As the son of the late celebrated South African artist and ceramist Juliet Armstrong, Thommo Hart was naturally thrust into a life of visual storytelling from a very young age. Citing his mothers huge passion for art and creativity as one of the main influences behind his creative career, Thommo’s love for documenting and filming the uncomfortable realities of the new South Africa saw his passion manifest in this photographic project he calls B Boys | Fly Girls and Graffiti Story. Part of the culmination of a 10 year relationship with the community of Copesville Township, this photographic series tells the story of Siya Nzama, an artist living in the disadvantaged area of Copesville, making a small difference in his community through his art. We spoke with documentary filmmaker and photographer Thommo about the project.
Who is Thommo Hart and how did you get into photography?
I am a humanitarian, artist, storyteller and adventurer. I live life as one grand adventure that consists of a series of smaller adventurers that make up the circle of life. I come from South Africa’s “Sleepy-hollow”, Pietermaritzburg, where I spent my childhood in the classrooms of St Charles College and exploring the old colonial streets. I have a social science degree in Fine Art, Media and Marketing, an Honours degree in Media Studies and a Master’s degree in Development Communication. At present, I am living in Dar es Salaam where I work for a Swiss based NGO that cares for children in stress and provides educational programmes for children in Tanzania and Malawi to excel at school. I have been working in the humanitarian industry in East Africa for two years now as a communication specialist. Thus my job has allowed me to keep my camera by my side wherever I go which has given me the space to be an artist and storyteller as well.
What do you look for in the perfect picture?
A story. For me the perfect picture is one that speaks visually on a moment in reality through the mediums of light, space and time as well as the characters with this moment. Light is the soul of a photograph. It is what gives a photograph emotion or feeling. Thus for the perfect picture there needs to be light that can be manipulated to give emotion to a scene that is being played out in reality in front of my lens. I love playing with harsh contrast in light, especially in rustic, urban and rigid settings such as city alleyways, construction sites, rundown buildings and industrial factories. These make interesting spaces in which to document at certain times of the day. Characters are also important to me in a way that their representations within a captured moment visually can create a scene and story and thus a perfect picture in my opinion. However, the power play of representations in a visual image such as a photograph can be tricky and one has to be careful not to represent a character that is insensitive or that portrays stereotypes. Bring these three elements into a photograph, portray them in a way that tells a story and make the viewer sense a feeling of emotion with the visual, this is what I look for in the perfect picture
Why has it taken you so long to share B Boys | Fly Girls and Graffiti Story with the creative community?
It’s been a slow journey in rediscovering myself as an artist. Since studying ceramics and sculpture under my mother during university ten years ago, I moved away from art and became interested in advertising, marketing and production which eventually led to my career focus in development, health communication and humanitarianism. Soon after my graduating from masters I ended up travelling and working in East Africa, which subsequently led to me taking a lot of pictures and rediscovering my passion for photography. While back home in Pietermaritzburg last year, the opportunity rose from a friend of my called Siya to document the work he has been doing in Copesville township on the outskirts of the city. I spent 3 months working with him but had to leave at short notice because I accepted a communications manager position in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Thus, in dedication to him and the work we have done, I decided to put up my work for display to the public this year.
The choice of using black and white in such a colourful setting is always of interest. What influenced your decision to present the work in this manner?
I find colour photographs too distracting. The bright colours deter the deeper story within the captured moment. Black and white photos I find more emotional through the play of light, space and composition. Coloured photographs are for advertising and travel compositions in my opinion and do not interest me in terms of a medium for my art work. Although, as a photographer I still capture colour photographs, but only for commercial and travelling work. My choice of black and white also comes from my teenage years in the late 90s working with an old manual pentax camera and 50mm and then playing with the negatives in a dark room and coming out with either grainy, hard contrasts or smooth prints.
In a time when there is so much focus on the beautification of the South African aesthetic, your work on B Boys | Fly Girls attempts to search for graphic imagery and representation. Why this choice now?
I believe there is far too much beautification of South Africa or what media theorists call hyper reality. South Africa has become a magazine cover and South Africans and representations of South Africa have lost touch with reality. Thus I think it’s time we as South Africans become grounded again and celebrate who we are in reality no matter our situation, demographics, class, race or background.
What interested you about the subjects in Graffiti Story?
My friendship with Siya and my work with youths in Copesville Township is what got me interested in the graffiti art being designed on the walls of tin shack homes. I worked with youths within the Copesville community on a number of production and art projects during my studies at UKZN Pietermaritzburg. During this time I formed friendships with two youth leaders within the group, Clement Ntuli and Siya. Clement was a convicted criminal and jailbird once upon a time, but now is a HIV/Aids activist, academic, performer and motivational speaker. Siya does not have as a dramatic story as Clement’s, but is none the less a leader in the community and an aspiring artist. Due to unemployment and the lack of funds to enroll at university to study media and art, Siya started something unique last year that caught my idea. He has been spraying graffiti art and painting murals on the mud and tin wall shacks of homes within the Copesville community. The exciting thing is that he sees these graffiti designs and murals as art and so do the members of the community. Thus he is getting a lot of requests to paint or spray the walls of homes within Copesville. One could suggest that his mural paintings and grafitti art are making the township of Copesville one big artwork, tin shack by tin shack. Now this concept is what gets me really excited because it re-appropriates the raw reality of a township in South Africa and reconstructs it into an artwork that tells the story of the people as they are in everyday life. It’s a celebration of his community.
When it comes to street and documentary photography, there is a thin line between offensive work and groundbreaking work. How did you draw the line as a storyteller on this series?
I draw the line between offensive work and groundbreaking work by working with the community and people that I document over the years and always providing a platform from my work that benefits the people, communities and spaces I capture. I also tend to stay away from stereotypes and to tell the story I am capturing as if my lens was the eyes of the person I was within the photograph. Thus in this series, I had worked in the community of Copesville for the last 10 years which allowed me to become a member myself and understand the complex relations and structures of the community. Furthermore, I had become friends with youth that I had worked with thus becoming apart of the group and creating a gaze through my lens that was more personal, understanding and reflective of the situation or scene at hand.
What are some of the clichés you try to steer away from in your work?
I am not a fan of the South African clichés that portray South African society as this 1st World utopian nation light years ahead of Africa which our government and corporate businesses love to represent to the rest of the world. It gives a false sense of reality or a hyper reality in which most ordinary South Africans can’t live, thus creating an identity crisis and conflict within our society. The other clichés I tend to stay away from are the poverty and violence stricken stereotypes that riddle the visual displays of our local media and international media. As a result, I try and portray the visual representations of reality as if through the eyes of the people within that space and time that I am capturing.
When you are shooting, how much of it is instinct verses planned?
A lot of my work revolves around working with the people and the spaces that I capture for extended periods of time, thus a lot of my work tends to be planned like the graffiti and tattoo stories. However, I do carry my camera around with me a lot within the communities and places I work and it usually becomes an everyday item to the people around me because of this. This has allowed me to shoot instinctively at times whenever a moment arises that I think needs to be told.
What have been some of your best achievements to date?
On a visual basis, my short multi media film with the Khwe Bushmen community outside Kimberley and its cinematography award was a great achievement in terms of my visual documentation work.
Outside of photography, you’re also a modern day creative who is involved in projects outside the normal sphere of art? What do you feel is the role of the modern artist?
The modern artist’s role in society is to create work that tells a story to the public that makes them questions their existence, their role in society, the role of others in society and issues of humanity that are still being debated in the public sphere.
Where can we follow your work?
People can follow my work on my new Facebook page. I’m also currently developing a website for my work.