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Featured: Paul Samuels

1 Paul Samuels


Paul Samuels is a photographer based in Johannesburg, who explores the themes of identity and belonging in African subcultures. Saumuels graduated from Wits in 2012 with a distinction in photography, and now works mostly in the field of portraiture, which, for him ‘best expresses individual and societal interests, and how people live in relation to the broader formations of society.’


How did you start to become interested in photography, and when did you realise that it was something you wanted to pursue as a career?

When I was young, there were always cameras in my house. My dad is an amateur photographer, and paid for most of his university with his photography. For me to pick up a camera was almost already in my blood. So once my dad got a digital camera I got more interested in photography, and started to take some snaps. With my friends and myself skateboarding, we needed a way to show people what we were doing, so I picked up the camera and started taking photos of them. I got this one picture after a few days, and it was perfect, and I became obsessed, from that moment I was hooked. It’s like drugs. I am still an addict.


Once you came to that realisation, how did you go about pursuing it? Tell us more about your journey so far…

Well I knew photography was it since I was 16. There was no other way about it. So I took art in school, just to do photography. At that point my friends’ sister was studying fine arts at Wits and I saw they did photography. It made sense for me, because I thought if I studied fine arts, I wouldn’t just be a photographer, I would have a more critical way of looking at the world, instead of the normal training you would receive at a photography college.  So after I finished art school I enrolled at Wits and got in, I don’t know how, especially looking at the drawings I submitted, haha.


So I thought art school was this amazing place, well it had its moments, but most of the time I spent fighting everyone there, lecturers and students. It was a weird place, that encouraged creativity, and a critical way of thinking, but was biased towards certain art forms. Photography often got overlooked. But in my final year I received the Tierney Fellowship from New York, and was placed under the mentorship of Jo Ractliffe. In that year I was also placed on a show Present Tense in Portugal. This made me push myself, and believe in photography again. In my final year I was also an intern at Glow photographic hire in Illovo, and was taught almost every technical thing I know about photography from Alexis Fotiadis. I finished with distinction in photography, and got my degree, and I am very thankful to Jo and Alexis for helping me through that process. At the moment I am working as a photographer and a photographic assistant in Johannesburg, but also shooting my own projects at the same time.


What is it that draws you to the genre of portraiture above the rest?

Portraits are reflective of our land, and the state of our existence in this country at this point in our history. I also believe that once an image of a person is created, a viewer has a more intimate relationship with that photograph. But beyond that, I find it enjoyable to meet new people and have access to their lives that would not necessarily happen without a camera.


What makes a good portrait?

Connection. When I say that, I mean the connection between subject and photographer/viewer. It is very easy to take a picture of someone, in the way that they believe they are. But to get someone to strip that away, and present themselves as who they really are, that is the good portrait, and that is only possible through some sort of connection. Once the photographer and the subject have that connection, there is a certain look that you get from the subject, where they are giving themselves over to you. That’s how you know if it’s a good portrait.


When creating your personal work, how do you typically approach the people you choose to photograph? Do you experience any challenges when it comes to this?

That is always the hardest thing to do as a photographer. When you first start you are all nervous, well I was, and you have to learn this skill, of how to read body language and how to react to that. It is usually a very simple thing of saying “Hi, how are you?”. At the end of the day it’s all about respect, if you don’t have respect for the people you choose to photograph you will not get the image, and even if you do, I feel there is a fundamental aspect lacking from that image. Of course some people just refuse no matter what you say, many thought I was from some newspaper, and after a long period of explanation, I am sometimes allowed to take the picture.


Are there any themes that seem to reoccur in your work? Similarly, what messages do you aim to portray?

I would say that at the moment my work would deal with fringe communities, and their existence within the current world. With me taking these images I am hoping to bring forth and question the ideas of community, individuality, intimacy and distance, that all exist within these communities, and their relationship to the world. I feel that especially in my Edenvale series, I am looking at these issues, and further exploring the idea of one’s own identity within community, and how they are both very interlinked.


What are some of the things that influence or inspire you?

I would have to say that some of the people that influence me the most are people that I have met and worked with. Jo Ractiffe, as my mentor, Sacha Waldman, as his assistant, and David Goldblatt, for his words on my work. These people have created some amazing images and beyond that have inspired me to become not only a better photographer, but critical of my work, and myself.


What’s most rewarding for you: the experience of taking photographs, or the final image(s)?

It’s both I have to admit. There is this certain thrill I receive when I get home and take a look at the images from the days shoot. It’s a slight rush of adrenalin, and there is nothing better than when you walk into a gallery and there your images are on a wall, after hundreds of hours of work. With that said, I have had some of the most incredible experiences while in the field, and these experiences are some of the greatest times of my life and you learn about how this country truly functions, and more about your place within this world.


Thinking in terms of aesthetics, how would you describe your photographic style?

That’s a difficult question. I don’t know if I have a style. It’s very hard for oneself to view one’s own work and try figure out their own style. It’s just something natural that happens I guess.


Can you think of a scenario where you wish you’d taken a photograph of something/someone but didn’t? If so, describe what you saw and why you never reacted.

This actually happened a few weeks ago. I met a guy at Oppikoppi that I have heard about for a long time. He’s an Irish guy, and comes to visit his friends here in Edenvale, and actually has “The Vale” tattooed big down his arm, even though he has never lived here. I missed the chance to photograph him before he left back for Ireland, and I have been kicking myself for it ever since. I was away shooting other stuff while he was here, but as soon as he is back in a few years, I am going to photograph him. There are moments here and there where you freeze, and don’t get the shot, but you can’t dwell on all of them. It’s unhealthy, and will drive you mad.


What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Things don’t happen overnight. I am very impatient, and I want it all and I want it now. That has been the biggest learning curve for me.


Tell us a bit about what you’re currently working on, and what you have planned going forward?

A few photographers and I are working on a project on Roodepoort, on the West Rand of Johannesburg, and there will be an exhibition in the first half of next year. That is going to be taking up a lot of my time, but I am intending to finish my Edenvale series, and have an exhibition here in JHB somewhere, as it has only been outside the country in Portugal, Paris, and New York, so it is time to have it here.


See more of Paul’s work on his website:


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