Vuyi Lesley Mbalo was born in Sophiatown into a Catholic family. He grew up in the suburb of Orlando, Soweto. He was one of 32 students who were forced to flee Soweto in 1978 just before the matric exams. After finally completing his matric he became more active in Catholic youth organizations. He trained as a youth councilor and served in a number of capacities in the office of the bishop of Johannesburg including compiling the pastoral newsletter.
In 1982 he started attending various media workshops including some run by Afrapix, a progressive photo agency, at Khotso House. Mbalo became a member of Afrapix along with his close friend Cecil Sols. During the same period the two friends also joined the ANC underground. They were tasked with training young photographers.
Vuyi and Sols proposed the establishment of a Soweto Afrapix branch, eventually establishing one at Funda Centre. In 1986 they set up an independent organisation called Phosdoc, while continuing to contribute to Afrapix library. Vuyi also worked for the New Nation newspaper.