PHOTOGRAPHY: NEO BAEPI
WORDS: LANI SPICE
To start off, would you mind telling us a bit about your background and where you are from?
I was born in 1991, in the small town of Klerksdorp and spent the first 6 years of my life in the equally small town of Potchefstroom. After that I moved to Yeoville with my dad at the beginning of his law career. I’ve lived in Soweto, Roodepoort, Sandton, Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown and Cape Town in the last 27 or so years, so I’m relieved to have found my feet in the Mother City. I was formally educated at the University still (unfortunately) known as Rhodes and left there with a Journalism and Media Studies degree, specializing in photojournalism. I lived in Austin, Texas for a bit, came back home to freelance for a bit (Visas expire ☹) and found employment in retail, publishing and very recently advertising. Bills must be paid.
Your creative spectrum is quite wide, when did the medium of photography begin for you?
The cool thing about this question is that I always used to believe that I only take portraits, but the more I think about it, a portrait itself comes in a variety of forms – so thanks 😊. When I was about 7 years old my parents got me a Polaroid camera and it was heaps of fun. I enjoyed the instantaneousness of it but I loved the performance of photography even more. He still doesn’t fully understand it, but my dad is a massive part of my photography story. He had an Olympus camera during his varsity days and I kind of inherited it. He’s since taken it back, and also has a photography hobby. I’ve always loved beautiful images of people and I always wanted to be the person making them. I would browse magazines my mom got and the first ever spread I fell in love with was one from United Colours of Benneton. My dad made it real for me by helping me get gear and I’ve been learning and shooting ever since. I studied at a university because I wanted a University experience and degree. I also wanted to know more about things outside of photography which in hindsight helps me a great deal in terms of employment today. Basically, I love photography and everything about it and I am just grateful to be able to have it as a career.
Could you tell us about the cameras you use, what was your first one and which one is your go-to?
My first film camera was my dad’s Olympus (can’t remember much else about it) and it had a neat 35mm fixed. My first digital camera was a Nikon D3100 and I still have her today. I recently acquired an awesome Nikon D610 and let me tell you something about full-frame cameras: they are the cheat code to this thing of ours! I also have a Pentax analogue toy which I need to use more often. I do most of the commercial and event work with the D610 and a 35mm. Gear is incredibly expensive so I hope I can work hard and well enough to keep adding to it. I need more lenses, more ways to light. But not to the point of forgetting that so much can come from absolutely nothing.
You’ve mentioned before that you have switched from analogue photography to digital, what influenced this decision?
Shooting in analogue is like listening to records. It’s a treat and I don’t have the luxury of time and money to always do it. I think as I go further into my career, I’ll make a return to shooting in analogue. I enjoy post-production and the general workflow of shooting digitally; it’s almost therapeutic. It’s not that I love one more than the other, I just want to do what’s needed so I can eventually shoot how I want to.
You are known to be a portrait photographer, what initially drew you to this and do you ever explore other genres of photography?
I am what they call a “people’s person”. I love the diverse energies, and the ebb and flow of life comes mainly from people and the relationships we form with them. Even a stranger on the street or the train – for that brief moment of taking a photo of them, I am suspending a moment in time between us. Portraiture, for me, is a moment and an event, and it’s a chance to make the subject look and feel like they are at their very best. An athlete on their field of play is a portrait. A performer on stage is a portrait. A tired man on the train going home to his family is a portrait. If I can make the subject look dignified, I’ve hit the sweet spot and my job is done. So by virtue of this, I have already experimented with other “kinds” of photography with the dignity of the subject at the core. I haven’t really explored landscape photography because I don’t think I’m any good at doing Mother Nature any justice. Lol.
You shoot in both black and white as well as colour, do you have a preference?
When I was younger, I preferred black and white photography because that’s how I believed it was meant to be. I’m not entirely sure. Roy DeCarava and Richard Avedon and Susan Sontag made a lot of work in monochrome tones so in my mind that was what made “good photography”. Now that I’m a little older and “wiser” I’ve come to appreciate colour and the different tones and hues it comes in. But I make a decision about how to share an image depending on the impact I want from it. Black and white photos traditionally draw more of an emotional response than colour so it depends on what emotion I want.
You are also an LGBQTI activist. Do you see your photography being a strong tool for or in aid of this?
So I wouldn’t really call myself an activist. People work very hard and long to earn that title. Rather, I am a black queer photographer and those factors obviously impact the kind of work I make. It must also be noted that as black and queer creatives, we aren’t really “allowed” to make the work we want to make. It almost always has to be deeply political otherwise nobody cares. So I’m here by default. Having said that, I am intentional about documenting black and queer JOY. We have always been viewed and consumed behind hashtags and violence and pain. These stories are important, and I believe that stories of our joy are equally important. I try my best to be mindful of current South Africa and I don’t tell my queer story on behalf of others. It’s just my hope that someone younger than me sees my work and feels less alone and unsafe.
