Of swenkas, songs and skyscrapers: Chris Saunders discusses his photographs

Chris Saunders began his photography career in fashion and advertising and has since established himself as a filmmaker in various fields including music and documentary. Known most famously for his documentation of Pantsula and Swenka crews in South Africa, Chris has also worked with various other high profile local creatives and musicians such as OkMalumKoolKat, Nozinja, OkZharp, Pretoria’s Fashion Rebels and many more.

Throughout his work, the city of Johannesburg features as a permanent fixture and source of inspiration. In his recent project Ghost Diamonds, choreographer and performer Manthe Ribane navigates the city in a 6-part music and visual journey. The film was created in collaboration with OKZharp and Manthe. We speak to Chris about his journey thus far creating powerful images that have defined aspects of our culture.

We’ve been featuring your work for years, but how did you get into photography originally?

I started photography when I was 15 years old, my father was a hobby photographer and had some cool equipment that I started messing around with. I took my first published portraits at the Woodstock music festival just outside of Johannesburg which where published in a magazine called Blunt magazine back in the day. Woah, this all makes me sound very old.

How did you progress from fashion and advertising into documentary film?

I started off my training assisting fashion and advertising photographers hence the reason I progressed into this side of the industry originally. However deep down I wanted to document performers and have always had a mild obsession with performers, musicians and other creative people, with using my skill in photography to learn more about how other incredible individuals create work. My true leap into documentary however was when I shot images of The Smarteez fashion collective in 2008. This work was picked up internationally after I posted it online (which wasn’t so popular in 2008). Due to this interest in my documentary work I was accepted on a one year residency at Fabrica, The Untied Colors of Benetton’s Creative research facility residency for a year and its all history from there.

Yahoo Style SAFW 2015
Yahoo Style SAFW 2015


Backstage at SAFW
Backstage at SAFW

What have been some of your key influences in terms of developing your style and aesthetic over the years?

Initially I was compelled by an exploration of the streets of Johannesburg and cultures and nuances that surrounded them. Things you saw in the corner of your eye on a day to day basis and I needed to know more about. Later and foremost it has been certain other creative people, from fashion designers, musicians and dancers. I am overwhelmed by the intense unique creativity that comes from this city and it has pushed me to document and express myself.

Ghost Diamonds is a next level audio-visual collaboration between yourself, OKZharp and various creatives including Manthe Ribane. How did the project come about and what broad narrative does this 6-part video follow? 

A few years ago Gervase Gordon (Okzharp) and myself met when he was still with LV and we spoke about future projects in Cape Town at a friend’s house. We started off by making the Spitting Cobra and Sebenza music videos with Okmalumkoolkat and LV. We haven’t really stopped since then and with his new incarnation OKZharp, we have been working on the Ghost Diamond series over the past two years. We managed to get some support from the SA-UK seasons 2014 – 2015 which really helped the project and it is now becoming a live show where I VJ the footage from the film live.

Can you tell us about some of the themes in the video?

The video is about feeling; it is meant to put you in a surreal space: the space is Johannesburg but it isn’t meant to be obvious and too literal. It is a musical and visual journey driven by Manthe Ribane’s responsive dance moves. The story is driven by a narrative which we wrote and is delivered by local rapper and member of the Boyznbucks Bhubesi (aka. Khaya Sibiya). Each episode of the film introduces a new character / spirit animal. Each one with a message or link to an emotion or feeling. These episodes all correspond with the video creating a unique and encapsulating experience.

ghost diamond poster-01

Johannesburg features as a backdrop to the film, but also to your work in general. How does the city provide ongoing inspiration for you?

Well. The city is my home and an ongoing inspiration for me. In this film I took a more surreal approach to the city. I didn’t want to represent it in the same ways I had before, I wanted people to feel how it felt to be here and not only what it looked like. The city will always be close to me and my work, it is the main element which inspired me to do what I do.

You’ve been documenting South African urban culture through pantsula and swenkas crews for several years. Who are some of the interesting people you’ve encountered and how have they influence you as a photographer?

Wow. Broad question. I have met so many inspirational characters within my time documenting The Pantsula culture and The Swenkas. We will be releasing a book next year hopefully for the Pantsula work which will give you more info into the different individuals.

Having created music videos for people like Nozinja and Okmalumkoolkat, what role does music play in your overall creative practice?

It is the main thread. I started off documenting music and am always driven by it and the off spurts from it.

Documenting the Gqom music scene in KZN for Red Bull Bulletin Magazine
Documenting the Gqom music scene in KZN for Red Bull Bulletin Magazine

_39B5704_39B6545_39B6567 _39B5661 T1-(Jul 05, 2014 04-27 PM)Canon Canon EOS 5D Mark III(5760x3840)485

You’ve recently showcased some of your work at the Lagos Photo Festival under the theme of Designed Futures. Do you have any thoughts on what art’s relationship is to the future?

Art is often an imagined vision of something that doesn’t exist in reality, which essentially could be the future or a rendition of reality from a certain perspective. Imagination is how we create our own realities, first with a vision and later in form. Art is also often an independent vision created from a series of influences. These influences being in reality and the imagined vision being in the mind, showing the connection between realty and creation especially in photography and film. Hence art is both a responsive and a truly imaginative human creation which is intrinsically part of the future and how we think or imagine the spaces and mind-sets we exist in.  The future does not exist so essentially whatever it is, is only something we can imagine at this point, hence the connection between imagined creations, art and the future.

You’ve had the opportunity to travel and collaborate with different people from across the continent. Who do you consider to be some of the next level photographers and other creatives in the country and across the continent?

One of the coolest experiences I’ve had was this year’s Lagos Photo Festival, getting to meet some of the best international photographers who’s work is focussed on the African continent and regional photographers making waves with their work from here around the world. Some of the recent projects I liked where Francois Beaurain’s animated gifs made in Monrovia, Joana Choumali’s Awoulba project and the work of Namsa Leuba

What can we expect from you in the near future? Any projects that you’re currently working on?

The Pantsula book is on its way as well as the full rollout of the Ghost Diamond project. I’ll keep you guys in the loop if anything else comes up! 


Collectiv3 for Nataal Media Launch
Collectiv3 for Nataal Media Launch

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Charlie Hebdo demonstration in Paris
Charlie Hebdo demonstration in Paris


Str.Crd. 2014
Str.Crd. 2014


Fashion Gangs of Johannesburg for GQ Style
Fashion Gangs of Johannesburg for GQ Style

Gangs of Fashion,

Corner to Corner for Red Bull Bulletin Magazine
Corner to Corner ft Spoek Mathambo, Dirty Paraffin & Bhubesi

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