Digital Photo SA's Tribute to Johnny Clegg

Photographed by: Patrick de Mervelec

I recall the feeling of loss and then bereavement as I listened to the breaking news of Johnny Clegg’s passing. It was not long after the news broke; the tributes to this revered man of Africa started streaming in.

Patrick de Mervelec who did a feature on him in an addition of my previous photographic magazine introduced me to Johnny Clegg. This is the reason why it is important for me to honour his memory and why I have chosen to redo some of this feature.

‘Cul de Sac’

My pilgramage with Johnny Clegg. Patrick de Mervelec.

I was able to aid Patrick as Johnny and a colleague of his was in my studio experimenting with a few ideas. Patrick took a few photographs that they could use if anything came of it for one of his upcoming CD covers. I still find it hard to grasp that Johnny is no longer with us and I extend my sincerest heartfelt condolences to his wife and family, friends and fans and may his memory live on in our hearts and minds. Thankfully his music and great talent remain with us.

Interview with Patrick de Mervelec / Johnny Clegg.

Ci: How did this series of photographs come about?

PdM: When I asked Johnny Clegg, recently, if I could take some portraits of him for a new book I am working on, he suggested I accompany him during the film shoots he was doing for his new DVD’s, and take some photographs during the shooting.

We went to the Mai Mai market and the hilltops of Berea and Hillbrow with views over Ponte and the Joburg skyline. I wanted to photograph him in places and atmospheres that he is at home in that he identifies with. In short, in his own universe.

Rather than just a couple of portraits of Johnny, I ended up with so much material not only of him but also of his entourage, musicians and dancers, and also these places, that I am currently staging a series of exhibitions, the first of which was held at the Gerard Sekoto Gallery at the Alliance Française of Johannesburg in May.


PdM: Johnny has an intensity about him, bordering on Madness; such is his passion for what he is doing. This kind of obsession is what makes a great artist. The time I spent with him was like a marathon in the inner city, in the rain, the cold and also the excessive heat. He has a powerful presence and is extremely photogenic. He could have been an actor.

And of course, it is also immensely attractive to us as human beings to be exposed to cultures that are completely different from our own. For me, this is what makes life. Although I have been living in Johannesburg for ten years I still find the different customs here, totally fascinating.

For all these reasons Johnny has a magnetic attraction. Hearing Johnny speaking Zulu is in itself an experience–even though I don’t understand it! Being with him during the recording of traditional Zulu songs and seeing him dance Zulu dances, in a kind of urban-tribal gathering was a great moment. During his new DVD’s he explains what he is recording about and why.

Mai Mai market is so urban and so traditional at the same time. At Mai Mai, you have to face up to the impact that all this urban development has on our environment and us. How People are uprooted and how important it is that they still have their traditions in spite of it. Johnny is undoubtedly playing a role in conserving these traditions by taking them to people all over the world.    (Article continues after Video Clips)

Johnny was fondly loved by the citizens of France who gave him the name ‘Le Zoulou Blanc’–The White Zulu. It was also fortuitous that Patrick de Mervelec, himself a French photographer now resident in South Africa undertook the feature for us.

Included above, a short clip in memory of this great man.

Many people come to Mai Mai market from Kwa Zulu Natal when they first settle in Johannesburg. It’s an obscure place, hard to find, eclipsed by the freeways overhead. The people live clustered together in the shadows. At the edge of the inner city and marginalised from society, Mai Mai is a kind of hostel which seems to have sprung up, born of circumstances beyond the control of its inhabitants.

Ci; Why did you call this series of photographs, ‘Cul de Sac’?

PdM: I see tha Mai Mai market like a kind of Cul de Sac. The world seems to begin and end here, for these people who struggle each day to take charge of their destiny through this market they have created. Here, one can meet sangomas, carpenters, welders, coffin-makers, weavers, basket-makers–in and amongst dwellings and market-stalls, strewn with bric a brac, plants and roots, fetishes, laundry hanging from gutters, huge sacs filled with ominous-looking objects, hen-houses, discarded clutter… There is a tension here. Nothing is predictable.

Ci: And Pilgrimage?

PdM: Going there was like a pilgrimage, being brought to this place, meeting these people with Johnny, who is always teaching us through his dancing and singing. It is his great generosity that enables him to impart some of the beauty and power of Zulu culture to all of us.        

Ci: What personal references of yours are to be found in these photographs?

PdM: When you take photographs you need to think of the composition of the work, the perspective, like painters do. My references are the old masters like Bruegel–who was after real life, people as they were, not romantacised lies–or Chardin, who mastered the play of light of composition. You need to take out all that is unnecessary, search for purity and put across the most important elements. For a photographer, being able to choose which photographs you are going to keep and which you will discard, is hugely important.

Ci: What are the technical aspects of this reportage and exhibition?

I used my Canon (EOS 20D) for certain of the colour photographs. It’s the first time I am running an exhibition containing photographs shot on digital. For the rest of the colour and black and white I used a Canon SLR., 24mm lens, 28-70mm autofocus zoom, as well as, in some cases a medium format. The pigment colour prints are printed by Ricardo Fornoni of Eye2i. The black and white prints are hand-printed by myself.

Ci: How does one go about ordering your fine art photographic prints?

PdM: Please contact me on +27 (0) 72 239 3241 or email:

This photographic project was made possible thanks to Canon, Air France and the Alliance Française.