At the intersection of aesthetics and culture: A Q&A with Zara Julius

Zara Julius is a visual-storyteller with a background in social anthropology, photography, and film making. The artist is interested in the intersection of aesthetics and culture – the visual elements of personalised cultural narratives and the ways culture is embodied, performed, and perceived. Her work explores complex themes of identity, faith, urbanity, migration, race and culture, all located within post colonial Africa and the Diaspora. 

Zara devotes herself to the act of witnessing and documenting. Her striking photo essays and single images documenting ordinary scenes of daily life in a diversity of places (Mali, Ethiopia, Senegal, Johannesburg and Cuba) are proof of her passion.

We recently spoke with Zara about her creative process, using documentary storytelling as an instrument of social change, and politics as a part of the artistic medium of photography. 


When I was in Ethiopia, I was really struck by the kind of widespread devotion to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. There’s a real sense that it’s the oldest form of Christianity on the African continent. I took this photo when was in one of Ethiopia’s holiest towns, Lalibela – the site of 11 monolithic rock-hewn churches. Legend has it that the churches were built in 24 hours be angels. I’m not religious, but I would just spend hours sitting outside these churches in awe of the atmosphere, tradition and dedication of the religion. For me, this photo is representative of that.

Tell us a bit about your background and creative journey so far. What was it that drew you to photography?

I grew up in a really creative family; my grandmother was in fashion, my grandfather was in film, my mother’s in publishing, and my father’s an interior architect. My parents are also quite unorthodox, so I was always given free reign to explore my creative impulses in school through playing musical instruments, or making art. Photography has been something that’s felt almost essential from a young age when I got my first mik ‘n drik. There was something about the act of witnessing and documenting that felt necessary to me – it stimulates both my analytical and creative brain. I guess I realized quite quickly how a camera acts as a wonderful excuse to entertain my insatiable curiosity of how people make sense of the world. 
You’re coming from a photojournalism tradition. Would you like your work to have a direct political nature?

Yea, well my background is social anthropology, and that informs a lot of the work I do. I think that we live in an age where it’s actually irresponsible (and often insulting) for artists to not engage with questions of power and politics in their work. Everything we do has a political standpoint, and I like to be as conscious as possible of the ideological framework within which my works sits. As a result, I’m quite hung up on the ethics of representation and how images position narratives of power. It’s tough, though – sometimes, as an artist, you see a really beautiful photograph, but you know it’s not ethical to capture it. You have to be okay with letting that moment pass. Historically, cameras (and anthropology for that matter) are the most racist tools which have been used for the oppression of black and brown people, and it’s essential for me to try consider how I can decolonized my photographic practice.


I took this whilst working on the same project on syncretic churches in Johannesburg. This was taken with the Church of Shembe/ Nazareth Baptist Church. This branch worships outside of Johannesburg’s Doornfontein train station, turning the park into a sacred space on Saturdays, covered in a sea of at least 1000 congregants, all dressed in white robes. This was taken after the service, where some men and women dance umgidi – which has strong ties to elements of traditional Zulu dances.

Who or what influences your aesthetic sensibility?

I think just growing up in and traveling through the global south has informed my aesthetic sensibility a lot – especially with regards to how I’ve grown to see colour and texture. I’ve also always been fascinated by peoples’ conceptions of the divine, and the ways in which people worship this divine. My work with different syncretic churches in Africa and the Carribean have probably had the most profound impact on my aesthetic sensibility.

What do you believe makes a photograph exceptional? Are there certain elements you look for?

It’s quite difficult to say. There are so many different elements that can make a photograph exceptional. Whilst compositional balance is really important, I think the most essential element is honesty. The formal element of a photograph can be perfect, but it’s easy to tell when a photograph, or a photographic project isn’t honest – and a dishonest project is off-putting. It’s difficult though – I’m definitely still learning this photographic honesty thing. It requires a lot of (self) criticality, which can be tough.


The amazing thing about Ethiopia is that you can drive for hours outside of cities or towns or villages, to what we’ve been conditioned to think of as “the middle of nowhere”, and you’ll always find someone walking, casually. I remember always being like, “how’d you get here, dude?”. I took this photo from the top of Lalibela Hudad, thinking that there were probably so many people walking around and being mega productive at the bottom of that landscape.

Do you shoot in film or digital and why so?

I really prefer photographing in film – most of my work has been in 35mm film format. There’s something about the way film is able to capture the subtleties of light and colour that I find so seductive aesthetically. Technically speaking, the even the most advanced digital cameras aren’t able to read the nuances of tones the same way that film does. Like, yoh! The Kodak Professional Portra films are just a dream to work with when it comes to colour, and it’s difficult for me to give that up, even though it’s expensive.

However, recently I’ve been experimenting with projects where the process is more co-productive with my participants. In these instances, digital format makes more sense. It allows for flexibility, and more power to be placed in the hands of those placed in front of the lens, which is great. I mean, they’re such different mediums, it’s difficult to compare.
How much do you rely on post processing as opposed to getting it right in camera?

Let it be known that I’m really not a gear head. Photoshop kind of stresses me out, so I’d rather get things right in the camera. It’s become quite important for me that I don’t edit my images if they’re taken on film, and rather just make sure that I’m working with the right film for the project. With digital formats, it’s almost necessary to do a basic grading on your images, but the kind of photographic work I do doesn’t really require hi-tech editing – it’s a different story when it comes to my video work.


