These days, with our smartphones and photo editing apps, we all live under the illusion that we are ‘photographers’. After my interview with talented Cape Town photographer, Francois Swanepoel, it is clear that without proper training you cannot truly call yourself a photographer.
After taking a sharp turn with his career in his 20’s, going from a paper pushing office job to a position that requires a lot more creative thinking, Francois took on the odd photography project to make ends meet. Since then he has managed to build a significant list of clients and has done some interesting work, the latest of which includes a shoot at Philippi Village.
I met up with Francois at Cocoa Cha Chi in Observatory, whose new menu he shot a while back, for an interview.
What inspired you to become a photographer? How did you start?
I started very late actually, because I started out working in transport, which is so uncreative. It was just after school, I fell into it. A two month gig turned into six years. Then the branch closed down and I was retrenched and without work. In that time, I asked myself what I really want to do and, for extra money on the side, I started taking photos of my friends and weddings.
The more I shot, the more I realised I actually need some academic training behind it. So many people say that you don’t need to study for photography, that you will learn as you shoot, but after studying at a formal institution you can easily see the difference between someone who has been training themselves and someone with academic training behind them. You learn about art, the greats in history, conceptualisation, rather than just making a girl look pretty. That’s basically why I started studying, which I did for two years at Vega (2013 to 2014), which I really enjoyed. What’s cool about Vega is the fact that, from day one, they tell you that your career doesn’t start when you leave, it starts today! You should already be thinking of building that portfolio and shooting for clients. By the end of my course I already looked like I’d been shooting professionally for two years.
90% of the projects I did was fashion at the time, and I only had like ten friends and you need a portfolio of like a hundred. So, I needed to find people to shoot. I contacted the fashion design schools, like FEDISA and the Cape Town College of Fashion Design, as they are constantly designing clothes and then they need to shoot it for their portfolios, to build up relationships with them and soon was shooting for them frequently. I also contacted a model agency, which I did the same thing for; every time they signed new models I did a studio and location shoot for them. In a short amount of time, I got masses of experience in the fashion genre. By the end of studying, I was so over it, and as a creative you need to be doing more than one genre at the same time.
I started out thinking that I just want to do fashion (photography), but the cool thing about studying is that you are put into situations where, for an assignment, you’ll have to do food (photography) all of a sudden. And I love it now, food is one of my focusses now. Architecture I do when I’m travelling, but never for clients. I’ve chosen to specialise in corporate clients, like restaurants. The thing that I love about corporate clients is that the work is recurring, not like weddings which you shoot once and then hope to be lucky enough to shoot the couple’s baby photos, etc. I like to build a relationship and keep it, rather than start a new relationship every time with new, short-term, clients. You also get to see your work, like when you go to a restaurant and see your photos in the new menu, or you read about clients in magazines and see the photos that you shot, another cool thing about corporate clients.
How did it feel when you landed your first professional job?
So pressured. I couldn’t sleep the night before. It was a men’s swimwear shoot which I had to do at the Crystal Towers hotel in this penthouse suite – beautiful place. I was scared to death, because when you are paid there is an expectation, and I was just doubting myself so much. Halfway through, I was like, “What were you scared about? This is easy.” It came out so well, it was liberating to see that I can actually do this.
What has been your biggest career struggle?
Funds. Photography is freakin’ expensive. Apart from the studies, which took me a while to pay back, I now need to save up for more equipment so my company can grow even more…which is why I got the 9 to 5 job.
What 3 characteristics, in your opinion, make for a good photographer?
- Conceptualization. When you look at something you need to be able to not just see what you see, but see what could be. You’re not just taking a picture of a cup, but having a concept behind it. For example: as soon as you tell people that you’re a photographer, they go, ‘I also take photos, here look at this picture of a flower’. While it may be a picture of pretty flower, it’s not a pretty picture of a flower.
- Listen, especially if you’re doing commercial work, because a client has an expectation. You can’t come with your creative ideas and think it’s going to fly. You need to listen to your client.
It’s still hard for me sometimes to not get carried away too far and reign yourself back in.
- Having someone to bounce ideas off of. When I was working at home, my work was stagnating, but as soon as I started interacting with other creatives it suddenly boomed. It’s part of the reason why I go to galleries so much.
If you could travel back in time, what one piece of advice would you give your younger self?
Get into photography sooner. Just go for it. Don’t worry about things that sort themselves out.
The reason I initially didn’t go into photography was because I was worried about paying my bills, but it was never as big a problem as I thought it would be. However, I needed to first work in an office and get a chance to really grow up and get corporate exposure, because now I know how corporates think.
Are you animal lover, if yes, which is your favourite and why?
Not at all. They don’t do what you tell them to…
Which is probably why I work with models.
What are your top 3 favourite spots in Cape Town?
- Schoon de Companje, which is a bakery and restaurant. What I love about them is that you can sit in the bakery and watch them make the bread while having your breakfast, and I am an avid foodie. The emergence of a loaf is a visual stimulation, and the décor is all eclectic with wooden furniture, it is so inspiring to be there – visually. It gives me so many ideas for food photography.
- The Momo and Youngblood Galleries. The great thing about Momo is that they print photos in massive forms, like two metre big prints, and they mix the photography with installation art to tell the same story. I love that connection between two forms of art merging. The Youngblood is a three-level building where new artists are coming to the forefront. Usually they have a different artist per level, so it’s a place where you can get different types of art and different stories in one space. I never just look at photography, I look at all types of art to inspire my photography.
- Wine farms, my favourite being Mulderbosch. The great thing about wine farms is that you go out there – it’s quiet, you get fresh air – and just clear your head. If you’re away from all the distractions, you are most creative, because you’re free to think. It’s difficult to switch off, even at home, you need to just break away sometimes.
If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would you choose and why?
David Karnezos, he actually studied with me, but he is just one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. He inspires me. He is one of those people that will just pack up and go. He went to Thailand and worked there for a few years, travelling and shooting. His style of photography involves going into the rural areas with real people, telling real stories. Sometimes you just need to not be worried about whether people are going to accept this kind of photography, or if it’s going to sell. I love the way his photos would rather tell real stories.
Any need-to-know career moves for the near future?
- My blog has evolved, now I’m doing more travel photography.
- My photography itself has also evolved, going into much more minimalist and softer pastel tones, moving away from those bright, contrasted, overloaded HDR looks.
- I’m also learning French now, so that when I travel through Europe I can go off the beaten path and to the small villages and countryside. After French, I want to learn Spanish. I want to learn all the major languages in the world, so when I’m travelling I can actually speak with the people and hear their stories.
Your vote: beer or wine?
Wine, totally, definitely! I go wine tasting monthly, I’m addicted to the wine industry.
As Francois explains, without proper training it is impossible to call oneself a real photographer – not a professional one at any rate. Besides from knowing the intricate technical side that comes from working a camera, being able to conceptualise is very important. A skill that not everyone possesses, despite their naiveté.
If you’re in Cape Town and have a brand or startup in need of visual exposure or a new product range to show off to the world, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Francois to discuss a potential shoot.
Text: Andy Moller
Answers: Francois Swanepoel
Photographs: Francois Swanepoel Photography