Prison Life Mathias Heng photographs the inmates of a Johannesburg prison with the Leica M6

Singapore-based photojournalist and Leica Instructor, Mathias Heng is a seasoned professional, spending much of his time on international assignments and conducting photo workshops. He travels primarily to regions and countries experiencing conflict, war, natural disasters, poverty, social issues and human struggles. Mathias’ work has appeared internationally in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Australian, The Age and further publications throughout Asia and Europe. Having been sent to Johannesburg by The Washington Post to cover a story on the crack epidemic and use of illegal firearms, Mathias witnessed first-hand the dangers of this highly addictive substance by engaging with the people at the heart of the story. He visited a prison in Hillbrow, a district that was labelled “white only” during apartheid at the beginning of the 70s but experienced a high influx of poor and unemployed black residents relatively soon thereafter. Due to a lack of investment throughout the 80s, the district had become synonymous with lawlessness and poverty by the 90s and the presence of illegal firearms was rife. Mathias’s series shot with the analog Leica M6 presents a rarely seen insight into prison life and the people of Hillbrow, who oscillate from one side of the bars to the other. We spoke with Mathias to find out how he gained the trust of his subjects, who influenced his work and his take on the role of photojournalism today.

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When did you first discover your passion for photography?

I discovered my passion for photography when I was 14 years, studying graphic reproduction in school.

What influenced your decision to become a photojournalist? And which photographers have inspired you?

My decision was influenced by a combination of things. My strong interest in stories relating to humanity and people, coupled with the desire to raise awareness about certain issues and the power of compelling images to change the perception of those who view them and ultimately history itself. I am inspired by the work of photographers, such as William Eugene Smith, Eugene Richards, Sebastiao Salgado and James Nachtwey.

What’s the story behind this series entitled “Inmates”?

The series “Inmates” comes from a photo essay I was shooting in Hillbrow in Johannesburg, South Africa. I was working for the Washington Post on a story about crack and inmates, covering drugs and illegal firearms.

Why did you choose to cover this story?

I wanted to show that people, who get involved with drugs and illegal firearms, come from very different walks of life and they all have their reasons. While I was working on this project I met a lot of drugs users and they came from completely different backgrounds, from lawyers to construction workers. People also came into contact with illegal firearms for a really wide variety of reasons, for example personal protection, gang warfare and robbery, as well as simply being traded like any other goods.      

How did you manage to get this rare access to the prison?

I nurtured close contacts with the authorities on the one hand, while a lot of the access I achieved was the result of my involvement with the subjects that I covered. As a photojournalist, the authorities also trusted my ability to produce a true and honest photo story.

What was the experience like shooting in such circumstances? Did you get a chance to talk to the inmates/guards?

Shooting in such circumstances is never easy. You have to make sure you respect the people around you. If an inmate said not to take a photo, I didn’t. I respected their wishes and I walked away.

One of the inmates told me not to take a photo of him. He was violent and angry and told me “If you take a photo of me, I will kill you”. Out of respect and a sense of dignity I did not take any photos of him. Two weeks later, I was on the street photographing and a guy approached me saying that he knows me. I told him I didn’t but he said he was the guy that has threatened me before in the prison. Due to the fact that I didn’t take photos of him, we had a connection and a feeling of trust. Thanks to that, he then took me to places where I would otherwise not have been able to gain access.

In terms of the guards, some of them liked their job and some didn’t. Their job teaches them to appreciate life more but at the same time they must endure a lot of stress. Some of them were concerned about their safety while off duty.

Why did you choose to shoot the story in black and white rather than color, which is often the preferred medium for photojournalism?

I chose black and white to show the rawness of the surroundings and to focus purely on the subject matter with no distractions.

When did you first start shooting with Leica?

I started shooting with Leica in 1988.

Which camera did you use for this series? And what do you see as the advantages of this set up?

I used a Leica M6 for this series and the camera has many advantages for this kind of work. It is small, discreet, robust, easy to handle and reliable.

You have covered a number of very moving stories with a focus on humanity and the people caught at the heart of war, disease and natural disasters. What have you learnt from reporting on such intense stories?

What I have learnt from reporting on such stories, is to look at life on a deeper level, to be wise and humble. My experiences with people, who find themselves in these situations, have taught me that despite having so little, they still give so much. It’s important for me to provide awareness for the public and to photograph my subjects with deep respect and dignity for the human spirit.

What do you consider as the role of the photojournalist? And how has this been affected by the increase in viral reporting directly from the scenes of global events via Twitter, YouTube etc.?

As a photojournalist, I believe that images should not be manipulated digitally, with no cropping, and that you should always approach your subject with respect and dignity when photographing them.

Social media has changed the world of photojournalism for better and worse. The positive side of social media is that we get images immediately from global events that are happening around us. The negative side of social media, is that there are too many images that have been digitally altered, providing false information, and the code of ethics of photojournalism is being ignored, leading to a loss of trust from the public.

You also provide photo workshops. How did you get into this? And can you tell us a little more about it?

In 2004 I started conducting workshops so that I can pass on my knowledge and my experience. Now I have become an instructor with the Leica Akademie. Participants in my workshops learn more and increase their appreciation of photography but, more importantly, they are inspired and motivated to put into practice what they have learned.

What stories are you currently working on? And what can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?

For my current project I am working on a story with traditional and spiritual healers. In the future you will be seeing simple yet compelling images from me that will speak to you.

 

You can see more of Mathias’s photography and connect with him via his website and Instagram.

You can find out more about Leica Akademie Workshops around the world by following this link.

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