“When capturing people you just need to be sensitive to their story” - South African Leeroy Jason on instilling pride through photography
Born in the small community of Montana in Cape Town, Leeroy Jason grew up people watching. He moved his people watching skills behind the lense at 11 years old, and now, at 33, he is taking South Africa by storm, using photography to ‘instill pride and a new perspective’ to the subjects he captures in an attempt to give back to his community. Our Art Director Kevin Goss-Ross sat down with Leeroy Jason to discuss what being a photographer in South Africa means to him.
KGR: How long have you been practising photography?
LJ: Since I was 11 years old. When my dad came back from photographing The Rwandan Genocide he gave me that camera and it was cursed. I would never put that camera down. When I was 16 years old I was paid as the youngest photographer shooting “Back Page Babes” for the Sowetan newspaper, which gave me so much confidence and a whole lot of street cred!
KGR: Your dad, Fanie Jason is a photography legend in South Africa. How does that influence your work? Sometimes the subject matter overlaps but your aesthetics are very different. You’ll pose and interact with your subjects a lot of the time where your dad’s work is sometimes more journalistic and fly on the wall. Was it hard to find your own voice?
LJ: Very hard! Besides looking like the man, I spent many of my young adult life running from the idea I might become my father. War photography can fuck with you. And what he became scared me, then! Fast forward to me working on the Tension last year around #FeesMustFall (a student-led protest movement in response to an increase in fees in South African Universities, this took place in both 2015 and 2016) where I got to taste what it was like being in the eye of a storm, capturing tension dodging bullets and still making amazing portraits was incredible. I understood now why my father loved it so much. I also got why he turned his back on such imagery too. Prior to turning to photo-journalism, my father’s photographic essays inspired me to reference his work for commercial usage
KGR: You use artificial light beautifully which gives your work a stylistic feel, but you’ve said in the past that you don’t use Photoshop, that you use a retoucher. Why is that? A lot of people find at least part of their voice in post. Why leave it open for someone else to mess up? (At this point it must be said that I’m a control freak so maybe this is more a personal question.)
LJ: Lol, cause that’s what it feels like, messing my image up. My work has no preservatives. When it’s for a job, I try to meet the brief all in my viewfinder. If things are missing or I missed out on something like someone’s wondering eye, a retoucher is used. But for the most of it, if it’s not in my viewfinder, it becomes a collaboration with a designer or retoucher.
KGR: In the age where the smartphone has democratised photography to the masses who don’t essentially care for it as an art, is the smartphone camera a good thing or a bad thing?
LJ: Good! It’s a good thing; it made people appreciate the art form. It has created mediocrity in the media space, which is wack. Most magazines don’t inspire anymore. Not all is lost; I still believe with a bit of information, it could give shooters a more informed approach to their images.
KGR: African photography has a certain flavour and colour to it which I haven’t seen in Europe. What do you think causes that?
LJ: True, this is the first time I have to try to contextualise it. I think it’s the approach to how Africans capture the African Skin. The textures come from the harshness of the sun; colours come from that African nightlife and sunsets. The mood is taken from the African aspirations and dreams.
KGR: What is the single advance in technology which excites you within the realm of photography?
LJ: Digital processors: how big my images are now versus 10 years ago.
KGR: What caused the move from Cape Town to Johannesburg?
LJ: Opportunities my friends, the constant work possibilities, the value of my work is worth much more here. City of Gold my friend!
KGR: What does photography mean to you?
LJ: Infinite possibility! One object can be taken over a million ways and each image can be either seen in a new way or you could see a whole new object altogether. Every tone, F Stop and angle all means something. With all of this, you need to choose one! I LOVE PHOTOGRAPHY!
KGR: In terms of shooting in a country with a dark past which will affect the citizens of the country for centuries to come, how do you feel about photographers (read: tourists as well as white professionals) shooting in the townships and rural areas?
LJ: When capturing people you just need to be sensitive to their story. Their acceptance of you in their space is important. The more honest your approach the more you uncover. When capturing people, I don’t use it to change the ideals of the audience but to change the ideals of my subject. And, if it moves you and your subject, it will move others. If moving is your thing.
KGR: Your portfolio seems never-ending and your Instagram is never dry for content. How the hell are you this productive?
LJ: This is why cameras last only for 12 months with me. My pockets can’t keep up with my hunger for images. I document all sorts when I’m not working commercially. I tune into the news and see more images. I get in my car and run to where the action is! Its endless. Nikon, please hear my cries!!!
Photos courtesy of Leeroy Jason.
Check out more of Leeroy's stuff on Instagram
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