Boipelo Khunou has honed the skill of unmasking the faces of her subjects in a sensitive and perceptive manner. From her personal philosophy, to the most challenging aspects of her role as photographer, she shares her take with us.
How did you get into photography?
I started out in high-school. There was a woman who offered a beginner course at my school, and I decided to take it on as I didn’t have much to do after school. It allowed me to really learn a different creative skill. I didn’t know photography was an actual art form before then.
Has Canon always been your go-to camera?
Yes, my first DSLR camera was a Canon and I just came to trust the brand. I’ve been working with my 70D Canon camera for the past six years and I enjoy the range it affords me.
How would you describe your style of photography?
My style of photography is conceptual and I enjoy creating narratives with the work that I do. Most of my work is in collaboration with a makeup artist and a model, participant or sitter based on a narrative that we create together.
What made you fall in love with taking photos of people?
I was first drawn to the candid nature of photographing people as they lived their lives. In this way I was able to connect with people in a different way. Every person has a story and a background that, in many ways, photographing them gives you access to. The idea that I could play a part in documenting different people’s experiences in moments is a privilege because it requires trust. I am still fascinated by the candid connections one can create with people based on their story and experiences, but I have begun to work with people in formulating characters or narratives, which is becoming another part of photography and documentation that intrigues me. This building of narrative seems more intended and feeds the collaborations that I wish to create.
What is the concept behind this striking image?
This image comes from a body of work I have been creating with an artists and friend of mine Janine Bezuidenhout. We started working together last year, alongside Kristina Nichol who is an amazing makeup artist, and I feel that it is really reflective of the ways in which we mask ourselves, only for our imperfections to expose us as people. This often happens when we feel as though we have imposed on a space. The act of putting something over your head symbolises that part of disguise but because of the material, we still see Janine’s face, the direction her gaze is shifted towards and how her hair and ear are peeping out show that perceived imperfection – that nothing about ourselves will stay in the confines of the mask we use to cover ourselves up. The image came about after playing with different looks and accessories and once I saw that frame I asked her to stay in that position.
Why do you put such emphasis on collaboration?
I feel that photography and film is all about collaboration, even when you are taking images of inanimate objects or landscapes. All that comes into frame is a form of some kind of collaboration and as a viewer and maker of images I need to be aware of that. Now that I have started to work with narratives, the sense of working with people to create a story and vision becomes more highlighted than before. I first really took this into account when I formulated Botaki Ke Botshelo, which is a personal creative philosophy that intends to put narrative based work at the fore. As much as I am the photographer and videographer, and in most cases editor, there will be a makeup artist, stylist, models, assistants, studio space or set designer who are all involved in making the concept come to life. This is deeply collaborative and I enjoy that aspect of creating together with people.
Your personal philosophy, Bokati ke Botshelo. What does it mean and how did it become your philosophy?
‘Botaki Ke Botshelo’ refers to the simple idea that lived experiences are a foundation to create and innovate. One doesn’t need to look too far to find an impulse to manifest. I find that powerful because that gives us reason to create from a place of knowing and experience without having to justify it through any type of institution outside of ourselves. Our lives become the institution and they reflect all that surrounds us. It serves as a reminder for me to be aware and sensitive to what people experience in life and if I am to be inspired to create from those experiences, I need to be able to come as close as I can to understanding them.
Have you ever wanted to capture someone’s lived experience, but found that it was just beyond your reach to understand them enough to get that emotion across on the image?
Definitely, and that’s the challenge. Not everyone is going to let you into their life just to photograph them. That is part of the process that needs to be respected. Documenting lived experiences takes time and communication, especially if you want to create authenticity. I wouldn’t want anyone I photograph to feel violated and this is the challenge I’ve had to face with some images I have made before which has made me rethink many ways of working and making images with people now. So when I do take on a project, it has to come with that sensitivity and communication.
What is the most intimate photo you’ve taken of someone?
Around February last year I made an open call for people to be part of a project titled ‘Bontle Ba Tlhago’ which was a nude series. The response was greater than expected because I hadn’t photographed as many people before for a personal project which required vulnerability and trust, so it felt intense at certain points. The process of photographing with the people involved wasn’t as challenging as the post production, as I began to create digital edits that sought to distort the original portraits which comes with its own politics. I had to consider how to edit the images, how to continue communication with everyone involved and also how to begin sharing the work with the public. What helps with any doubts is to seek different interpretations from people who I find will be honest with me. With any developments or changes to the project I try to continue communication with the people I worked with which makes the process feel more open.