Hi Alastair. Firstly, congratulations on winning our theme ‘An Instant’. Our judge, Clement Saccomani, was won over by how you framed ‘a moment of life, a breath, a visual sweetness’. Are these comments that resonate with you?
Hi, thank you, and thank you Clement for putting it into words. They resonate beautifully.
I knew that the birth of my son would be a hugely significant moment in my life. I didn’t, however, intentionally think about making a photograph, that captured the essence of that moment, or the human symbolism of that breath. I’m just glad I was present enough to respond and pleased that it reads that way. What I saw, and in considering it for submission, what I re-saw, with nostalgia and reverence, was the mother of my child.


24 May 2012. Park Lane Hospital

It’s clearly a private moment – the birth of your son – but shared on a larger stage, and I’m drawn to how you handle this dichotomy. The framing is close, creating something quite intimate, and yet also detached from the moment. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me that this was a scene of child-birth. Was that balance something you were aware of, and something you sought to achieve?
I submitted a series of 10 images (of my son being born), so all I see is child birth. What I find difficult is believing one photo can stand in for my whole experience. What I know, and am reminded of by having my photo acknowledged by Clement, is that one moment can catalyse whole experiences for others.
I didn’t feel detached. I’m at my best when my camera gets out my way, when my camera is just an extension of what I see and my response is automatic and without the distraction of worrying about intent or settings.


24 May 2012. Park Lane Hospital

I still look at the photo of my son on the scale, and have to wonder about that hand, and wonder why I wasn’t holding it. But I was there more as a father than a
photographer and I can appreciate the value of being present instead of making photos. I wasn’t trying to achieve a balance but there was a balance.


24 May 2012. Park Lane Hospital

It’s also very different from the majority of your work, in which you explore your urban surroundings in Johannesburg and beyond. Was this work meant as something to be shared from the outset, or did that thinking come later?
There is very little intent or pre-mediation in my private photos. My response, the very reason I grab a camera is instinctual, a need to hold a moment still for my own understanding. Even composition is intuitive, so I know there is so much more data within each frame that isn’t immediately evident to me, data and meaning that usually only manifest in retrospect. I am not the same person who took this photo. All the time that has passed since I took it, and all the changes in my personal life, bring renewed reflection to bear on it. In other words, yes, the thinking came later. It almost always does for me.
I make most of my photographs for myself firstly and not initially for a broader public. When I do make my photos public, I’m more interested in telling stories. Those stories, very often, infer elapsed time. The work I make public is really just the best of my personal diary and what fits the narrative I’m working on.
You spend as much time curating as you do creating art yourself. Can you tell us about one or two of those projects? What is it about the curation process that resonates with you as much as the photography itself?
I studied fine art (painting) and drama and they inform my curatorial sensibilities. The objective is obviously to highlight the work but I’m curious about how the same work in different environments can be read very differently. So, the space itself, the environment, as well as engaging all the senses, is just as important to the story.

“In the Cloud”

29 November 2007. Johannesburg
Mural by Miss Yucki reflected on an outer window of the Intermission Gallery

The gallery I curated was on the 18th floor of a building in central Johannesburg and the entire outer perimeter had windows. It was unlike other “white cube” galleries in that it embraced context. Work hung on the inner walls couldn’t help but be compared to, or juxtaposed against, the Johannesburg context outside. An instant comparison between depiction and reality. That dialogue between curated Art and un-curated City, and the subsequent discussions these evoked, were always interesting for me.One of the first exhibitions I hosted was an installation of films, sound and photographic works by Theresa Collins and Mocke J van Veuren. Their 16mm time lapses of Johannesburg were looped and projected floor to ceiling. Often covering multiple days, the night and day cycles of their work encouraged the illusion that the whole gallery was breathing. Anthea Moys’ exhibition “Interruption” was made more interesting by her use of performances and projections on adjacent buildings. They expanded the architectural limits of the gallery to include the city and also opened a dialogue with a larger “non-exhibition” audience.
It would have been equally interesting, on a whole other scale, to see photos of other cities, even rural content, in the same space.
I’m interested in the comparison and dialogue between images, art and photos, and especially what meaning context can reveal in the reading of such things. I look for similarities and differences. For what fits and for what doesn’t seem to fit. For what reinforces and what contradicts. I do this in my own art work as a way of extending the narrative.

