How I Got Here
When I left school I wanted to be a photographer. I didn't know what kind but I knew that I liked making photographs. My careers advisor told me not to bother - "You don't have the right temperament to be a photojournalist" he told me, after asking if I would save a child from a burning building or take a picture of them, so I didn't bother.
I studied theatre studies and music instead, dropping out of a visual arts course after my first project, a sculpture made out of coat hangers, proved a disaster.
I tried my hand at a few careers in music; songwriting, performing, mixing, producing and engineering until, in December 2005, my neighbour fell down the stairs, broke his leg and opened up a whole new world of opportunity for me.
Paul worked for the band Snow Patrol, running their tracks and virtual instruments from offstage. He knew that I used the same music program as he did (Apple Logic) so he taught me how to do his job and asked me to go on tour in his place. It never worked out but when Paul got offered a job with a band called The Streets, he suggested me for the role and my new life on the road began.
I never told them this but I didn't have a clue what I was doing. In rehearsals Mike (Skinner) would ask me to program something on Logic and I would make some excuse as to why I couldn't do it at that moment, rush home after the rehearsals and sit up all night figuring out how to do it. That's how I learnt my job, and over the next 5 years I toured with Keane, Massive Attack, George Michael and the Chemical Brothers - some of the biggest names in the UK music industry.
It was when I was on tour with George Michael that I bought myself a digital SLR camera. We were touring in North America and had lots of time off, George didn't like to work every day. I walked around every new city, eagerly snapping away, working out what I liked and what I didn't, what looked good to me and what felt uncomfortable.
By the time I had travelled through South America; on tour with Keane, camera in hand, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a photographer.
My wife is South African. She is now a Professor of Public Health at the University of the Western Cape. We moved to South Africa after I finished touring because it was important for her to be there for her research. I worked as a music composer for an online gambling company until the sadness overwhelmed me and I quit on the spot, the weight of contributing towards a product that negatively impacted the lives of so many people was too much for me.
I always thought that I would be a black and white photographer, and I took the time to study and experiment in those early years. Working with lights crept in slowly and over time I became confident working in colour, trying not to lean on monochrome as an easy way to be "artistic".
My work was directionless but I was enjoying getting to know the camera and exploring my inner photographer, the part of me that makes decisions about composition, framing, subject matter, approach and all the other non-technical decisions that are critical to effective photographic work.
I took on some freelance music work and set about discovering South Africa with my camera, embarking on self funded projects that would take me around the country in an attempt to understand the complex history of apartheid and the current state of the nation that I now called home.
I have never claimed to be an expert on the subjects that I document, in fact I sometimes think that it is important that I am not. Early on I realised the benefit of partnering with advocacy organisations, NGO's, academics and journalists; people who are specialists in their field. I have an enthusiasm for learning and discovering but my talent is for making work that is accessible, empathetic and impacting. To be able to create the work that I was passionate about, I needed to surround myself with people who know better than me.
For my first project, Andriesvale, I travelled with a group of researchers from the University of KwaZulu Natal, to document a disenfranchised community of First People, marginalised by a society that did not respect their right to live on the land that their ancestors had occupied for hundreds of years. The project was selected for the Cape Town Month of Photography and, all of a sudden, I had my first exhibition to prepare for.
In the same year I created The Objectors, a series of portraits of conscientious objectors, inspired by the book 'Under Our Skin' by Donald McRae. The series was acquired by the South African National Gallery for their permanent collection and, as I write this, is currently on display in their Cape Town gallery.
Importantly, these first two projects were published in South African newspapers and were instrumental in raising awareness of my work. They also formed the backbone of my photographic approach, cementing within me the importance of not just photographing people, but also exploring a deeper narrative.
Collaborations & Commissions
In 2015 I read an article about a lung disease called silicosis, and the uncompensated miners who contracted it whilst working in the gold mines. I made a short project documenting victims of the injustice and it ran in the national newspaper the next week. I was approached by Anso Thom and Lotti Rutter from the Treatment Action Campaign and Section 27, two organisations that were working closely on a class action lawsuit against the gold mines. They wanted to extend the project that I had started and found funding through Heinrich Böll Stiftung to embark on a hugely ambitious project The Price of Gold.
This body of work set the tone for future projects and was instrumental in securing me a consistent stream of commissioned work over the last few years. These commissions have taken me around the world, to meet incredible people and give a voice to their stories. It has been a truly humbling experience and I am unbelievably grateful to be paid to do what I love the most.
Read more about how we made The Price of Gold here.
Every year I undertake a project purely as art. I don't like the term fine art photography but it's hard to explain in other words. It's not a huge departure for me from my humanitarian work, the difference is in the subject matter and the intention. I am not exposing injustice or campaigning for change, I am just exploring somewhere or something new, telling a story that may not have been told before.
It started with the Horsemen of Semonkong, a project that I made in Lesotho in 2016. I needed to work on a project that was a little lighter, after months of working on very heavy subjects, in very trying situations. I walked in the mountains and took time to interact with my subjects, photographing them simply, in their environment. I had no idea how successful the series would be, the combination of scenery, animals and style making it relevant for publication in travel, fashion, art, equine and culture magazines.
Making art projects is important to me, it allows me to explore and experiment without the responsibility of telling a story that is relying on me for a voice, a task which I do not take lightly. It also opens up other avenues of engagement for my work, in galleries, magazines and festivals. I am still working on the balance but I have found that the art work helps to facilitate the humanitarian work, both mentally and financially.
Over the last five years I have learnt a great deal about photography. I have learnt that photography is much less about the technicalities of the camera and much more about what is in front of the lens. I have been on a journey that has made me question my values, ethics, morals, passions and place in the world; all the things that are vital within the work that I do. I want to use this blog to unpack these issues in more detail, looking at ways that other photographers work as well as going into more detail about my past projects and the ones that I am presently working on.
Comments and suggestions are always welcome.