Philip Nix is a 24 year old travel and landscape photographer currently based in Brooklyn, NY. Born in Savannah, GA, and raised in nearby Hilton Head Island, SC, Philip has traveled across the globe to places such as Iceland, Hong Kong, and South Africa. Through his imagery he seeks to reveal the beautiful, powerful, and sublime aspects of the land and people he encounters. Using light, color, and composition, Philip studies the symbiosis between subject and space in order to tell a shared story of the human and the landscape.
This collection of work was photographed on my recent trip to Africa, where I traveled through the remote Transkei region of South Africa and hiked the length of Victoria Falls in bordering Zimbabwe. The majority population in the Transkei is the amaXhosa people, who have given the world such figures as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. They have lived in this region for centuries, and the area has become a confluence of tradition and modernity.
These traditions are intermarried with modern tastes, and while the increasing modernization of South Africa has encroached upon even the most rural areas, the Transkei remains a region rich in tribal custom and tradition. This work was created during the winter months when people are busy not just with everyday life, such as farming or mining, but also with traditional events such as the Ulwaluko coming-of-age ceremony.
In contrast, Victoria Falls, known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders”, remains a destination for visitors from around the world, all of whom come to marvel at the world’s largest waterfall. Through these images I try to capture the nuances of these lands and the life of its people, and to offer my perspective of these remote regions.
AB: Hey Phil! Can you start out by telling me when you decided to travel to Africa?
PN: Hi Kory – thanks so much for having me! The opportunity to travel to Africa came in the spring of last year when a friend of my family called and asked if I would be interested in visiting and photographing for a nonprofit he founded and runs in the Transkei region of South Africa. Shortly after that first call we had finalized the plans for me to fly over and stay with him for a couple of weeks. I also made plans for a short trip to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. It was my first time going to Africa, so I wanted to see as much of the culture and landscape as possible during my stay!
AB: In what areas of this continent did you find yourself most? What villages were you visiting? How did the locals welcome you?
PN: I spent most of my time in the Transkei region of South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Under Apartheid this region acted as a semi-autonomous and heavily isolated region populated by the Xhosa people (the X being pronounced with a click of the tongue), an ethnic group that includes figures such as Nelson Mandela (known throughout South Africa by his Xhosa clan name, Madiba) and the bishop and social rights activist Desmond Tutu. Because of its history the region rarely sees visitors or tourists, white or otherwise, and remains rich in the Xhosa culture while still reflecting the increasingly modern and Westernized towns and cities across South Africa.
The organization I visited is based out of Willowvale, a tiny town like many you might find in a place like South Carolina, my home state, where the hardware and grocery stores, bank, post office, penitentiary, and church are all within a stones throw from each other. I guess I did have my own expectations of what a rural South African town would be like, so it took me by surprise to see stores run by Chinese and Indian immigrants, and to see some of the wealthier young people driving their Audi or BMW sports cars down the dusty gravel roads in town. This modernity extended to many of the outlying villages we visited, where tribal traditions are standard and clan customs the law of the land, but where clan leaders would always have their Android smartphones on hand.
Many of the locals were understandably perplexed by my being there, so I received quite a few stares of, “who’s this lanky, bearded white guy with a camera strolling down the streets of our town?” But as soon as I was with people from the nonprofit or some of the Xhosa guys I became friends with, people instantly became more curious than suspicious, and were incredibly kind and welcoming.
In contrast to the Transkei, however, my visit to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe was a tourist-ready frenzy, brimming with tourists, street hawkers, and posh Victorian hotels, complete with big-game trophies, khaki pith helmets, and loads of tchotchke. However, after wading through the mire of potential penny-pinching pitfalls, the Falls were a site the behold and ultimately worth the hike.
AB: What can you tell me about the landscape? The wildlife and the people?
PN: The landscape of the Transkei ranged from barren to beautiful. Sweeping plains of ochre-hued grass would give way to sinking canyons and rising mountains, and coastal areas offered stunning views of the Indian Ocean and the occasional whale sighting. As we were deep in the Southern Hemisphere’s winter months, the days were mild, the nights were cold, and the skies perfect for stargazing! In Zimbabwe, it was a similar story, with the Zambezi river and Victoria Falls acting as grand, inescapable punctuation marks of the landscape.