“comb over time”

31 August 2012. Johannesburg
Spiff Mczaul “Street-styling” DJ Medicine at the Butcherboy event

Moving on to your work in Johannesburg, many of your images are shot from an aerial perspective, focussing on the rooftops and small, humane interactions in the context of a vast, industrial city. Can you tell us a bit about this viewpoint? What stories are you interested in telling and what does your working practice look like?
Johannesburg suffered from wholesale decentralisation in the 80’s and 90’s, when many businesses upped and moved to the more affluent northern suburbs. The subsequent neglect, urban decay and assumption of lawlessness, resulted in a stigma about it. I’m not from Johannesburg originally and I was naïve enough and curious enough to want to discover the city behind the rumours. I found a disused laboratory on the 19th floor of the Lister Medical Building in the inner city, and moved into it in early 2003. What began as a personal discovery of Johannesburg, spilled over into the excitement of sharing my experience.
My Johannesburg aerial series is literally the view I had from my apartment, in this building. Illustrating this view and making the potential of such rooftop spaces public quickly resulted in me hosting other people’s events, film shoots and exhibitions, quite by accident, and in my own living space. So, I’ve gotten used to that Public / Private divide.
I guess my aerial series started as my own attempt at reflecting a Johannesburg compared to her myth, that challenged the publicly accepted stereotype. This story was: this is Johannesburg, as I see it, come have a look.
My aesthetic was, at times, a little rose- tinted - I mean I first responded, as most people would, to the sunsets, the thunder showers, the context if you will. And being a business owner those images soon became part of my arsenal. I found myself in the business of making Johannesburg look good to clients.
But that was only a fraction of the story. I was self-editing a perception of Johannesburg that was at odds with what made Johannesburg really interesting, profoundly beautiful and also problematic in the sense that Johannesburg was hard, merciless and a failure on an inclusive societal level. I was parachuting in events for entertainment and escapist value, which I soon realised had its place, but didn’t acknowledge or address any of my own very real concerns for fundamental transformation.
My work practice was essentially public events facilitator with a social documentary hobby. It seemed important to me that my photos of Johannesburg offered context to my peopled photos, both stories were interesting, but my social documentary held my interest longer, had gravity and was more personally thought provoking.

“Redemption Song”

4 October 2014. Johannesburg

I set out to create an image of the Johannesburg CBD that conveys and engages both the reality of her social context whilst providing a place for the world of our imagination. I feel these two narratives complement each other, but they were essentially curated for different audiences.
The story I’m telling is my story, my reflection of Johannesburg, in the hope that those hearing it might compare it to theirs and, if not assimilate, then add to and complicate, because Johannesburg is more than any one view, or single photo, or exhibition, book or online database. It’s all of these things and all our perspectives combined.


4 October 2014. Johannesburg

“Opening Night”

10 December 2010. Johannesburg

“Mnemonic Glass”

27 October 2012. Johannesburg

You maintain a distance from your subjects, them largely unaware of your presence. Is this detachment an aesthetic choice, or perhaps something else? A product of you feeling like an outsider yourself having not grown up in the city?
Someone asked me recently if I felt like God and if I liked looking down on people. It was simply circumstantial. So, no, not an aesthetic choice but still an unusual perspective that most people rarely see and there’s value in that alone.
The separation enabled by this viewpoint is vital to what I think makes the story. The perspective is risky, it implicates me as an “outsider” making voyeuristic photos, of people being people, in ways that could be considered to be culturally different from my own. Taken out of context, I know that’s problematic, but my intention is to illustrate commonality beyond culture and draw attention to beauty, despite societal issues. I also think my figurative work, work I still consider to be portraits of Johannesburg, encourages debate and conversations that should, I think, be happening on more personal levels.
It’s just that, over time, the aerial perspective became its own thing, its own singularly specific and problematic story and I felt a responsibility in defining it as such, with me in it, without the lifeline of my street level photos.
My aerial series runs parallel to other photos I was taking of what was happening within the venue and gallery and what I shot on street level. I was an outsider but I engaged with Johannesburg on many levels, including from the street and looking up.
My experience of the streets gave context to my photography looking down. My exploration further afield gave context to my personal precinct. The potential of the venue as a vehicle for debate and the cross-pollination of ideas and even multi-cultural integration, evolved to better engage with the surrounding neighbourhood and other inner-city service providers and became, more specifically, collaborative. All of these experiences informed my greater understanding of Johannesburg.

