Born Free: Ilvy Njiokiktjien’s decade-long multimedia project documenting post-apartheid South Africa

People in the back of a taxi in South Africa. Photo by Ilvy Njiokiktjien from her Born Free project.
In a shot from Canon Ambassador Ilvy Njiokiktjien's Born Free series, 21-year-old Elihle Dudula and her boyfriend Paul (right) are pictured in a taxi on their way from Samora Machel, a township in Cape Town, to a clinic for a pregnancy check-up. Elihle is HIV-positive and is an advocate for more knowledge about the condition. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1250. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien

Shooting a long-term project is one of the most satisfying and rewarding things you can do as a photographer. It allows you to explore a subject in depth and create a range of content on a unified theme that can be presented as a profile-raising book, exhibition or multimedia experience.

This kind of project requires patience, dedication and resilience – plus of course a subject that you're passionate about, with plenty of angles to explore. That's exactly what Dutch news and documentary photographer Ilvy Njiokiktjien found when she decided to tackle a project about South Africa.

Ilvy first became fascinated by the country when she went there as a student. In 2007, she moved to Johannesburg to work as an intern for national newspaper The Star. She began working on her first South African stories that same year, and has since developed a series of projects based in the country. They have all focused on the lives of people born after the end of apartheid in 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected President – young people dubbed the 'born free' generation. "They were to be the face of a new, free, and successful South Africa," Ilvy explains.

To mark the 25th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's election, Ilvy has collected the best of her South Africa work for a retrospective book and exhibition called Born Free: Mandela's Generation of Hope. It's a combination of documentary footage showing her subjects going about their daily lives and 'talking head' interviews. Ilvy shot the recent work, both still images and video, on her Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.

Teenage boys taking part in an assault course in South Africa.
Ilvy has documented subjects across South Africa including white teenage boys attending Kommandokorps camps, who are taught to combat a perceived black enemy. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L lens at 1/800 sec, f/4.5 and ISO400. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien
An affluent young couple in an expensive open-top car.
There are wide differences in levels of wealth in South Africa. Here, affluent young financial trader Jason Noah arrives at a club in Pretoria to celebrate his 21st birthday. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/60 sec, f/2.2 and ISO5000. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien
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Ilvy's work in South Africa has come about through various projects over the years. The World Press Photo winning Afrikaner Blood (2012) focuses on Kommandokorps, a white supremacist organisation, while One Carefree Night (2016) is a documentary about teenagers growing up in Manenberg, a troubled suburb of Cape Town known as 'Gangsterland'. Both were shot as multimedia projects, with still images by Ilvy and video by fellow journalist Elles van Gelder.

Over the past two years, Ilvy, now working solo, has focused on about 25 South Africans from different social and racial backgrounds. "I realised that stories are really best told through individuals," she says, "because if you add up a lot of individual stories you get quite an overview of what a country is like. They are what South Africa is about."

Ilvy's projects have been almost entirely self-funded. "I sign up for lots of grants, but in the end it comes down to doing assignments and then investing the money in projects like this," she says. "It would be nice for someone to say, 'Hey, I love your project, here's a few thousand euros', but it hasn't happened so far. It's an investment I make, but I always get a lot of publications in the end and the money always comes back to me."

A young man drinking through a straw and sticking his blue tongue out.
Innocent Moreku, 22, sells vintage clothing from a small stall in Pretoria. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/5.6 and ISO160. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien
A girl stands in an elaborate prom dress next to a concrete-block wall.
Natalie de Wee, 18, who lives in the gang-ridden township of Manenberg, saved up for months for her prom dress. Graduating high school is an accomplishment in the township, where only 22% of residents aged over 20 have done so. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/16 and ISO100. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien
A man prepares a meal while his daughter eats and his son reaches into a cupboard in the background.

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Ilvy Njiokiktjien's project on masculinity focuses on single parent fathers. Here she reveals how she captured these sensitive and insightful family portraits.

Ilvy's documentary equipment

Ilvy has used the Canon EOS 5D series throughout her time in South Africa, from the Mark II to the Mark IV. She used the Canon EOS-1D X (now replaced by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II) for a couple of years for other work, but returned to the EOS 5D series. "I really liked how quick the EOS-1D X was, but the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is already quite fast," she says. "I realised that as I was doing less hard news I would be better off with a camera that is much lighter. The pictures with the EOS 5D Mark IV are so crisp – it's really my camera."

