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Featured: Photographer Sean Wilson | “Reality, mysteriously deepened”

Kalk Bay 2013

Kalk Bay 2013


Cape Town based photographer Sean Wilson sees and uses his medium of choice as a creative way to make sense of the world and his role in it. His work explores the intersection of the literal and the suggested, resulting in images that showcase more than just what the subject/object is. This invites the viewer to engage with the possible idea behind the photograph by offering them a new way to look at something they are familiar with. Sean’s photo series Bayou Falso, was recently on show at That Art Fair. Here, we ask him more about this series specifically, and about his practise in general.


Did you grow up in a creative environment or one where creativity was actively encouraged?


When I was in high school the only thing I really cared much about was art, so I’ve always been drawn towards the visual arts. My paternal grandmother was an oil painter and she inspired and encouraged me and my grandfather introduced me to photography as a teenager. My parents are also creative people but my father never really thought of himself as being creative, and while my mother is extremely creatively talented, she seldom approached her many projects in terms of them being ‘art’ as such.


What is your earliest photography-related memory?


My paternal grandfather gave me a Pentax S1a with a 400mm lens on a family holiday to Kruger Park when I was about 12. He also got me into bird watching – and so I mostly photographed birds as a teenager. But for some reason I didn’t make the link between photography and art (probably because I just wasn’t really exposed to the idea that photography could be a medium of proper artistic expression). I couldn’t be less interested in bird photography now as it’s a very formulaic genre on the whole but it did instil in me a love for the process and paraphernalia of photography. Then in my late twenties I did a part-time dark room printing class and this re-ignited a connection with the medium.


How did you become a photographer? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do?


I did think about becoming a photographer when I was younger but it somehow didn’t seem like a realistic career path. I became a photographer mostly because I was looking for a language with which to ask questions about my experience and to attempt to make sense of myself and the world. Then it also became my means of making a living.


How would you describe your style or aesthetic, what kind of look and feel do you try to create in your photographs?


Above all I aspire towards creating images that point beyond what they are of, while still honouring the subject. There’s also a great phrase from David Shield’s book, Reality Hunger, that sums up what I aspire towards in my photographs: “reality, mysteriously deepened”.


Anyone who is creative tries to make beautiful things of course but I like photographs that also deal in ideas in some way too. Different images are more or less about ideas or beauty but if a picture is more ‘about’ beauty, then I am more interested in showing an unusual or unexpected type of beauty.


Every project requires a different approach but generally the ‘look and feel’ isn’t the most important thing by itself for me (in the sense of a visual recipe or treatment effect) – I prefer to think of it as just the language that you use to communicate the feeling-state or idea that one is really hoping to get at. The real challenge for me is to try to make photographs that don’t overly rely on lighting and retouching for dramatic effect – partly because there’s too much of that out there but mostly because the result is simply not that satisfying. The photographs that excite me the most are the ones that offer or suggest some insight or new experience of the world, either directly or indirectly. This often means that they show either a ‘genuine’ unrepeatable and interesting moment or that they represent a sort of distilled recognition in the significance of a scene or person that points beyond in some way.


What are you influenced and inspired by?


I’m basically reaching for a particular order of knowledge about the world and about myself that I need – and it feels like my best chance of finding any hints of this are through the use of a camera. So my primary motivation is an attempt to make sense of a world that I find to be fundamentally mysterious, to see something of myself in the world, however fleetingly or imperfectly. This is one of my favourite quotes:


All that we can do here,
is to recognize ourselves completely,
in all that there is to see on earth
” – Rainer Maria Rilke


As well as photography, I’m also interested in and inspired by radio-art (such as This American Life and Radiolab in particular), painters, various writers on subjects such as mysticism, psychology and spirituality (although the connotations that that word has are unfortunate) and I have always been drawn towards poetry in particular. Before I re-discovered photography I used to try to make sense of the same things through poetry; but unfortunately, the results were underwhelming.
Some names (in no particular order): Trent Parke, Alec Soth, Guy Tillim, Jo Ractliffe, Dave Southwood, Marc Shoul, Tim Hopwood, Ilan Godrey, David Goldblatt, Robert Frank, Rilke, Hesse, Jung, Rumi, T.S Elliot, Wallace Stevens, Mary Oliver, David Whyte, Peter van Straaten, Werner Herzog, Charlie Kaufmann, Tom Waits.


