“I started photographing as a sort of personal diary. I still do this today. I document those closest to me – friends, family, and myself. I guess photography acts as a mirror of myself as well as the world around me.”
INTERVIEW: RICK DE LA RAY
PHOTOGRAPHY: MEGHAN DANIELS
Where did it all start for you? What is your earliest memory of a camera?
I grew up finding escapism in looking closely at the world around me – a bit of a strange kid – staring oddly, framing and trying to understand moments as they unfolded and passed. Photography has always been there but not necessarily with a camera in hand. I think photography is a hell of a lot more than just a camera. For example, I know some people with cameras who are ‘photographers’ but I don’t see them as such – they’re shitty humans who exploit or don’t put effort into trying to understand the content they work with. Photography is all encompassing – you can shoot with your cellphone, not have studied photography’s technicalities, sincerely listen and hold the contexts in, and of, which you are shooting, question yourself. I think this is more of a ‘photographer’. Sorry, I’m digressing.
My earliest memory of a camera is a 35mm pink Barbie plastic thing that my mom gifted me with. I remember using it for the first time when we went to visit her [then] boyfriend in Vredenburg. Man, I loved this thing. It was magic. I could finally freeze what I was seeing around me. I forgot about this camera and found it in a garage last year! The film was still inside! My first two photographs on there sum me up pretty well – a plastic packet floating in a river and my ma. Lol.
Where did you grow up and do you feel it has influenced your work in any way?
I grew up in a block of flats on a military base in Wynberg, Cape Town. I was raised there by my ma, a single parent in the army. I didn’t understand it at the time, but growing up there has perhaps been my biggest influence. Inside of my room (which was on the third floor) I’d sit with my one leg straddled over my window and watch everything outside passing by. Outside my room, I was surrounded by a diversity of people who were my family– celebrating Eid and sneaking through Playboy magazines with my brothers to the left, learning about fragile masculinity and domestic violence via my neighbors to the right, listening to the neighbors upstairs replace gospel with Trompies on a Sunday. I grappled with the complexities of human nature here – something that I’ll always try understanding, learning about and holding in my work.
The military base was a mixture of personal traumas and childhood bliss. I’d process, as well as celebrate, a lot of this by walking around and photographing. It’s illegal to shoot on the base so I’d do it sneakily with adrenalin pumping through me. A silly sense of rebellion then, but something I still hold in my work. Some of the themes of gender and intimacy I work with today are, in part, to speak out about and prevent some of the shit I saw and experienced growing up there.
When you first started taking pictures what was your original approach and are you still focusing on similar subjects?
I don’t think I had an approach to start with. I’ve always felt that my camera is an extension of myself in a sense — I don’t really see what I photograph as ‘subject matter’ but rather a collection of experiences that happen to take the form of a photograph. I guess I don’t care too much for photography, but rather a sense of what I interpret to be ‘honesty’.
I started photographing as a sort of personal diary. I still do this today. I document those closest to me – friends, family, and myself. I guess photography acts as a mirror of myself as well as the world around me.
Your landscapes are exceptionally minimalist, what draws you to capture empty space in such an emotional way?
The spaces I photograph often reflect a memory, nostalgia or what I am feeling or experiencing in my life at that time – candid yet intimate. For example, I can think of a photograph of coffee cups filled with cigarette butts, an overflowing ashtray, filters scattered on the table. It’s a time when one of my best friends and I were living together. We were both going through our own, big wars then. We’d sit around that table in support with a ciggie in one hand and each other’s hand in the other. I can also think of a photograph of a wall and my silhouette across it. This was taken on a road trip I did to De Rust – the place where I last saw my dad when I was about 12 years old. I happened to find the tennis court where he matched me back then. I was pathetic at tennis, he beat me, but I didn’t mind one bit. This is where I took this self-portrait.
How do you go about choosing the subject matter of your images or do you allow it to come spontaneously?
My personal work is mostly spontaneous. For other bodies of work (e.g. documentaries) my approach will be primarily based on background research and participatory research methodologies with the people/person I’m working with. For these bodies of work, I see myself as somewhat of a vessel for others to tell their stories through – I shut up, they speak. As photographers (or just humans, actually) I think it’s important to remember that some stories are not ours to tell. Voyeurism can be dangerous.
What would you say is your preference between colour or black and white images, do you decide beforehand what format you will be shooting in?
If I’m heading out with my camera in my own personal capacity, I grab whatever film is lying around my house or that I can get my hands on. Sometimes its black and white, sometimes colour, sometimes a blurry mess because the film has expired.
There seems to be a lot of close-up shots relating to the human body, what is the attraction for you to these forms?
A few reasons. My work deals with issues surrounding gender, intimacy, sexuality and mental health. Often times, trauma, or just living as a non-cishet, non-male in this world, creates dissociation with the physical body. Photographing bodies (mostly my own) thus becomes a process of catharsis – challenging, claiming, celebrating, breaking taboos, putting something out there when it may be at its most vulnerable. Sometimes my friends and family don’t necessarily want to be seen so I’ll zoom in or crop and capture their bodies anonymously. And sometimes I’ll be with friends and our clothes happen to come off or we happen to flash, and I’ll happen to have my camera on me. Woops.
What camera are you using at the moment and what makes it relevant to the type of photography you focus on?
I mostly shoot my personal work on a Contax T2 point-and-shoot 35mm camera. It’s quick, allows for spontaneity, I don’t have to think too much when using it, it’s small and doesn’t feel like I’m entering a space with a big, obtrusive, chunky thing.
Which photographer(s) would you say has had the most influence on you as a person?
Internationally, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Nan Goldin and Annie Flanagan.There are so many young, up-and-coming photographers in South Africa who I follow online and who inspire me. There are too many to mention. People are claiming a practice that has for so long being exclusive and inaccessible and now flipping its power dynamics on its head (whether it’s with a disposable camera or a cellphone).
What is the most uncomfortable moment you have encountered so far while shooting?
A much shorter list would be moments that have been comfortable!
Are you busy with any projects at the moment?
Always. One includes a short, conceptual documentary with my cousin and his experience of growing up queer in our family. Another is with a close friend, looking at her experiences of sexuality, intimacy, the erotic, and how this fits into the prism of growing up as a Muslim femme in Cape Town.
You are also a cinematographer, do you find that you use the same approach to moving images as you do when you shoot stills?
Yes, although depending on what I’m shooting, I’d say it isn’t as spontaneous. Oftentimes there is a lot more planning and pre-organisation that goes into my video work. I can’t fit dolley tracks and a Butterfly Frame Kit in my pocket like I can with my Contax T2 :(
Meghan Daniels -x
INFO: Instagram: @meghan.daniels