“I think it happens organically? But I usually shoot in places I’m familiar with, whether it be in my hood or my homie’s hood, or whether it be at a musical festival I go to every year…how I get to the image can be different.”
What is your first memory of a camera and looking at photos and what impact did it have on you?
Growing up all the cameras I got my hands on were not operating, or people I knew who had one, didn’t know how it worked. Come to think of it now, they probably all worked fine, just needed a new roll of film. I remember seeing images of my eldest brother on a school trip in the early 90s; they gave him a camera to document it and those pictures were absolutely beautiful. I remember the ones I thought were great were considered pointless because they were images of obscure objects or portraits of his friends we didn’t know. I still have the camera he shot them with, I keep it in my room and now that I think about it, it’s more than it just being an accessory in my personal space, it’s more a genuine reminder that that’s where my love for photography perhaps started. I was younger than 10 years old when I first saw those photographs, but I remember them so clearly.
What was your initial interest in taking photographs?
Initially, it was the camera phone. I was like 12/13 years old when I was exposed to them, and when a friend at school got one, I just wanted to take pictures all the time. When people wanted pictures of themselves on their phones, I’d be like “let me do it.” I think it was just the joy of being able to create something from what you see. By the time I got to high school, camera phones had become popular enough to be everywhere, I got a second-hand one myself, lol a Samsung flip phone. It was only in later years when I considered it seriously. In one of my Visual Art class handouts about different mediums artists use, photography was mentioned briefly. When I found out photography counted as art, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I took a gap year, got a job and bought my first camera the same year. Horrible point and shoot digital camera, but it felt amazing, that’s when I really got into it.
What camera are you shooting with at the moment?
Standard Nikon D5100, it was given to me by a friend who didn’t use it much and believed I was too talented not to have access to my own camera. I’ll admit it’s not the greatest device, but the shutter works – yo, that’s all I need man. I don’t come from a very privileged background; money growing up was either for food, clothes and/or transport, it still kinda is. Spending money on equipment is a luxury for me. Getting myself a “professional” camera would have taken forever, so I am eternally grateful that she thought I deserved the camera more than anyone else, including her. She might not know it but she saved my life. I also have a second-hand Sounex 2000N from a friend who is equally supportive. He saw the camera and got it for me because he loves my work. I can’t even thank him enough either. But generally a lot of the film pictures seen on my blog are from borrowed cameras because I couldn’t afford my own at the time.
You shoot mostly on film. Is there a reason for that or do you also cross over into digital?
Haha I wish. I shoot mostly on digital and cross over to film when I can afford the expenses. I’d choose film over digital any day though.
What makes you decide on what subject matter you would like to focus on or do you just shoot randomly at scenes or occasions that interest you?
I think it happens organically? But I usually shoot in places I’m familiar with, whether it be in my hood or my homie’s hood, or whether it be at a musical festival I go to every year…how I get to the image can be different. Sometimes I know what I want because I saw something before but the time of day wasn’t quite right? Other times if I’m at a shoot for work or whatever and see something that intrigues my eye, I’ll seize the moment. Sometimes I’m feeling a certain way so I get out of bed and go hang out with my camera. I don’t really have a formula, my formula only begins the moment the frame of my eye touches the viewfinder, only then am I carefully thinking, focusing, preparing to create an image.
There seems to be a touch of minimalism in all your photographs – is it something that you deliberately look for within your framing?
I don’t know if it was deliberate in the beginning but it’s safe to say it is now? I didn’t know that’s what I was doing until someone pointed it out. I’m just very into the broad idea of “space” and its ability to promote a lot of different feelings, even if it’s just an empty space. The feelings space gives are usually strong and almost indescribable. It leaves room for feeling, mood, interpretation, and so many other things. I’ve never been into images that give away all/too much information. I don’t want to force any ideas on anyone. I’d prefer people to look and then they can take it from there.
What do you think appeals to a lot of younger photographers to shoot on film again?
I don’t know, I would think it differs? I can’t speak on behalf of others but I would think a lot of us grew up looking at film photography, and with time one realizes that the digital image doesn’t quite have that film “thing”. I guess for some it’s because they can afford to? Just to have one up on likes and reposts, it’s the best way to get that photograph texture that social media filters try to get right. For someone like myself, it embodies the idea of painting with light, which is what photography is for me. I don’t know. It also just feels better man. It feels undeletable; a part of the earth, like, film is a lot more tangible you know?
Do you see yourself continuing or is it just a medium that you are interested in for the moment?
Definitely continuing. I plan on setting up a darkroom in the future; I have most of the equipment, just not the space yet.
What is your line of work and how much time do you spend on your photography?
Currently working at the independent film company Goodcop. I recently got into motion pictures so I’m exploring that a little further. Just shot my first music video for a Berlin-based artist and I’m part of an artist collective founded by award-winning film maker Zandile Tisani. I also DJ so there’s that lol.