In Xhosa culture, livestock is a measure of property and power, so the animal life in the Transkei consisted mainly of cows, sheep, goats, and an angry hen that insisted on laying eggs in my sleeping bag (true story). However, I was able to visit a game reserve outside the city of East London which encompassed countless acres of land filled with the mainstays of the African safari – lions, elephants, giraffes, water buffalo, and rhinos – it was awesome.
However, it was the people who were the true highlight of the trip in every place I stayed. My first night was spent on a farm near East London with Bruce, a Dutch Afrikaans farmer who also moonlighted as a world-class chef and baker, so that night we ate like kings, with scratch-made chicken à la king, freshly baked sourdough bread, and homemade pudding with berries decorating our dinner table.
The first Xhosa I met was Zuko, a medical student who grew up in Willowvale, studied in Europe, and now lives and studies in the seaside city of Durban. Zuko is undoubtedly one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, and having him along for the ride around the Transkei was a godsend, as he was able to break down the language barrier and explain to me the nuances of the history and culture. He helped me realize that it’s one thing to observe, and it’s another to understand.
As soon as we entered the Transkei, the generous nature of the Xhosa people became abundantly clear. The villages we visited offered us places to sleep, food to eat, and the sincerest hospitality imaginable, even when many of them had little to nothing to give. The boiled chicken, plain rice, freshly baked bread, and rooibos tea we ate was like a feast, especially when you’re miles away from civilization! It may sound hackneyed, but it really was amazing to see how these people could be so incredibly kind, appreciative, and full of smiles even when they lacked the luxuries many of us take for granted.
AB: Can you tell me a story for this specific trip? A memorable moment while taking these photographs?
PN: I have never seen the Milky Way as clearly as I did from the mountain-top village of Zabasa, one of the first villages we spent the night at, so, naturally I decided to do a bit of stargazing with my camera in tow. Little did I realize that the bulls in the area roamed freely, the dogs were always up for sniffing something new, the chickens were easily annoyed, and the sheep lay restless in their pen. And so, my contemplative session of stargazing quickly turned into a veritable recreation of Noah’s Ark.
But something amazing did happen that night; after capturing a few frames of the splendidly clear Milky Way, a few kids from the village walked up to see what I was doing so late at night. I showed them the back of my camera and the brightly detailed image of our galaxy I had just captured. Their faces lit up in awe. I realized that this was likely the first time they had seen the sky in such clarity, right before their eyes. I think back on this as one of my favorite examples of how photography can impact people in real, tangible, and amazing ways.
Another quick story. The street hawkers in Zimbabwe are relentless and will simply not leave you alone until you either a) buy something or b) drop dead. So I created option c), pretending to speak only loud and angry Russian. It worked wonders and I highly recommend this trick to anyone traveling in a hawk-infested region.
AB: What does this body of work say about you as a photographer? Do you plan on traveling more in the future?
PN: I would say this work shows my love for all things beautiful. The people, the land, the experiences. In the work I also try to show the symbiosis between the subject and the space, the human and the landscape in which they live as a shared story, rather than separate photographic entities. People are who they are because of where they come from, and it’s these people who inhabit these spaces that bring the landscape to life.
The story I try to tell with these images is one of discovery and adventure, one that has a sense of wide-eyed wonder, and that attempts to understand a land and a people that are new to me. These images are just as much a reflection of myself as they are of the things I’m photographing, and, because of that, I treasure them as my understanding of these places. With this work I hope to go beyond the perspective of a mere visitor or observer, capturing a deeper sense of understanding and appreciation of the people, the land, and their culture.
For me, photography is most exciting when I’m on the hunt for something new – something unknown to me. For me, travel is photography’s natural partner in this search, and my hope is to continue traveling, photographing, and sharing my work. It’s been a pleasure sharing it with you!
To view more of Phil’s work please visit his website.