Marc Shoul: Looking for Complex Images That Transport

Marc Shoul is a South African photographer, born in 1975 in Port Elizabeth. Interested in exploring social issues, four years ago he began photographing the city of Brakpan, which is a 45-minute drive from Johannesburg. Street scenes and more intimate portraits compose a personal portrayal of a place that is “anchored in time, the same, but its own” — as the photographer characterized it in the following interview — stumbling between a heavy past and an uncertain present. Though he has intensively worked on documenting Johannesburg’s energies and transformations and on informal settlements surrounding Cape Town, this interview focuses principally on “Brakpan”, his latest body of work, which recently received the first prize at the 2011 Winephoto award, as well as a special mention for his series, “Flatlands”.

While developing personal works, Marc Shoul’s photographs have been published in international magazines such as The New York Times, Time, Colors, Dazed and Confused, Mail & Guardian, Stern, the Financial Times and The Telegraph. His works have been exhibited in South Africa, Italy, Switzerland and soon in Australia. Marian Nur Goni had the opportunity to talk with Marc about his life, his process and Brakpan.

Q: First, I’d like to ask you how photography arrived in your life and what are your principal concerns in photography (while working with photography and looking at photography).

A: When I was still in school, I had a good deal going with the librarian. She would let me take National Geographic magazines home for the weekend, which I would devour together with my mom’s home and fashion magazines and my dad’s Time magazines. Images told me way more than the words did and this still holds true.

As a kid I had a little Minolta Autopak 400. I’d shoot friends at school, summer camp and parties. I spent one year in Israel after leaving school. I shot a lot, rolls and rolls. I wasn’t thinking too much about what I was doing or getting myself into. I only had the film processed and developed when I got back to South Africa and only regarded the medium as an aid for memory. I continued to shoot when I moved to Cape Town, where I was studying marketing at the time. There was a photo lab in my area that would give a new spool of film every time I did my processing and jumbo prints with them. The processing and prints were bad, full of hairs and scratches, but it got me interested in taking my own images. I would stick them up or cut parts of them up and combine them with images from magazines, rave, live music or party flyers and it sort of hooked me. Little did I know that I was sort of playing with visual literacy, which I knew nothing about. Anyway, I shot and played a lot with pictures as an escape from the marketing course I was doing at the time.

I ended up doing marketing at night and started studying photography full-time, which lasted four years. Up to now, the themes that I like to work with are all people and situation related — social issues, alternative ways of living and survival in South Africa as the base for them all. South Africa and people in general fascinate me to no end; they move me. Looking at photography… Composition makes my mouth water, as well as the unusual or unexpected, be it gesture, actions, rhythm, place, subject.

It’s all — really all and only — about the image.

Q: Recently, your work “Brakpan” won the first prize of the 2011 Winephoto award. The contest’s theme was “Renaissance. Stories that could not have been”. Looking at your photographs, something quite imperceptible though strongly persistent, a feeling of strangeness and loneliness seems to float over most of the different situations captured by your camera. In which ways, do you think that your work responds to the question posed by the Italian award? In other terms, do you see some signs of revival in the complex life of this city, whose mines, I imagine, fulfil once an important part of the local economy? And, on the other hand, in “Brakpan”, what could be these stories (that could not have been)?

A: The “Rainbow Nation” was and still is encouraged to embrace, believe in and work towards “the African Renaissance”. Brakpan continues to live in the same narrative it always has, the Renaissance has not extended itself to Brakpan yet. Leaving it to its own devices.

Brakpan is unconscious of and comfortable with its rhythm, which is living for today, the now. Almost like a free fall with no safety net, no medical aid, no insurance, no commitments or contracts of any sort. The buildings and streets have remained the same for decades. Visually the town seems to have been dropped in a vessel filled with formaldehyde. Although Brakpan is a mere 45-minute drive from Johannesburg, it is worlds apart. People are given the benefit of the doubt, if the lenient line is crossed, well, anything could go down, which I presume is the same as it would anywhere in the world.

Q: What is your personal story in these stories? I mean, how did you come across this place? And how did you work with people there? In this series, street scenes are next to more intimate sights.

A: Ok, let me tell you… There was a girl in my class at school who we teased about going to Brakpan on holiday. We would roll the “r” in Brakpan, like that of a motorbike without an exhaust pipe. “Brak” has a few meanings in Afrikaans and one of them is an unpedigreed dog. Brakpan is sort of an unfortunate sounding name that is used as a punch line for many of our local jokes. The jokes are usually demeaning or point at how backward the place appears to be.

Fast-forward about ten years… I landed up there when working on “Beyond Walmer”. A few years later, I pitched a story to a magazine to cover the last two weeks of performances of the well-known Boswell Wilkie Circus. This trip took me back to Brakpan again. When I look through my “Beyond Walmer” contact prints, I recognize some of the places that I photographed all those years ago. The buildings are still recognizable and the people look pretty much the same as when I was there in 1999. When I completed “Flatlands”, I went back to Brakpan to find that the two main roads that cut through it were filled with pawn shops, loan sharks, road houses and mechanics; people had old school hair cuts and drove Ford Cortinas. This really appealed to me. Its rhythm, people and structures made me go back and learn more about what this place is all about.

