Daryl McGregor and I were both born in South Africa and lived and studied there before leaving to pursue our careers internationally. We share studios in London and NYC and have collaborated for a good many years. We spend about three months in Africa every
year, with a base in Cape Town, on various projects. Africa is a big part of what we do. It seems to creep into everything we shoot, whether it be the sensibility of the sets and objects or a colour palette or idea. It is an inspiration and a constant, dynamic driving force. What is interesting is to work in the fashion industry internationally and simultaneously see Africa with that added perspective.
“It is an inspiration and a constant, dynamic driving force.”
How has the industry’s relationship with race progressed over the time that you have worked in it?
Ideas of beauty in the fashion industry are always evolving and there is a new trend towards much more diversity in race and ethnicity, which is a really positive thing and is in keeping with a contemporary growing global awareness.The old ‘formulas’ from the days of the supermodels are definitely changing. The fashion industry embracing celebrity and the power of social media has forced it to also face the growing pressure in these arenas to challenge issues of racial stereotyping. We’re seeing so many cultures now being represented within the industry, from Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Ghana, Uganda etcetera that were previously overlooked. At New York Fashion week you now see a very diverse group of models coming down the runway, from these and other countries and, generally, I think there is certainly an awareness of a wider spectrum of beauty in the industry now. My hope is that this will continue to increase and that it translates into major fashion and beauty campaigns rather than being a passing trend or a novelty.
“…the ‘novelty’ is being replaced by a real interest in the mystery and uniqueness of Africa.”
Have you noted a difference in the way that international clients relate to african culture compared with local teams?
International attention on Africa has become much more informed and interested in the cultural heritage, beauty and diversity of this huge continent, rather than the ‘hides and horns’ playground it was seen as several years ago. Many people we work with in the industry have been to Africa, some several times, which was certainly not the case in our early days, which means that the ‘novelty’ is being replaced by a real interest in the mystery and uniqueness of Africa.
I think sometimes local image makers get bogged down by a self conscious political correctness and are struggling with developing a visual identity that speaks to a global audience without compromising creativity. This kind of constant questioning is good. Africa is a complex context for making imagery and the ‘politics’ of the choices being made are important.
“This kind of constant questioning is good.”
There are those photographers, artists and filmmakers who are and have embraced their African cultural context very successfully and their work is incredibly powerful and has become internationally recognised. There has never been a better time for a young photographer in Africa to create a portfolio of local work using the strong models and fashion trends and ideas that are emerging. Perhaps it has something to do with the ‘melting pot’ of so many ideas, cultures and influences that is creating a truly modern ‘African Identity’, which also draws on its history and rich culture and combines it with a contemporary take on an urban fashion consciousness. This is what we’re excited about.
Have you ever experienced any difficulty with the direction a shoot has taken or with work after it has been published?
There are so many influences out there, and it is very easy to get lost. We do a lot of research, so props and sets and what we’re trying to achieve are all very considered. Our images are very staged and art directed and we edit as we go with the idea of being contemporary with a light touch.
“We grow from looking back at what we’ve done and constantly re-evaluating.”
Good imagery always speaks to a time and place and context can bring a strength to photographs, but we strive to build towards achieving iconic images, images that will not date because they rely too heavily on fashion or are too caught up in a historical idea or reference that they lose the contemporary interpretation.
Looking back at our past work is always a good way to develop direction – some images really hold their strength. Our shoots have been embraced for the very clear, almost cinematic ‘point of view’ and has become part of the signature of our work, both locally and Internationally. There is always room for interpretation , which allows for new questions, and that should always be the way. We grow from looking back at what we’ve done and constantly re-evaluating. Sometimes we’ll revisit an idea and its really exciting again, sometimes we look back and find an image we thought was great in the context of a shoot and it hasn’t stood the test of time.
Heritage is so vital in order to understand modern Africa today. There is a fragility to what is going on out there, but we look at it rather as an exciting and creative time for Africa and it will continue to inspire us.