I found in the past that I would pressure myself into thinking I must always shoot, all the time. I thought I had to do this to prove that I love what I do. But over the years I realized that my process is a little different, maybe like my work itself, and that’s okay. I got tired of shooting just for the sake of it and opted to create when it feels better. Sometimes I’ll shoot 100 pictures in a week, other times one photograph in a month. I do what feels right not what is said to be right.
What do you feel is the essence or the story or subject matter that you feel you are documenting?
This is hard to say, it’s like: I remember this one time when a white woman who is prominent in the art industry asked what my work is about, when I said it’s about being a black woman… she stopped me right there and asked “how?” She told me she “couldn’t see it.” I walked out of that room so confused. Like what the phuck does she mean? Because there are no images of a baby on a beautiful black mother’s back with a sack on her head – it doesn’t quite seem like a black woman’s narrative? That aesthetic is true and valid and still very relevant but it isn’t mine.
It was on that day I decided to never let anyone tell me what my work is or isn’t about, on the basis of how narrow people’s visual language is. So the essence of my story or subject matter would definitely be about me. People who aren’t like me might not get me. And when I say like me I don’t necessarily mean my blackness/my queerness, I mean my open-mindedness, my refusal to be depicted in a certain way in order to be considered by others, my awkwardness; it’s about validating the people I love, the spaces I grew up in and the thoughts I have. My work is about a visual language; to me it’s a way of seeing. I just do me and hope those who can relate do, and those who can’t, like my shit regardless.
How long have you had your blog and how often do you update it? It’s a visual diary for you. How would you compare the person in your first posts to your most recent uploads?
I’ve had the blog since 2013, I believe. It started off as something I had to do for school and then I just kept at it. Apparently I don’t update it as much as I should for someone using a blog as a platform to share work, but I didn’t put the blog up to become an internet sensation or anything, it was just a means of sharing work I thought would be cool for others to see.
The person in the first few posts was someone who had hopes of exhibiting in galleries and though that’s still me, that person considered the audience a little more than I do now? The more recent uploads make me feel like I’m still learning about myself, I’m still wide-eyed and stuff but more content in my style.
Do you always carry your camera with you or do you plan days out to go on missions and explore possible ideas?
I wish I could always travel with it, but I travel with public transport meaning I commute on foot in areas were mugging is a 9 to 5 job for many. The thought of losing my camera makes me incredibly anxious, that baby is how I help feed my family you know? So I tend to opt for the safer route and leave it home on most occasions. But generally my shoots aren’t planned unless it’s just a location I wanted to go back to.
What do you wish you knew back then when you started shooting that you know now? What advice would you have given yourself a few years ago?
I wish I knew how being a woman in this industry could really be a hindrance to your chances of success. I mean I knew a little about inequality, constantly going to exhibitions only to see male narratives over and over and over again, but I didn’t quite get the seriousness of it all. I wish when I was younger I wasn’t so naïve in thinking that my work is better than theirs, thinking that it’s more than enough to be given the space to share it. I was wrong; instead what they do is give you this little ass space (if you’re lucky) to keep proving yourself to them, not even the space to share it how you imagine it deserves to be. With time it hit me that I am not even seen in a room with them, it’s a strange feeling. The world is a shitty place for a black woman with a dream, especially if she’s not from a financially stable environment. If I had known this sooner, I would have avoided a lot of conversations and engagements that have now resulted in a lot of triggers.
What is it about film and the final product it produces that keeps you drawn to this medium?
Must be the grain lol.
Film and the development process is quite a pricey exercise these days. Do you think it makes you think more about the subject
matter that you choose to focus on?
Naturally so, all my life I’ve been trained how not to waste food, water, electricity, how to use things sparingly or in some instances to re-use resources. All this knowledge definitely becomes like second nature when using something as expensive and as limited as film. I have two rolls I’m holding onto right now, and because of this, I don’t want to just use them because I have them.
Is there any photographers’ work that you follow locally or internationally that influenced your growth as a photographer?
The photographers I follow locally… I love Mbali Mdluli’s, Mack Magagane’s and Andile Buka’s works. Internationally, it would have to be Alec Soth.
What appeals to you most about your personal work when you look at it?
Lol I don’t know how to answer this. I guess what appeals to me the most when I look back at my work are the parts the viewers can’t see. Like, when I look at the work I remember the feeling I got when I first saw the picture outside of the viewfinder and then in it. What appeals to me most is knowing where the pictures were taken and being able to find beauty in spaces commonly disregarded, just like the people who live in them.
Any advice for anyone starting out on film?
Try getting a feel for your camera before spending a lot on good film. Fool around with older cheaper film first, uhm…what else?… Oh! STAY AWAY FROM HARSH LIGHT!
Raphael Saadiq RAPHAEL SAADIQ
U Know – EP