“Bath House”

12 January 2007. Johannesburg


21 September 2007. Johannesburg

“Ninja Turtle”

18 April 2010. Johannesburg


16 April 2010. Johannesburg


12 April 2017. Johannesburg

“Brand Antic”

11 February 2008. Johannesburg

Johannesburg is a city known as much for its challenging social context and its hustle as anything else, but as ever the reality is impossibly more complex than the stereotypes and broad generalisations. Is there a certain feeling or message regarding Johannesburg that you’d like to convey? I get the impression that you perhaps don’t love the city itself, but love the communities that are fostered nonetheless. Is there something in that, or am I completely off the mark?
My work is seldom didactic. Johannesburg is complex and my response to and feelings about her were, and continue to be, in constant flux: love and hate, optimism vs pessimism. I see beauty and despair, simultaneously, in much of this work. The message, if any, is look harder, don’t make assumptions. The sense of otherness is an illusion that limits understanding, and that the rewards are worth it, even if all it amounts to is a deeper self-reflection.
I’m attracted to emotive moments. Evidence of a universal human experience, of intimacy, of tenderness, of community, of needs… but also the lack or neglect thereof.For me, even inanimate objects or unpeopled landscapes tell stories of prospect or transience. There can be something so beautiful, so sad, so full of potential about a neglected suitcase. So be it an abandoned drive-in, run away fires or a plastic bag, caught in the wind, I always feel I’m referencing human presence, and mostly comparing what I see to my own experience.
It’s interesting to me therefore that you see “don’t love” but understandable because the images I’m currently sharing (and where my head is at) and particularly the ones I submitted for the street life contest, reveal situational social issues and people making the best of them. I was drawn to the intimacy, humanity and sense of community first and then only to how these things existed in spite of the larger complex city that, at times, made these things so hard. That bittersweet dichotomy, of people being personable in an impersonal landscape, intrigued me, but the city itself sometimes exerted its own beautiful personality, and Johannesburg will always have the weather.

“All my belongings”

4 November 2010. Johannesburg


24 January 2014. Johannesburg

“Fight Club”

11 April 2010. Johannesburg

“Manning of the Spring”

24 January 2014. JohannesburG

Can you imagine applying your practice to another city context? Or is Johannesburg intrinsic to your art?
My sense is that I’d see any other city in comparison to Johannesburg. My ways of seeing Johannesburg evolved over time. My approach and direction have, with this project, become more succinct and easier to replicate. I’m interested in what makes a city work. I’m interested in the human scale of cities. I think I’ve learnt a certain vocabulary of city so I’d like the challenge of translating that vocabulary and mapping it over into another language or dialect, especially the chance to do it without the distraction of a venue or business interest, with time for a single-minded focus


9 August 2016. Johannesburg


9 August 2016. Johannesburg

And finally, Alastair, is there anything else you would like to add?
Ultimately, I think my Johannesburg aerial series speaks to my own public / private divide. Now that the venue has dissolved I’m free, and it’s important for me, to be more truthful about my experience, even if, in practice, I’m doing this after the fact, now that I have the time to digest what I saw. I don’t feel ready, nor do I expect I’ll ever be, to comment definitively on Johannesburg, but I like that my photos facilitate a discussion towards an agreed reality, and I’m enjoying the process of sharing them because it helps me find the words to describe Johannesburg and my lived experience in Johannesburg.

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