Photographer Mikhael Subotzky puts South Africa in the frame.

The story of how Mikhael Subotzky first got hooked on photography is refreshingly unpretentious: he simply wanted to take snaps of the exotic places he visited during his gap year in Southeast Asia.

But the 29-year-old Capetonian went on to photograph a very different world for his final portfolio at Cape Town’s prestigious Michaelis School of Fine Art, which explored the life inside South Africa’s prisons.

‘I was scared a lot of the time,’ he said of his experience of being locked up with inmates. ‘I don’t think it is on a par with war photography, but it was a difficult environment to work in.’

It was all worth it though, as his portfolio earned him the best marks ever given at Michaelis. First exhibited in 2005 at Cape Town’s notorious Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, Subotzky’s student work also got him noticed by the photography world.

At only 25, he was snatched up by Magnum, one of the youngest photographers ever invited to join the elite photo agency. Subotzky then went on to exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The show featured striking images from his Beaufort West project, which focuses on an isolated Karoo Desert town and the life of its impoverished inhabitants. ‘It was quite a shock,’ said Subotzky of his New York appearance, ‘to suddenly find myself standing in a circle of people talking to photographers Josef Koudelka, Jim Goldberg and Elliott Erwitt.’

For the past two years, Subotzky has been photographing, in collaboration with British artist Patrick Waterhouse, a circular residential block in central Johannesburg called Ponte City (W*80). The 54-storey building, the tallest residential tower in Africa, was once a highly desirable Hillbrow address, but has now become a symbol of urban decay, gang wars and crime. The project combines photography,historical archives, found objects, videos and interviews. Subotzky has also been exploring alternative ways to display his photographs. At a recent exhibition at Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery Project Space, he created three towering light boxes detailing, floor-by-floor, life in Ponte, while in Berlin and Cape Town, he set up a circular, walk-in scaffold on which he displayed a concertina-fold printout of his forthcoming book. Audacious and engaging, his unorthodox displays achieved a long-held aim: to transcribe his feeling of being in a space into a photograph.