How does your approach differ when you’re working on commercial projects, as opposed to personal ones?


I don’t think that my approach varies per se but the process and the demands are usually vastly different. With personal work everything is more open-ended and expansive and it’s a question of sticking at it and following one’s intuition and allowing things to coagulate and take on the shape and form that they need to. With commercial work the process is much more goal-oriented and time constrained – and so it’s more about managing the various different variables and then coming up with an appropriate response that conveys the right information while also being original and, of course, beautiful too.


What goes into planning and producing a photographic series?


It’s usually something that happens organically for me. I don’t really set out to look for a new idea deliberately. It’s more about being open to experiences and ideas and then trying to recognise which potential projects are worth pursuing. Sometimes this happens quite quickly but in other cases it can take a long time for the different elements of a potential project to come together in an arrangement that works. I think it’s very important to stick at a project for as long as it takes for the work to tell you what it needs and where you should go with it.


Tell us more about your Bayou Falso series and the inspiration behind it.


This series began organically and in quite a strange way. I had this idea for a project about the symbolic meaning of fishing and so I had been photographing fisherman and some of them were shot around False Bay. After a while I realised that the idea wasn’t working but I had some images that I liked and so the project expanded and changed and became about False Bay. There’s only one image from the fishing project that I still like and that I’ve kept in the series. I was also drawn towards the symbolic associations of the name, False Bay.


I kind of ‘re-modelled my swing’ (as a golfer might say) during this project. For a long time before starting this project I had been trying and failing repeatedly to produce work that I found satisfying. It was a really frustrating time for me creatively. I also didn’t have much time for personal work as I’d just become a father. In hindsight I also hadn’t found the right camera for how I like to work, so I began shooting this project on a 4X5 view camera. I eventually changed to a Mamiya 7 rangefinder camera and that made a difference.


A big part of being on a creative path for me has been trying to find the ‘coal face’ where you can begin to chip away and start to do the work that you were meant to do. That can be a long and difficult journey and I don’t think there are any real short cuts. This project in particular has involved a lot of patience and time as finding the images is very much a question of being out there and having a line in the water as much as possible. This is also why I’ve been working on this project for a long time – about eight years so far. This has been difficult at times but when it comes down to it you either have the images or you don’t. And if you don’t have them yet you simply have to keep going until you do.


I also think there’s a lot to be gained from sticking at one project for a long time though. There’s a depth of connection that you get from looking at one place and traversing the same places over and over. There are some scenes that I’ve shot many times over before getting the image that I ended up using. It’s also significant that it’s a familiar place that I’m trying to see more clearly. Although I’ve never lived in False Bay, I spent my December holidays as an adolescent with my grandparents who lived in Fish Hoek. But there are also some areas of False Bay that I hadn’t previously been to – like Maccassar for example.


One of the things that most excites me about the photographic medium is the unique way in which it can re-animate the world by showing us the extraordinary in the ordinary. With more obviously dramatic subject matter it’s often easier to get strong images but they’re often not as layered and don’t hold the viewer’s attention for as long. Perhaps because the viewer too easily attributes the qualities of the image to it’s exotic subject matter. I think if photography is able to change the way we see the world it’s more likely to do so through original and surprising images of the familiar, the quotidian. This is certainly true for me in terms of what I’m trying to understand about the world, but I think it’s also true for most viewers.


Another aspect of the photographic medium that inspires me is its capacity to both record and express within one image. Occasionally a photograph can work both literally and symbolically and when that happens there’s a sort of charge that happens within the image which really elevates and animates the image. The photographs that most excite me are the ones that seem to point beyond what they are of. Another idea that I’ve enjoyed exploring in this body of work is how to show a sense of mystery in an image even if it’s shot in bright ‘literal’ light.




Macassar 2011

Clare, Strandfontien 2009

Fish Hoek 2009

Fish Hoek 2012

Gordons Bay 2009

Hangklip 2013

Khayalitsha 2012

Kroonseil 2012


Muizenberg 2012

Near Monwabisi 2013

Near Standfontein 2012

Pelican Park 2012

Vallyland Fish Hoek 2010

Near Blue Downs 2010

Near Blue Downs 2010 



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