This photograph also shows off the light and colour of Saint-Louis. I went to the town to do some basic research on the history of Signares in the region. I was waiting to meet with my fixer. It was midday, 35 degrees, 100% humidity, and I just sat there hanging out with these girls, and staring at the laundry blowing in the wind – at that point, the breeze was life giving!

Are you working on any projects at the moment?

Yea, I’ve been doing a project that documents the diasporic Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church community in downtown Johannesburg. Since my trip to Ethiopia, I’ve always wanted to work with parts of the community here in Jozi, given the plurality of African religious traditions that exist in the inner city. I’m also in the pre-production stages of a kind of family archiving project on my mother’s family, which looks at the multiplicities of coloured identity in South Africa. Often the “coloured” conversation in South Africa (which barely exists as it is) is limited to the Cape experience. Even then, it mainly surrounds problematic tropes of gangsterism and tik abuse. There’s virtually no consideration of how identities are formed, performed and maintained, and especially not in the Gauteng or Natal experience. I’m pretty excited to get it going!

Using your impressive talent in photography, what would you like to accomplish in the coming years? 

My very basic dream is to see more African stories told by African voices. I’d love to collaborate in, or facilitate the telling of these stories, that advance the position of black and brown folks on the African continent and in the African Diaspora. I really think that photographers underestimate the power of collaboration in the visual storytelling process. In doing this, I’d love to see more folks of colour (from South Africa at least) traveling to other African countries. As much as I love South Africa, this thing of acting like Africa is separate to SA needs to stop.


This photo was also taken in Ethiopia. I was doing an overnight vigil in preparation for the Timkat celebration at the Bath of Fasiledes in Gondar. It’s a really important site and event of pilgrimage in the Ethiopian Orthodox faith. It was the most beautiful evening. Everyone had these orange ceremonial candles lit, and sang and prayed throughout the night and into the morning when the main service began. The best thing about this moment for me is the way these women are smiling. Worship in Orthodoxy isn’t just about being pious; it’s also about surrendering to joy.


Whenever people think of religion Ethiopia, they often think of the Orthodox Church. Folks often don’t realize that Ethiopia has a massive and thriving Muslim community. I met these kids at the entrance to the Sof Omar caves. In the 12th century a Muslim holy man and his followers used these caves as a mosque, and are partly responsible for the growth of Islam in the region. I sat with these young women, the three of us watching whilst the boy played in the river. They had finished collecting water, loaded their donkeys, and then asked me to take a photograph of them.


I really love this photo. It reminds me how photography is often about the random luck of timing. I took this in Saint-Louis, Senegal. I’ve always been amused by the manner of goats, and tend to take a lot of random photos or video clips of them when I travel. I framed the image, and as I clicked the shutter, the goat stood up. The colours and light quality in Saint- Louis are also incredible.


I took this photograph in Viñales, Cuba. Foreign travel is quite strictly regulated in Cuba, but I managed to rent a bed from an old farming couple in a farmhouse in the middle of the tobacco plantations. To be honest, that experience really tripped me out. Everything was so quaint, and lush, and so stereotypically “Cuban”. I never travel somewhere and expect to actually experience the stereotype so completely. This photo of the tobacco barn, surrounded by the intense greenery and mountains, with the perfectly shaped clouds and that single tree just felt so far out to me. Like, how is that real life?


This photo was taken in Regla, Cuba. A good friend of mine runs these open hip-hop cypher block party sessions in the community on Sundays. It was still the first week of my two month visit to the island, and I was so fascinated by the presentations of masculinity I was witnessing. I wanted to walk across the road to see the session from a distance for a second, and saw this scene. The colours, the young boys, the building – it all just worked.


For me, this photograph was mainly a matter of composition. I was standing in a really long queue to go watch a theatre production in Addis Ababa. I liked the way the pillars framed the building. Whilst I was in Addis, the entire city felt like it was under construction, but this area of the city has a lot of buildings reminiscent of Ethiopia’s flirt with socialism.


This was taken on my last day in Havana during carnival week. I had spent half of my trip doing a lot of research on race and racism in Cuba. Coming from a South African context, the Caribbean experience and conception of race and racism is quite far out. Cubans, and the Cuban government tend to be in serious denial about the state of race relations on the island, and for me, this photo speaks to my perception of that.


Scenes like this, of amaZiyoni walking through the streets of Joburg in their uniforms, always used to capture my imagination as a kid. This photo is from a project I did working with syncretic churches in Johannesburg CBD, and mapping the sites of worship and the rhythms they created in the cityscape. I spent about 2 months walking to and from church with this group of amaZiyoni, attending their services. Something about the imagery kind of reminds me of super heroes, rolling squad-deep in their faith.


This was taken the morning of Timkat in Gondar, after the main festivities had occurred. There were so many people, engrossed in such movement and live energy. I was drawn to the stillness and calm composition of these folks. The man crouched, reading his prayer book, and the woman standing in silence, observing all that was going on around us. Also, the morning light was doing all the good things.

Find more by Zara on her Tumblr and visit her website.  

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