And then the photography pit was empty

Photo by Marianne Brits-Strodl

I can’t remember how many years ago it was I met Henry Engelbrecht. It may have been 2009 when I first moved to Gauteng … or was it after? I don’t know. But I do know that when I did, I couldn’t remember a time before knowing him. And now that he’s gone, it feels like there’s a great Henry-shaped hole in the universe.

Back then I was a young photographer still shooting with a point-and-shoot by my side as a backup. Those who know remember that bright pink Sony Cybershot DSC-H2 named Isabella whose flash could blind you in broad daylight. Henry was one of the few who never laughed at it or my shooting international bands with it. Instead, he would let me up on his shoulders to get a better shot on a few occasions.

Those of you who know me know that I am about half Henry’s height. As soon as we stepped into the photography pit, he would rest his camera on my head and call me his “living tripod”. The joke never got old. In fact, sometimes I would let him leave it there so that he could get a steadier shot. Like a bear, he was swift and sure in the pit. He always moved out of the way for me to get my shots, always offered to (and sometimes did) lift me so I could photograph the drummer, and while waiting for the band, Henry would give me a bear hug and ask about everything – and would listen. We began shooting on Fujifilm roughly at the same time. He would call me excitedly to tell me something new he’d discovered on his camera. I would respond with, “Fuck you and your full frame!”

I will never forget something that happened at Oppikoppi one year – the day an Afrikaans man called me a derogatory term while standing in the pit. Henry and another Afrikaans local musician heard this and they put him in his place. I had never seen Henry angry before this. I think this incident cemented our friendship even more. At the next festival, I made him an entire pot of samoosas to say thank you. In the middle of a freaking rainy RAMfest, there we were having samoosas and tea.

Henry was the big bear of our little group of photographers. Always there with a hug, always a smile, and always the one to freaking buy a ticket even though our bands would have given him media accreditation. He loved our music scene more than anyone I have met since becoming part of the pit family. He would never pass up an opportunity to support our people. There is not a single musician I know personally who has not had a profile pic bearing the simple (c) Henry Engelbrecht Photography watermark on the bottom right corner. Even when I left the industry a few years ago, he would message to ask me if I’m okay and when he was in Johannesburg, whether I wanted to wipe the dust off the camera and shoot with him.

While in Sweden last year, Henry would react to my posts, often reminding me that I am on one of the greatest adventures of my life and I shouldn’t be missing home as much. “Home will still be here when you’re ready to come back” he’d say. I miss his hugs, his warmth, and how he loved with all his being.

On 11 May 2021, the photography pit fell silent. Though we may not be active right now, we photographers collectively lay down our gear and are mourning the loss of this gentle giant, the big guy who never made anyone else feel small. The one who lifted our spirits and was truly the best of us all. The tower of a man whose integrity was as big as his heart. The pit will never be the same again. It is not just the day the music died. It’s the day our shutters did.

Rest in peace, Henry. Remember to take your wide lens. I hear the view is great from up there.