The Portfolio

Exploring Africa with a Whimsical Eye

by Mandy Sham
All photos by Mandy Sham.

When we first came across the work of writer and photographer Mandy Sham on Instagram (@peach.punk), we were immediately drawn to her use of color, composition, and thoughtful captions. Her photos eschew the Instagram travel cliches for the warm, whimsical, and cinematic. When we found out she recently returned from a three-month trip through Africa, we had to see the pics.

Tell us a little about yourself and where you've been lately.

I'm a photographer and writer based in Toronto, specializing in travel and the intersection of culture and gastronomy. From January to March, I overlanded through eastern and southern Africa, starting in Nairobi and ending in Cape Town. I was drawn to the complexity and ambiguity of Africa, which is too often reduced to generalizations about the continent. Parsing it out meant traversing the nuances of small towns and the shifts in terrain.

The learning curve as a female, person of color, solo traveler varies from place to place, but with infrastructure the way that it is in much of Africa, I decided an overland tour would be better. (Picture me crossing all borders by land in a dusty truck with twenty strangers.) There’s a different sense of adventure to this. You can’t deny the elements when you're cooking in a bush camp with nothing but a head light and improvised fly swatter. And if dinner is unusually crunchy, a wisecracking Zimbabwean once told me, “just call it African whey protein.”

How would you describe your photography style?

Whimsical, intimate, and ephemeral. I'm self-taught, so a lot of my work is very much in the spirit of DIY and improvisation. I’m also not the kind of person who hits the ground running with a camera at the ready. If I can't see the shot in my head, I won't take it.

What do you love most about photographing on the road?

I'm more attuned to a new city if I have the opportunity to photograph it. Capturing a moment comes with a certain level of exposure. There have been times where I enjoy the invisibility of not having my camera out, but shooting opens up a lot of conversations organically with subjects I photograph and with people who are curious or like-minded. I find myself wandering into neighborhoods or shops that I wouldn't have otherwise explored because they resonate visually with me. The discoveries are always immensely rewarding.

What do you shoot with?

Fujifilm X-T10 with a Fujinon f/1.4 35mm lens. Not sure for how much longer — all that Namibian sand, you know.

What are you working on right now?

I often write stories in my Instagram captions about places I've been, but I've wished for a space to do that in a more in-depth and cohesive manner without the formal structure of an article. So I’m producing a digital mini 'zine to go with my website relaunch. (Check www.orenji.co in the coming weeks!) It's a five-part series that explores the concept of home, overland travel, finding community, and how landscapes make us respond a certain way.

We’ve excerpted some of your 'zine photos here. Can you tell us more about them?

So much of Africa is the landscape — wide, sweeping savannas, sand dunes, coffee-growing hills. While a lot of my photography focuses on landscapes like these, I am, in contrast, a city dweller. I thrive in the pulsing collective energy of cities I visit and call home. My photography is about bridging that disconnect.

I also love travel portraits. My favorite thing about it is that it requires vulnerability on the part of both the subject and photographer — the idea that I see you and you see me. Still, in a sea of similarities, there are no illusions about a world of differences. That’s part of what makes it so interesting. One of my favorite photos was taken at a Herero village bar in Namibia — we were on our way to a bush camp when a shack in the desert materialized out of nowhere (as so many things in Namibia do). We stopped for sparkling cold ciders and watched as the locals played pool. One woman, depicted in the foreground, would sweep the competition with every move and declare “game over!” in a boisterous, declarative tone. I thought the whole experience was utterly bizarre and loved it.

Where are you headed next?

I left a part of me in Turkey, so it's where I'd like to go next. I can't even handle all the cool photography and food and art happening in Istanbul right now. I'll be doing a tour of the Caucasus and Middle East in that same trip. Tbilisi, Beirut and Tel Aviv are at the top of my list. I also have my sights on a more substantial South America tour (Patagonia looks like an absolute dream), but that'll come further down the line.

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