In workshops she has taught, Ilvy has previously advised students to shoot with 50mm or 35mm prime lenses, but the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM has changed all that. "The quality of that lens is so good – it's so sharp. It's been mounted on my camera ever since I got it, whether I'm shooting stills or video," she says.

"Now, when I'm working, I always shoot with two Canon EOS 5D Mark IV bodies. I have the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM on one and the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM on the other."

A young couple eating hamburgers.
Wilmarie Deetlefs, 24, and her boyfriend Zakithi Buthelezi, 27, eating hamburgers. As a mixed-race couple in South Africa they sometimes attract comments. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/320 sec, f/4.0 and ISO400. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien
Men working out in a makeshift gym.
Although it's almost 40°C under its tin roof, men work out at a gym in Kayamandi township, Stellenbosch, in the Western Cape. Ilvy wanted to record what it's like to live and grow up in a township. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/80 sec, f/4.0 and ISO1600. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien

Adding video to her offering

While shooting video was initially a challenge, Ilvy says it has helped her reach a wider audience. "For the past year and a half, on the Born Free project, I've done all the video myself, shooting about 50 hours of footage. I've sent it to publications for use on their websites, but I also showed it to one of Holland's main broadcasters." Ilvy was subsequently involved in editing the footage into an hour-long documentary, which was shown on Dutch television.

Most of Ilvy's recent video work was captured using the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. For interviews, Ilvy placed the camera on a tripod. Everything else was shot with the camera handheld, apart from some images from a moving car, for which she used a gimbal to keep the camera as steady as possible. Ilvy used an external microphone for sound recording and a wireless lavalier lapel microphone for recording audio at a distance.

"I still prefer photography; it's more difficult, and more of a challenge for me to tell a story in a few pictures," Ilvy says. "You need quite a different eye. But videography also showed me a lot of things. I've done a lot of long interviews, for about an hour and a half, with all the people who I've followed. That was such a great experience, because you get to really know someone.

"Talking to people for a long time helps you to gain their trust, so the videos helped my pictures because people were more relaxed with me after they had spoken to me in front of the camera."

Children sit in a school assembly.
Students during assembly at Tom Naudé High School in Polokwane. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon 70-200 f/2.8L USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/2.8 and ISO800. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien

Learning process

The Born Free project has appeared in the Washington Post and many major newspapers in Europe, and has been published online by National Geographic. The exhibition has been shown in Ilvy's native Netherlands and will travel to countries including Malaysia, India and Italy. It will also be projected at film festivals in those three countries. She says the widespread publication of her work is "a dream come true".

"When I was pitching this project, five or six years ago, nobody was interested," she says. "It made me feel I was failing, because I thought it was so important. Now, everyone wants to publish it and I've realised I was just pitching too soon. You just have to keep going and trust in yourself."

A woman sits on a leather sofa while a cleaner works around her.
Tanya Grobler and her family don't know the name of their domestic help, who has been coming to their house six days per week for several years. When they need her, they just say "Tss tss." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/1.4 and ISO400. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien

Ilvy has also learned that projects like this are hard to do by yourself. Joining the VII Photo Agency has put her in a stronger position, she says. "I'm so happy I'm now part of VII because I'm pretty sure my next project will be a group project," she says. "Freelancing can be quite lonely. Not only can a group project have a bigger impact, but working with other people makes it more fun and fulfilling."

Ilvy adds that she hasn't necessarily finished exploring South Africa. "In the interviews I've done, I've asked all of the young people about how they think the country will look in another 25 years. I'd like to keep following them, or go back to them. South Africa is just coming out of apartheid and the story has only just begun. In many ways, I don't think I can let the story go yet."

Written by David Clark

Ilvy Njiokiktjien's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Photographer Ilvy Njiokiktjien pictured holding a Canon camera by the waterside.


Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This full-frame 30.4MP DSLR captures incredible detail, even in extreme contrast. Continuous 7fps shooting helps when chasing the perfect moment. "The pictures with the EOS 5D Mark IV are so crisp – it's just really my camera," says Ilvy.


Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

This professional-quality standard zoom lens offers outstanding image sharpness and a robust L-series build. Ilvy says: "The quality of that lens is so good, it's been mounted on my camera ever since I got it."

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