No! We have different nuances and ways of talking and seeing things. Now, we’re always taking things and localizing them, making sure people understand them, shooting the people on the ground. When you want to sell something, if you’re selling clothes, it’s nice when you see someone from where you come from and you know them. It speaks better, so that’s what we’ve been doing – taking international brands and then localizing them to the people.
Do you collaborate a lot on the continent? How is the industry in terms of Africans working together?
Mukheli: We definitely collaborate. When we get a job, we bring in other young photographers, other young directors to also help us tell this story and work with us. We can’t hold everything,but we can direct the vision and bring in younger guys similar to us who had zero opportunity but are talented, and we give them the platform to shine. It’s a beautiful place that we are in because we are no longer just I See a Different You – two cool guys – but webring in other guys to work with us, to tell this story in a bigger way and on a global platform.
Mpantsha: Like in Kenya, we’ve got 2manysiblings. We work with them a lot. And then Ghana, Nigeria – every time we’ve got a brief, we go and source people who are from there.
In terms of the world changing its perspective on Africa, are we there yet, or is there still work to be done?
Mukheli: The enlightenment has started. People are now getting to speak about and be proud of who they are as Africans. We are well on our way there because, I mean, being African is a cool thing. It boosts the image to say, “This is me, and my continent is amazing. Africa is dope, you need to check it out.” There is work to be done, but the way in which things are going, we are well on our way there.
Mpantsha: I agree with him. I think we’re in a good space. I think we need to create more because the more we create for ourselves, the more the world will start to understand and see us differently. Music like Nigerian Afro-beat – they didn’t do it for other people but did it for themselves, and then people started falling in love with it. Whether it’s film, technology – let’s just create more sound of our problems, of the things we like, and then they’ll catch on. Then when they catch on, they will change the perception, because we are doing it for ourselves.