26 Jun Young South Africa: Matt Kay | Picturing Narratives from Memory
“In my life I have been lucky in that most times I have arrived at the right places without really understanding how I got there,” says 29-year-old Matt Kay. After school he went from living and working on yachts to working on a ranch in Texas and it was here that a friend introduced him to photography. Needless to say, it stuck. Today Matt is a practicing photographer who divides his time between Johannesburg, where he teaches at the Market Photo Workshop, and KwaZulu-Natal, where the majority of his personal photographic interests lie. Last year he was awarded a Tierney Fellowship and worked under the guidance of renowned photographer David Goldblatt to produce a series exploring Durban’s beach front. His own memories are often a departure point for projects and he endeavours to creative narratives around these, viewing his work as an introspective investigation.
We found out more from Matt about what he’s learnt through the act of teaching others, creating his series The Front, why taking initiative is vital and the wealth of important stories South Africa has to offer.
Between your own projects you teach at the Market Photo Workshop. While there’s no right or wrong way to go about it, and many successful photographers are entirely self-taught, what are the advantages of studying photography?
There is something about finding your own way to understanding a camera that does seem to stick longer than being taught in a classroom but what makes a place like the MPW so important is that you can learn together and feed off other students. Photography is much bigger than its technical aspects, it’s a way of thinking about images and stories. Institutions like MPW expose you to those lines of thinking which in many ways develop a way of seeing. When I think of what I thought a great photo was when I arrived and what I think now, the two are very different.
What have you learnt through the act of teaching others?
Teaching makes you realise that in many ways it’s not about the subject that you teach but about creating self worth in a student. Not every student is going to make it as a photographer but they can leave with life skills, time management and responsibility, which are in many ways more valuable. A camera is an opportunity to have a voice, to tell stories the way the photographer experiences them, and the ability to do that is empowering. I think the best aspect of teaching is the role you play in expanding a student’s view of the world and what possibilities are out there.
Your commercial work keeps you in Johannesburg, but you’ve said that your personal projects and interests lie in KwaZulu-Natal. Why?
Nottingham road in the Midlands was my home for 18 years. I spent 7 years travelling but sometimes it’s the stories closest to me that demand further investigation. My own interests are not specifically political or even social but lie more in my own introspective investigations of myself. I like to think my photographs ask questions although I’m not really interested in the answers. In some ways that’s a dangerous way of thinking because it deliberately disconnects subjects from reality. I’m not really that interested in reality; I am interested in creating narratives that explore my own memories. I like to use memories as the base for my projects, it’s a nice place to start. Memories are not real they are already interpretations of our imaginations. I like that way of thinking, it frees me from trying to be accurate in my interpretation of what I photograph.
As the 2014 recipient of the Tierney Fellowship you worked under the mentorship of David Goldblatt to create your photographic series, The Front. Could you tell us more about this experience and the body of work that came out of it?
Working with David was a fantastic experience, he is a legend in South African photography, but for me the best aspect of his mentorship was his pragmatism and practical approach to photographing. He can see straight through any BS and he’s not afraid to tell you when he feels you are off the mark. The body of work that resulted from the fellowship is titled The Front and it is an exploration of Durban beach front. In essence the work is a response to my own memories of the beach front as a child. I am interested in public spaces in the sense of how people behave and how the actual design of the space influences that behaviour.
How are mentorships valuable for young photographers finding their feet in the industry? What indispensable lessons or insights did you garner through yours?
Mentorships provide an opportunity to learn and grow from someone else’s guidance, sometimes that’s exactly what is needed to make the step up to the next level, both in a career and for the work itself. For myself the most valuable lesson I learnt is to accept the fact that a good photo technically or even a good photo with an interesting story is just not good enough. Photography is not about nice photographs, it’s about photographs which ask real questions, and sometimes those photographs are not beautiful. It’s about being honest with yourself and your subject.
What comes to your mind when you hear the words “Young South Africa”?
I think of a generation of people who are obsessed with social media. It’s a hard question because South Africa is so vast in terms of the range of people who live here, the youth of the country and what it means to be young in South Africa varies dramatically depending on who you are talking about. As a nation I think what is needed more than anything is good role models and an effective education system.
Do you think that it’s important for young creatives to make work that is a reflection of our time? Is this something you consciously endeavour to do?
I think that for many creatives work is reactionary, we react to our circumstances and that’s the nature of art, it’s inevitable that work will be a reflection of society in one way or another. I wouldn’t think too hard about whether my work is a reflection of this time. Work is personal, it can’t help but reflect something of the time it was made.
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facing the youth of our country? How do you think we can overcome this?
The challenge I feel for the youth of today is that the world is changing so fast that all the old blueprints, the old systems, no longer apply. We need to rethink and shift our perspective on how to get to where we want to go. The way to do that is to stop looking at the current situation as a problem, but look around the edges and through the gaps. We are in an age where initiative will get someone a lot further than degrees. Saying that there has to be a bigger emphasis on education and it’s not about pumping money into the problem, in my mind we have lost the way to self discipline, which really is what most successful people have in common.
On the other hand, what is especially unique or exciting about being a young person in South Africa right now?
Speaking from a photographic point of view South Africa is an incredible place to work in, the scope for important stories and imagery is huge. JHB in particular is gathering serious momentum as a centre for art and you can feel the energy in that city. In general I think what young people need to realise is that the only way to change anything is to be proactive, waiting for success is a sure way to fail. For those that take the initiative and fight for a place there are huge spaces for growth. Sometimes they don’t exist until you make them.
What are you currently working on and working towards?
I’ve just come back from travelling and now I’m looking at making my first book based on a body of work I did on my hometown and the shifting landscape of the Midlands. I am hoping to study my masters in the future and I’m currently still working on two or three long-term projects.
What would you like to be known for?
That’s a terrible question. I’m too young to answer just yet, ask me again in a few years.
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