Canon Creative Michelle Viljoen is a Cape Town based designer with a special connection to street photography. Her images capture the daily lives of ordinary people going about their daily lives. She walked us through her career, and the path that brought her to loving this documentary style of photography.
Your Instagram account is filled with shots from your recent trip to Japan. You even did the “Lost in Japan” post on Papercitylife. Why do you like taking photos of people busy with their everyday lives so much?
I’ve always been drawn to large cities. I think that attraction comes from the energy that cities give off and how diverse it is, even within the same city you can feel the mood change from one part to the next, it’s sparks a fascination within me that I want to document. I’ve always been intrigued with where that energy comes from – people versus their surroundings. I find that capturing photographs of people within their city allows me to really see and experience a place. I get to – or at least attempt to – cut through the surface and peek beneath, always trying to find the heartbeat of cities within the people who live in them.
When you go on a trip, do you choose your destination based on places you want to photograph or do you take photos wherever you go?
I always take photos when I go away; whether it’s a small weekend away somewhere local or a bigger planned trip. I can’t imagine traveling without a camera. A while ago I found myself realising that I’ve been so focused on mostly capturing cities and the people within them that I’ve stopped taking photos of the smaller things, like family, friends and moments that are more intimate. It’s a weird shift that happened. Somewhere a long the line I stopped capturing things that I wouldn’t necessarily share on my Instagram on Papercitylife. I’ve been trying to become more consciously aware of the fact that even though I love street photography and what it gives me, I mustn’t lose track of the other beautiful moments either.
Speaking of beautiful; you’re a true creative with some amazing graphic design work. Which came first for you? Photography or graphic design?
Ah thank you! I picked up a camera before I ever thought of design, my dad actually gave me my first film camera, so technically, photography. However, I ended up studying design, and while studying I began shooting fashion, which became a huge part of my daily life. After a while I stopped enjoy fashion like I used to, mostly due to the fact that I was young and I didn’t really have a clear vision of what I wanted to shoot so I ended up feeling a bit lost among the jobs that I got, which was jarring for me. I eventually stopped shooting fashion and focused on design instead. I found street photography along the way and loved the stark difference of it as compared to fashion photography, and my day job, which is running my design agency Studio Co.
Street wasn’t something I was able to control (other than spotting a great frame and waiting for a subject). You can’t plan it. You simply capture what you see. It helped me deal with the stress and anxieties of work and life. Street became not only a creative outlet, but also a (form) of therapy. It’s only recently that I have found a balance between design, street, fashion and commercial photography. It’s been a process. So to circle back to the question: photography, then design.
What make and model was your very first camera. Do you still have, and use it?
My first camera was this tiny silver 35mm point and shoot. It’s still in a drawer somewhere at my parents’ house, but it’s no longer in any kind of working condition. Honestly I can’t recall the make or model. After that my dad gave me his Pentax ME Super. It’s a beautiful film camera. I still have it and still use it regularly, although film is not my primary choice as I mostly shoot digital.
What is your first choice at the moment?
I’m currently using the 5D MKIV. The size has never been a problem for me when shooting street as it feels natural in my hand from all the years of shooting fashion with the 5D body. I always find the gear chat to be interesting.
People often ask me what I shoot on, or what I would recommend people should buy. I think there’s one fundamental question you have to ask when thinking about buying gear. Is this camera going to make you money? If the answer is no, and you are over extending yourself; don’t buy it. Simple. Get something that you can afford. If you don’t have to shoot work that needs to be printed in magazines or displayed in storefronts or on billboards there really is no need to buy the top of the range body or lenses. It’s not the camera, it’s your eye that matters. Yes it’s a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason – it’s true!
We get fixated on having a full frame body, or the latest mirrorless that will set you back a couple of thousand dollars, and glass with the elusive red ring, but you can build up to that. My first Canon was the 350D, and I bought it second hand. I used that for years, and finally saved up and bought the 5D MKII to shoot fashion once I started earning money from photography. I shot with it for 10 years before it finally clicked for the last time during a blizzard in New York in March last year. I replaced it with the 5D MKIV last year and love it.
I switch lenses depending on my mood, my usual go-to is the 50mm 1.4, though the 1.8 will be more than perfect too. It’s a great and extremely versatile lens. If I feel like being more direct, I’ll shoot with a 22mm pancake which forces me to get very close to my subjects, or I’ll grab my 24-70mm 2.8 when I feel slightly more reserved, and prefer to have some distance from people. I believe that before you spend a fortune on glass, figure out where your comfort zone is, and build from there.
When it comes to the more unpredictable, technical elements of your style, what’s the longest you’ve waited in one spot to get the perfect shot?
I found a spot last year while in New York. A steam cone had been knocked off the vent and it hasn’t been fixed yet, so the steam was erupting over the sidewalk. I knew they’d likely fix it soon so coming back and hoping there would be a shot once I return wasn’t an option, so I waited for over an hour, maybe more, for the perfect person. I saw this gentleman walking from afar. He was perfect! He basically looked like he came from another time. He saw the elation on my face after I got the photo, gave a little chuckle and asked if it was a good photo. It was a really incredible moment.