Zara Julius is a visual-storyteller with a background in social anthropology, photography, and film making. The artist is interested in the intersection of aesthetics and culture – the visual elements of personalised cultural narratives and the ways culture is embodied, performed, and perceived. Her work explores complex themes of identity, faith, urbanity, migration, race and culture, all located within post colonial Africa and the Diaspora.
Zara devotes herself to the act of witnessing and documenting. Her striking photo essays and single images documenting ordinary scenes of daily life in a diversity of places (Mali, Ethiopia, Senegal, Johannesburg and Cuba) are proof of her passion.
We recently spoke with Zara about her creative process, using documentary storytelling as an instrument of social change, and politics as a part of the artistic medium of photography.
Tell us a bit about your background and creative journey so far. What was it that drew you to photography?
I grew up in a really creative family; my grandmother was in fashion, my grandfather was in film, my mother’s in publishing, and my father’s an interior architect. My parents are also quite unorthodox, so I was always given free reign to explore my creative impulses in school through playing musical instruments, or making art. Photography has been something that’s felt almost essential from a young age when I got my first mik ‘n drik. There was something about the act of witnessing and documenting that felt necessary to me – it stimulates both my analytical and creative brain. I guess I realized quite quickly how a camera acts as a wonderful excuse to entertain my insatiable curiosity of how people make sense of the world.
You’re coming from a photojournalism tradition. Would you like your work to have a direct political nature?
Yea, well my background is social anthropology, and that informs a lot of the work I do. I think that we live in an age where it’s actually irresponsible (and often insulting) for artists to not engage with questions of power and politics in their work. Everything we do has a political standpoint, and I like to be as conscious as possible of the ideological framework within which my works sits. As a result, I’m quite hung up on the ethics of representation and how images position narratives of power. It’s tough, though – sometimes, as an artist, you see a really beautiful photograph, but you know it’s not ethical to capture it. You have to be okay with letting that moment pass. Historically, cameras (and anthropology for that matter) are the most racist tools which have been used for the oppression of black and brown people, and it’s essential for me to try consider how I can decolonized my photographic practice.
Who or what influences your aesthetic sensibility?
I think just growing up in and traveling through the global south has informed my aesthetic sensibility a lot – especially with regards to how I’ve grown to see colour and texture. I’ve also always been fascinated by peoples’ conceptions of the divine, and the ways in which people worship this divine. My work with different syncretic churches in Africa and the Carribean have probably had the most profound impact on my aesthetic sensibility.
What do you believe makes a photograph exceptional? Are there certain elements you look for?
It’s quite difficult to say. There are so many different elements that can make a photograph exceptional. Whilst compositional balance is really important, I think the most essential element is honesty. The formal element of a photograph can be perfect, but it’s easy to tell when a photograph, or a photographic project isn’t honest – and a dishonest project is off-putting. It’s difficult though – I’m definitely still learning this photographic honesty thing. It requires a lot of (self) criticality, which can be tough.
Do you shoot in film or digital and why so?
I really prefer photographing in film – most of my work has been in 35mm film format. There’s something about the way film is able to capture the subtleties of light and colour that I find so seductive aesthetically. Technically speaking, the even the most advanced digital cameras aren’t able to read the nuances of tones the same way that film does. Like, yoh! The Kodak Professional Portra films are just a dream to work with when it comes to colour, and it’s difficult for me to give that up, even though it’s expensive.
However, recently I’ve been experimenting with projects where the process is more co-productive with my participants. In these instances, digital format makes more sense. It allows for flexibility, and more power to be placed in the hands of those placed in front of the lens, which is great. I mean, they’re such different mediums, it’s difficult to compare.
How much do you rely on post processing as opposed to getting it right in camera?
Let it be known that I’m really not a gear head. Photoshop kind of stresses me out, so I’d rather get things right in the camera. It’s become quite important for me that I don’t edit my images if they’re taken on film, and rather just make sure that I’m working with the right film for the project. With digital formats, it’s almost necessary to do a basic grading on your images, but the kind of photographic work I do doesn’t really require hi-tech editing – it’s a different story when it comes to my video work.
Are you working on any projects at the moment?
Yea, I’ve been doing a project that documents the diasporic Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church community in downtown Johannesburg. Since my trip to Ethiopia, I’ve always wanted to work with parts of the community here in Jozi, given the plurality of African religious traditions that exist in the inner city. I’m also in the pre-production stages of a kind of family archiving project on my mother’s family, which looks at the multiplicities of coloured identity in South Africa. Often the “coloured” conversation in South Africa (which barely exists as it is) is limited to the Cape experience. Even then, it mainly surrounds problematic tropes of gangsterism and tik abuse. There’s virtually no consideration of how identities are formed, performed and maintained, and especially not in the Gauteng or Natal experience. I’m pretty excited to get it going!
Using your impressive talent in photography, what would you like to accomplish in the coming years?
My very basic dream is to see more African stories told by African voices. I’d love to collaborate in, or facilitate the telling of these stories, that advance the position of black and brown folks on the African continent and in the African Diaspora. I really think that photographers underestimate the power of collaboration in the visual storytelling process. In doing this, I’d love to see more folks of colour (from South Africa at least) traveling to other African countries. As much as I love South Africa, this thing of acting like Africa is separate to SA needs to stop.