Do you have any inspiration that influences you or your work
Absolutely. I’ve mentioned Roy DeCarava and Richard Avedon and Susan Sontag already, for obvious reasons. DeCarava is where I learnt of dignifying the black people (particularly black women) because he was a black photographer in 1940s Harlem and we all know that the medium didn’t consider our darker tones and hues because why would anyone want to intentionally photograph black folk in the 40s in America? But I digress. I’m also inspired by photographers back home. Anthony Bila and Andile Buka were the first people I followed on Tumblr and am constantly blown away by what they can do with a camera. I love how Kgomotso Neto’s life story can be heard just from a photo he takes. Andy Mkosi is multi-talented (she raps and sings AND takes an incredible portrait). I am basically inspired by the joy I feel consuming another photographer’s work because it’s almost as if I can feel their own joy (or pain – this shit is hard).
You’ve briefly spoken before about making a book, is this something you still have planned?
I’ve been talking about making something tangible for a long time. And I keep making the excuses of having a full-time job and trying to make a name for myself. Basically, I want to make an accessible coffee-table book filled with black queer joy. I want it to reach the hands of black queers in small South African towns and townships. I just have no idea where to begin. I have my own anxieties about this, more often than not I feel like I’m not good enough or working hard enough or working for the wrong reasons and I think I need to get to a place where I know exactly what I want. It’s a lot easier to do more harm than good if I don’t have a resolute but careful approach.
You are quite active on Instagram, what are your thoughts on this ever growing platform for creatives to showcase their work? Do you see it becoming a stronger representational space for yourself and others?
When Instagram first rolled out I had a Blackberry 8520 and my envy for the fact that it was only available to Iphone users made me hate it. But then I got an Ipad for my 21st birthday and I was so excited at the quick and uncomplicated way I could share my photos, even with a handful of followers. I use my online presence as an archive. I’m happy for the following, obviously, as I am making work to be consumed. I created my profiles to mainly keep track of my progress. It’s quite something to look back at both my Instagram and Tumblr and see how I’ve developed and am still developing. I can almost tell the state of mind I was in back then. Instagram is a neat platform, a good way to showcase but even better for my archiving needs. The social aspect of it is touch-and-go because people are different and can be mean, but I think I’m good at ignoring the ugly voices because I have enough of those in my head.
On your Tumblr, it’s great how you publicly answer emails or messages from those who have reached out to you seeking advice or guidance. Why do you think it’s important for creatives to be open about their experiences?
Yes I think South Africans have fallen woefully behind in the space of communication and critique – we have left absolutely no room for it. It’s so important that we talk to one another, even (especially) about the bad stuff and our hardships and anxieties because this creative shit is HARD. I almost feel bad for not liking fellow black creatives’ work because we don’t and shouldn’t all make the same work. We have to be as open as we’re willing to be. People have come before us and there will be others long after our time’s up. We can’t be gatekeepers who at the same time beg for the “industry” to open itself up. Very importantly, we need to be patient. It looks quick and glamourous online and I wish I could address that but I can’t. But it takes time to be good and valued at ANYTHNG you do. I don’t have all the answers; I can only share what I know. We must treat one another with consideration and respect first, that way, the things we say to one another never ever come with teeth.
Do you plan to travel at all and if so where?
Of course, travel is the best teacher, right? Logistically speaking though, I’m fortunate enough to travel for work. It’s taken me to Texas and New York and Maputo and all over SA and I am very grateful. I have my heart set on traveling the African continent; they just need to work on the whole homophobia thing. You’d be surprised how many countries have anti-gayness embedded in their society and I make it a point of finding that out before traveling. It’s also why this question is a little difficult to answer. I would love to live back in Austin again; it’s like a smaller and more polite version of New York.
What would be your dream photo project?
I think about this a lot. I really want to make a bi-annual photo-zine kind of thing. It could be consumed in print and online and I want it to showcase emerging black and queer photography talent. If I can pay them, it would be a huge bonus. I’d obviously have to do the late-capitalism thing and make relationships with brands, preferably those whose messages which align with mine.
Any projects you are currently busy with or coming up?
I’m not intentional enough about it, but I am trying to collect images of black womxn and femmes. Between work and my photography demands, it’s been put on ice for a little. I want to put them in the coffee-table book I spoke of earlier. Maybe frame and sell some. But like I said before, I have to be very sure and very careful.
Where are the best platforms for one to follow/find your work?
Mostly Instagram, I update it very regularly. My Tumblr is where you’ll find more of the stuff I’m really proud of. I was considering buying my own domain and having a .com website but I kind of enjoy the social aspect of Tumblr and I don’t ever want to take myself that seriously. I probably should though. I share my work on Twitter too, but that’s getting less regular. As much as I’m happy to have my work hang on the walls of the Internet, I need to be more careful with how much and how often I share.