Duncan Fleming and Mahreen Chenia chat to this renowned photographer, former fine arts photography lecturer and vibrant and colourful traveller.
Q: What is your day like taking photos?
A: Everyday is different. Within an adventure is another adventure and what I do see is strange and weird stuff. The thing for me is not to set out thinking that I must take a picture of that range of mountains but it comes with time and I go with the flow to see what’s good enough.
Q: Is traveling your purpose for taking photographs?
A: It’s a combination, you can swap the words around- I travel to take photos and I take photos to travel.
Q: Do you travel by yourself?
A: Always. I’m a one man band. I have a double cab. I remove all the seats so that I can fit a bed inside for myself. I don’t even take my family.
Q: How long before do you plan these trips?
A: I just go when I feel like. It’s a wonderful freedom to just go and not plan too far. I plan a sort of area. Day by day, picture by picture. The less time you spend stressing about your trip the more you can concentrate on taking your photos.
Q: How composed or spontaneous are your photographs?
A: I use a medium format called 6x7cm. The larger your format the slower you click (or clack). I’ve got this built-in computer, if I feel that the picture situation is good enough to take I spend enough time until I can get what I want. My pictures aren’t always instantaneous, they might appear to be – but that is just work. I will defiantly rearrange and change to improve the impact.
Q: How real are your pictures?
A: Photography is about cheating – somewhat bullshitting. You have to orchestrate a “Hello, how are you” relationship with people and whilst you’re doing that you’re looking for objects that might improve the picture. I still like to give it an honest, ‘Aha I met the guy on the road’ sort of a feel.
Q: And with landscapes?
A: I do a lot of landscapes, [it’s] very difficult to capture the essence of a big vista. Students go to take a picture of the Grand Canyon, when they return it looks nothing like the landscape. Something that is engraved in me is how to take from a scene so that it represents what the eye can so easily scan.
Q: Can this skill be learnt?
A: I think you can learn a lot of things but there is that last page where you have a certain way of seeing things. Good photographers look at the world in a different way, angle, height and light.
Q: What is a good picture?
A: A good picture must have one good word – intrigue.
Q: What is the reward of taking these pictures?
A: These days we are bombarded with images that just pass us by. To make people stop for a moment, become inquisitive and to have a second look at the image. I know then that I’m winning.
Q: Photographers say they take photos for themselves, how true is this?
A: That’s bullshit, you have to share it – that’s the medium. You use your camera as a vehicle to show what you want to show. You want to show them the place. Vokolfontein or wherever.
Q: Do you have a certain technique?
A: People have said that I have developed a certain technique, sort of the “Obie picture” intense colour is not really worked by me but if you work with a technique and system and your quality and exposure is good, that is the way it looks. What people confuse is that our eyes adapt if they are prolonged in a certain light. A camera is different – that’s why pictures appear brighter.
Q: Have you ever stepped into black and White?
A: Yes, when I was young. When I was a lecturer at the Durban Technikon I did just black and white. As I developed, and colour films and processing improved, I moved towards colour.
Q: Do you use a digital camera?
A: Digital is instantaneous, I still use a tripod. There is no debate about it, it is obviously what we must use. My vehicle is still so good that I’m sure I’ll still be in Grahamstown for a year and I’ll use until I move. That’s the time I say ‘ok forget it lets buy myself the best digital camera get myself a Photoshop program’ because I can’t lug along my processor and entire black room.
Q: How many pictures do you take at a time?
A: I take about two or three. I scan the situation for about three to four minutes with this particular human situation.
Q: Do you ever discard any of them?
A: Not really, very seldomly. I have this built in meter that says this situation that takes well will get there. It might not make a book but its still good picture.
Q: Is there anything you wouldn’t photograph?
A: If I feel it’s interesting I’ll take anything. I don’t do fashion at all because I think its superficial bullshit. I like to capture the heart of things.
Q: Do you ever put yourself in danger to take a shot?
A: You learn a way – intuition. You know when things are unsafe. I don’t do hard core press stuff. In the pre-freedom days, I didn’t go photograph Caspers or the rioting youths; enough people were doing that. I tried to show the symbol of pathos not in a confrontational situation. In my new book I speak about how in the late 70s I was in Zululand on a Sunday up north and there were two impis that were fighting right where my car was. I was told to stay in the car and not take any photos. It’s the way you approach people. Each person has a different way you have to work on. You have to be a little aggressive but what I try and do is make the person I’m photographing feel a little important and then I take the picture.
Q: Tell us a bit about you and Zimbabwe?
A: I love Zimbabwe but I have been banned for calling the president an asshole. So I’m waiting at the border to go back there to take some photos because it’s a pleasing fascinating country.
Q: There is always the question if photographers should get involved in the Zimbabwe situation or just document it?
A: I don’t hold onto my photos. It’s very shallow and instantaneous. I don’t have time to go into the deeper meaning. I am just a photographer, not a high art photographer. I won’t be able to deal with real bloodshed or anything.
Q: Have your family influenced your photography?
A: No they stay out of it. My wife is my best critic. When I come home from a shoot she usually says do away with this or keep this. So I have a whole collection of [her] refusee’s. Even when I’m not sure about a picture she’ll tell me ‘Oh, you have something there’ or ‘No, not this one’.
Q: What is your next project?
A: I leave to Overburg, packing everything in. Green rolling hills, dams etc. I’m doing this because with the World Cup people want to know what South Africa looks like. I always used to laugh at people who took pictures of flowers. I might go and take photos of the Namaqualand Daisies but there are millions of pictures of them. So it’s up to me to do it in a different way.
Q: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve done?
A: Many years ago I blindfolded myself and put the peddle flat and drove before my mind exploded. Your mind can sort of tell you, like you know to this side is 60km. My record is like 6 min 30 sec blindfolded. You’re traveling like 170km an hour. If you don’t have the eyes your mind does funny things. Which I won’t try on a South African road.
Off the point:
Q: What was the last thing you threw in your bin?
A: An empty bottle of Tassenberg.
Q: If you had to invade a country, which one would it be?
A: Zimbabwe. Without a doubt. Right now. In fact let’s go – I’ll take the pictures. But we can’t use our army ‘cause they’re so shit – we’ll have to get maybe the Lesotho army or a couple of Zulu warriors with shields, they’d probably do it better than us.
Q: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever eaten?
A: Camel’s prick, grilled. Tastes a bit like tongue.
Q: Describe yourself in a few words?
A: I’m ageing in time like yesterday’s mind
Q: What is your philosophy in life?
A: After a long wait after smoking some cannabis my friend Wally Onetime told me that a life without adventure is no life at all, and that’s what I live by.