Paris Brummer completed her fine arts degree at Michaelis last year, majoring in photography, and is now working as a research intern with Velocity Films. Much of her work is informed by a keen interest in architectural structures and the way they’re able to imbue their locale and often transcend time. Paris’ graduate project, POST, considers the ‘after-life’ of humans and buildings, in which large scale photographs of actual sites in Cape Town are presented as imagined film stills to suggest a post-apocalyptic scenario. We chatted to this dynamic photographer about learning to make do with what you have, how her work has developed over the years, and where she’s set her sights.
How and why did you become interested in photography?
My mother is a photo-journalist and stylist so for most of my life I have been surrounded by photographers. Fortunately photography always comforted me and became an integral part of my life and it made sense to me to pursue it and learn more about it. I started out on a disposable 35mm camera, and then moved up to a pocket-sized compact Canon iXus digital camera. Waded my way through black and white film, many nights in the darkroom, and now I’m at my first full frame camera. It’s all about baby steps and patience. Don’t let your resources restrict you in any way, instead, learn to make do with what you have and then eventually love what you make.
How would you describe your style of photography, what influences you?
I guess I would say that my photography is ‘documentary’ in some aspects, but not in a journalistic sense.
I like taking note of things that have happened and the ways in which history and events have shaped our country and people. Similarly, I want to document the effects that socio-political change has had on a post-apartheid generation – the morning after generation and the debris we’ve been left to sieve through.
In the last few years, I have found a particular interest in architecture and the ability of buildings – though temporal – to imbue their locale and often transcend time. Structures and the spaces in which they are built in essence became malleable surfaces on which trauma, history and violence is recorded by virtue of decay, degradation, alteration and demolition. These structures adopt a rare ability to ‘read’ deeper than history books.
Please tell us about some of the themes and ideas you’ve been exploring in your student work.
My degree started out with quite playful work with subtle innuendos, social undertones and drew heavily on pop culture references. I drew fondly on cinema as an influence and enjoyed making images that were part imagined and part real.
My work then began taking on quite heavy cynical undertones as I became more critically aware of the environment around me. That’s perhaps where the fantasy creations slowly morphed into documentary accounts of real stories. The first work that embodied this transition was After Everyone’s Gone Home – a series I did of the interior of lecture halls on UCT’s Upper Campus after the students had left. The project was documentary in a purely aesthetic and non-critical manner.
The second work to follow this was The Dreams of My Younger Days; Welcome to the Republic of Korea Armed Forces. This told the story of my friend and classmate, Kyusang, who was born in South Korea in 1993 and had been enrolled to take part in mandatory military service there. The styling of the helmets on his head is where playfulness was part and partial in the creation of the image.
The last two projects, Urban Façade and POST have both been influenced by my love for architecture, my cynicism towards society and using documentary photography as a secondary voice for my investigations into the politics of space against the backdrop of the colonised landscape.
How did this feed into your final project, POST? How did you conceptualise and execute it?
POST was an outlet to continue many of the ideas I was working on in Urban Façade. Similarly, the movement into documentary photography as well as my physical move from Johannesburg to Cape Town (having to accept a new and different urban fabric) catalysed an urgency to consciously consider the aspects in which Cape Town’s districts are racially and socially segregated by means of rivers, railway lines, highways and mountains. POST is greatly anchored on urban exploration, architectural documentation and considered imaginings of a post-apartheid, post-apocalyptic time.
During my research, I discovered that the majority of the buildings and sites I visited and photographed were in fact vacant, derelict and inactive due to negligence, insufficient heritage protection, vandalism, proposed demolition or were found to be anchored in red tape and heritage debates. However, there were also cases of sites that sought regeneration and re-use.
This brought my attention to four phases that these buildings or sites may be classified into: Red Tape / Heritage Debates, Abandoned / Negligence, Inactive / Mothballed, and Redevelopment / Regeneration.
There were two components to the project: a series of large-scale photographs of actual sites and buildings that are presented as imagined film stills to suggest a post-apocalyptic scenario or time, and a comprehensive documentary account that categorises the photographed sites into the four mentioned development phases in the form of a photobook. The photographs consider a somewhat fictional avenue into a post-apocalyptic time set against a post-apartheid backdrop. The body of work is also focused on the notion of ‘space’ and the relationships people create and establish within the production of space.
Would you say you’re more of a documentary photographer or photo-journalist, and why?
If we were to define documentary photography as the means of ‘telling a story’, the ‘depiction of reality’ or even recording what exists and what has happened, then I am more of a documentary photographer than journalist.
It’s not that it’s any easier than photo-journalism, it’s just a different use of the medium. Documenting for me is closely linked with academia or writing in the sense that you are creating a photo-essay of sorts. There’s a different kind of research involved as well and it’s normally personally motivated with more room for opinion and intervention. The factual accuracy or veracity demanded in photo-journalism would limit me and in a way pre-define my interests for me without allowing much space to change my mind or experiment during the image making process.
Your work varies between digital and film photography. Do you have a preference between the two?
Both mediums are very different and are dependent on the subject matter or nature of the project for me. I adore film and the discipline it encourages to stop and think about every photograph you take. It’s also dependent on the geography and pace of your project. Having a film camera around your neck is often safer and easier to replace than a 30 grand digital camera, for example.
Unfortunately, the last few years have seen film become very expensive and sometimes unaffordable to shoot an entire body of work on. Film is also often cumbersome and requires more patience and pause than the speed and ease of burst shooting with a digital camera. In my case, where a building may collapse tomorrow, or the Cape Town wind may mess up your composition, then digital is often easier to cover your bases so that one image out of the batch of 100 is perfect.
Whilst digital is cheaper, there is a misconception that it is also easier with image editing software making anything possible these days. Using the digital medium properly and actually getting everything right in camera first is actually as challenging as it is with film.
Which of your creative projects are you most proud of?
It would have to be the project I did in my third year at Michealis; Urban Façade. The project was inherently focused on what purists deem to be ‘good architecture’ and looked at buildings across both Cape Town and Johannesburg that have fallen into decay or disrepair, are abandoned or restricted by red tape. I had so much fun shooting the buildings and I learnt a great deal about the challenges regarding acquiring access to ‘sensitive’ sites or locations. I shot the project on film too which made it even more challenging and frustrating, but the reward of hand printing the images in the darkroom was oh so satisfying.
What was your experience as a student like? What valuable lessons did you learn along the way?
I guess I learnt very fast not to take things too seriously but instead just enjoy my studies. I understood the importance of taking part in social events, visiting gallery openings and seeing the occasional play at the Baxter theatre. It’s essentially about balance, finding your niche and your place in the greater scheme of tertiary education.
Take things easy and find a healthy balance that works for you.
Understand your worth earlier rather than later.
Learn to say NO.
Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help.
Where do you see yourself 1, 5 and 10 years from now?
My perfect answer: living in Japan.
But for now, I don’t mind where I am, as long as I’m creating images and telling stories through them. Whether this is through photography, art direction, filmmaking or even teaching photography, I cannot say. I definitely want to surround my life with the production and creation of images – but not ignoring my closet love affair with architecture and history either!
Do you have anything lined up for the immediate future, work or job-wise?
I have been very grateful to find myself a place at Velocity Films and I am currently doing an internship there as a researcher. Every day is a challenge to learn something new and I am beyond excited to learn and grow from there. When you graduate, the next month is your immediate future. I believe that what you create in the time you have now defines your future. The brevity and speed at which life evolves means anything can happen or change in a day.
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