2 key lessons you can learn from Mikhael Subotzky


Mikhael Subotsky (born 1981) is a South African artist. At the age of 25, he was one of the youngest photographers ever to join probably the most prestigious photography agency - Magnum Photos. However, he did not simply join; he was invited to join.

Needless to say, he’s a very talented artist not only in the field of photography but also in film-making and painting.

These facts alone already say a lot.

Mikhael Subotzky, 2006

Photograph what touches you deeply

Subotzky is a sensitive artist - and when I say sensitive - I don’t mean it in a bad way. As an artist, you need to be sensitive to certain things, and this enables you to portray these things in a powerful way. Because these things really matter to you.

Mikhael Subotzky, 2004

As Subotzky is a resident of South Africa (a very violent country), his primary work is to examine the different aspects of social structures in South Africa. The injustice and even ridiculousness happening between social classes.

In a primary level, I still very much see my work as being about myself, and my place. It is photographs of my personal experience of my surroundings.

Mikhael Subotzky

A lot of his work has also dealt with crime and punishment. E.g., the photo show in the intro is the Beaufort West Prison on which he did a project. That is the theme that touched him personally. This is why he did that, not because it looked cool or just interesting.

In contrast, nowadays, with Instagram and its algorithm, many photographers do the pictures that will best serve the algorithm, not what they truly desire to do.

But you should never do the art that others want to see. You should always do the art that you want to see. It’s perfect to quote Austin Kleon here:

“Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use – do the work you want to see done.”

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

Even one of the Magnum members complained that new applicants do the same stories over and over again - prisons, hospital, mental asylums etc. and they get so many of them. Because these applicants think that that’s what the Magnum members (who ultimately decide if you get in) want to see.

Even if something is cliché, you can still photograph it

The Ponte skyscraper located in Johannesburg was photographed probably hundreds of thousands of times before Subotzky in collaboration with Patrick Waterhouse began their project Ponte City (the tower playing the main role).

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, 2008

According to Subotzky, he was not interested photographing the tower at first, as it was a sort of a cliché. He did it anyway, and with great success.

The key it seems is to do it differently than everyone else has done, and do it 10X better.

We regularly come face to face with buildings that are so immense and intricate that the mind has to simplify them as geometry rather than fully acknowledge that they are vertical space where multitudes of actual people work and reside. We build as if we’re gods and then view the results like infants.

Darran Anderson

Subotzky and Waterhouse spent years on the project and photographed many of the building’s residents. Obviously, no easy task as they had to talk and interact with a lot of people, do the shooting, etc.

They really immersed themselves into the essence of the building and the stories of its residents. They didn't just make photographs of the building's facade. They photographed its soul.