I was born in a small town in rural South Africa in 1954. I had five siblings and we were raised by our mother. Our father was away working in the city most of the year, and sadly he passed away when I was about five or six years old.
Barely making it by, my mother did her best to provide for us. I saw how this affected her, having so many kids to take care of. Subconsciously I guess I decided to help reduce her load by dropping out of school in the sixth grade. Deep down inside me a fire lit up, to one day go and make something of myself. Seeing my mother working hard every day for us made me want to give back. The love that was radiating from her gave me hope, courage and the determination needed to make a firm decision. Most of the people living in our area at that time didn’t have much vision for grand ideas – they were simply content with surviving. But I had dreams. I wanted to surpass all expectations.
❶ | Off to the big city
As soon as I became of age, I packed my bags and headed to the big city, Johannesburg. Many tales were told about the City of Gold, how plentiful the opportunities were and how absolutely anyone could make a living there. I had a fire in my belly urging me forward. However, when I got there, I realized things were very different from what I had imagined. The tall buildings were daunting, the long stretching roads were intimidating, and the people here spoke very differently. It was like an arabesque kaleidoscope of culture and diversity. I had to quickly adapt and learn their languages.
I had some relatives I stayed with for a couple of months while I found my feet. I tried to get a job for a while to no avail, so I decided to set my standards a little lower. I eventually found a job as a welder and started to save to get a place of my own. Working with steel made me more resilient and it made me appreciate the power of the human will to take something inherently unmovable and manipulate it to make new shapes and objects from it. My passion was slowly coming to the surface.
❷ | A picture’s worth a thousand words
When I turned 20, my job required me to relocate. But I hadn’t saved enough money for my own place yet, so I talked to my uncle in the township near work and he agreed to let me stay with him. He was an old man, and a very wise man too. He taught me a lot in the years I stayed with him and really solidified my choice of career. At 21, I found myself with a camera in my hands, slowly falling in love. Over the next year I took many pictures and taught myself how to work with this beautiful piece of machinery. It seemed the storm clouds were clearing and things were starting to look up.
In 1976, I wanted to be closer to my passion so I got a job at Sakura, Konica, Tricolor, HSG & Fripps as a developer. I worked for a decade there and it was the most educational ten years of my life. During that time, I met a woman, married her and had two amazing children with her. Towards the end of the ten years, however, I experienced a descent into depression with my marriage falling apart and eventually ending in a divorce.
Picking up the pieces, I then moved on to Fuji Teltron in 1986. Just as things were quieting down, life threw another curve ball my way. My uncle passed away and I was left with the responsibility of taking care of the house he had now left me. Bills were piling up. I remember the stress used to keep me up all night long. I was about to give up, sell this house, pack my things, and move back home when I met my now wife. She rekindled that flame inside me that was just about to die and charged me up with love and admiration – she really made me feel like anything was possible.
We had our first child together in 1989, then another in 1992. Being together kept us strong and made it easier for us to afford the house with our incomes. I took some of my greatest photos around this time, mostly of terror, freedom fighters and the effects of white supremacy. At the close of the Apartheid regime a whole new world opened up for us. We were like kids in a candy store!
I started working for Kodak SA in 1999 as a lab operator. Even though I was there for only six years till digital photography made my job obsolete, it was the most eventful and dream-like six years of my life.
❸ | The Kodak moment
I quickly got acclimated to the way things worked at Kodak, like a duck to water. I was in my natural element. I started to remember why I was here and what my purpose was: to capture the world as it exists, one picture at a time, and to tell stories to raise awareness of things other people in other parts of the world don’t get to see. I put all my energy into my work and progressively got promoted, rewarded and praised. My income became more stable, and I started giving back more to my family. With the stress of money out of my view, I was free to dream bigger – I wanted people around the world to see my photos, but how?
My question was answered when my manager suggested that I enter a contest the company was running in 2000. I didn’t doubt my abilities, so I entered. And I won!
This accomplishment shot my confidence way up. My pictures were on the Sony jumbotron at Times Square, New York, where over two million people were passing by every day. Even though only a fraction of those people saw my photos, it made me happy and gave me a great feeling of fulfillment.
Soon after that, I was publicized in various magazines and newspapers. I started receiving offers from people around the world, predominantly asking to buy the unique and rare pictures I took of the late Mr. Nelson Mandela and his comrades. I have kept some of these pictures in hopes of passing them on to my children someday, knowing how precious they are.
❹ | The future is bright
In early 2006, at the age of 52, I decided I wanted to give back in an even bigger way. And the only way, as I figured, was to inspire more young kids to follow their own dreams. They could then pay it forward by inspiring the next generation of theirs. I refurbished our back room and turned it into a photo studio. Slowly but surely the youth of my community started showing an interest in photography, as I taught and mentored them. Some of them are big names in the mainstream media now, but sometimes they would still call me for consultation and advice on the art of taking ‘moving’ and ‘touching’ photos.
After all is said and done, I am now living a wonderful life filled with things I find pleasurable. I am proud and happy that I discovered my passion early on and was not afraid to take the leap and grab it, maintaining my vision throughout all the turmoil and hardships in my life.
Anything and everything is possible if you just believe in it and then put your heart into it. Never stop moving forward, and the good things in life that you desire will become yours.
–This is the story of Kuki Elias Babedi—
Kuki Elias Babedi is a maverick of photography and probably one of South Africa’s best kept secrets. He now spends his days with his wife and four children, working from home with his passion for photography and coaching young aspiring photographers in his spare time. Occasionally, when he feels like it, he would pick up an odd freelance job, take up the camera, and go out, just to feel the immediacy of getting a perfect shot.
This story first touched our hearts on January 10, 2018.