What is important is that their freedoms and realities are not the same as in other places that I know of in South Africa or in Africa. Brakpan possesses a freedom I did not know of living in Johannesburg. Kids walk around the streets unattended. There are very few electric fences securing property and no security guards outside homes. It felt like a small country town with a devil-may-care attitude. It doesn’t care about becoming the next design, art, political or anything capital. It’s a meat and potatoes sort of place and that appealed to me in its simplicity, as it is unashamedly transparent and true to itself.

The method I use is very simple, similar to how I’ve always done it. The same method Bruce Davidson used when working on East 100th street. I approach people that I have a gut feeling about and introduce myself to them. Explain what I’m doing and hang out a bit. I’m able to strike up a conversation with most people. I look for the interesting differences and similarities they may have to me. It’s a bit like fishing: you got to catch the small bait to get the big fish, at times.

Anyone could possibly lead me to something interesting, so it’s a long process in hooking that big fish. I get their contact details; if it seems fit, I revisit them with prints and hope to develop a relationship. It’s critical for me to give in order to get. I do this over and over again. This develops trust and friendship, which leads to access. And without that, I have nothing.

I have become very close to a few families in Brakpan. In particular the Muller family. I met Derrick at the Brakpan dam whilst fishing for barbel, four years ago. He is the only one in his household who works and he works seven days a week to support his wife, Meisie, Meisies’s niece, Evona, and his children who both have a child each. I spend a lot of time with them and discovered that they are some of the most hospitable and generous people I have ever met. In turn, they have become the backbone of this essay. I am most grateful to all the people and families that have graciously let me enter into their lives.

Q: Besides the quality of this series and of your approach, what is also interesting in this work is that your camera here focuses principally on some fragments of life of white people, which is unlike most photographic reportages taken in disadvantaged places in South Africa that are often focused on black people and their distress. In a way, your work contributes to lifting the veil on an aspect that can be visually unrecognized outside South Africa.

A: From as early as the 1880s until the 1940s, there has been “poor white problem” in South Africa. I hate the term “poor… anything”, but for lack of a better description that will have to suffice. This part of South African society has been documented by Constance Stuart Larrabee and countless others since then.

Interestingly, the white miners went on strike in 1922 because of the low pay they were receiving and that black unskilled labour was favoured as a cheaper option for unskilled labour. Between 1943 and 1948, Brapkan was one of a few towns in South Africa used by the past government to perfect apartheid, before implementing it to the whole country. The mines reached their peak in the late 1960s. The mostly black township named Brakpan Location was rased to the ground in the 1970s and its people moved out to Tsekane or Quatemba, both lay well away from Brakpan central.

The economy spiralled, the rich fled and town folk remained. In recent years, a casino and mall complex has been developed just outside of the town. Now all the anchor shops and chain stores have moved to the more modern Carnival City Mall and Casino. So it has quite a past and the present is the product of a post-pubescent teenaged democracy. Unjust prejudice does come into play, as colour blindness becomes the new “black”. It’s a place anchored in time, the same, but its own.

Q: South African photography is now very well known and renown in the world photographic scene, especially for documentary photography. Among the photographers who currently work or have worked in South Africa, is there someone who, in some ways, guides your personal approach to photography? Are there any photographers from other parts of the world that have influenced your work?

A: While studying, I was moved by the images by local photographers: David Goldblatt, Graeme Williams, Santu Mofokeng, Obie Oberholzer, Jürgen Schadeberg, Bob Gosani, Peter Magubane, Roger Ballen and Guy Tillim. The richness of their work and commitment to images made me want to create my own.

Images by Richard Avedon, Larry Fink, William Klein, Weegee, Lucas Samaras, Richard Bellingham, to mention a few, still rock my world. Their works lead me to want to be able to read into images. Their work helps me to see the layers that a flat surface can possess.

“Raised by Wolves” by Jim Goldberg is at the top of my list of influences. Mind-blowing images mixed with haunting text. His proximity, access and love for his subject was deep and I admire that greatly. He got into the veins of his subjects as they did to his.

I recently saw the Diane Arbus show in Paris. It was like the first meeting between good long-distance or old pen pal friends who have never met face-to-face. I wanted to kiss the images as one would of friends after not seeing them for years. I’m attached to difficult and complex images, images that can transport me.

Q: What would be a typical working day of a freelance photographer based in Johannesburg?

Well I can only speak for myself!

Coffee, email, phone, shoot, or if not shooting then research, run arounds, boxing, drinking, smoking, trying to fit more into the day, chill…

And do it again.

Q: To end, what are your next projects?

A: Firstly, I need to finish shooting and do a serious edit of “Brakpan”.

Next projects: I got a few ideas swimming in my head, but all I can think about now is to put “Brakpan” to bed.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Marc’s work on his website, www.marcshoul.com.