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Michael Freeman interviews Dewald Botha - The Open College of the Arts
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Michael Freeman interviews Dewald Botha

This interview also appears on The Freeman View.
We’re making something of a break here in these interviews, because this month’s featured photographer is an OCA student at the beginning of the course, having just completed the first level – The Art of Photography and People and Place. We were all impressed with his photography. I was with the assessors recently up in Barnsley, looking at the submissions, and Dewald’s work caught my eye. Caught everyone’s eye actually, and we thought it would be interesting and instructive to show, on this website, the work of someone who is both talented and having considerable success on the course. Dewald Botha, 34 years old, grew up in what he describes as ‘a really small farming community town called Wolmaransstad, in central South Africa.’ When he left school it was the time of serious changes in the country; he worked in agriculture for a while and then, in 2001, left for the United kingdom ‘ like so many other young people’. After a year’s course in photography at Chichester, but disappointed at not being accepted for university in South Africa, he opted for teaching English, first in the Czech Republic, and then to Suzhou, China, where he now is.

Photo © Steffen Becker

Birdcage, Jinji Lake, Suzhou

Axis buildings, Shanghai World Expo

MF: When I first saw the folder with your work, my first reaction was to do a double-take and check that I was looking at the level-one course The Art of Photography. My impression was that you had already been shooting for some years and had reached some clear ideas about, among other things, composition. What was your first introduction to photography?

DB: A few years ago, I lived in Bracklesham Bay, near Chichester, working as a barman in a holiday camp, mostly evenings, and by some miracle, I was allowed to do an AS level in photography for a year at Chichester College of Science and Art. I also went to one of Jessops’ studio portraiture courses in Leicester. Doing the AS level, I was obviously the odd one out, not only the one foreigner, but by far the oldest in the group. I was quickly accepted, and I learnt so much about wet darkroom work and basic photography.
At the time, I even bought the lecturer’s old developer for £15, and changed my staff accommodation bedroom into a darkroom to process my own film and prints. I couldn’t continue to A level, nor was I accepted to Chichester Uni, so I left for Oxford, and further travels through the UK.
MF: And before that in South Africa?
DB: Thinking back, my first contact with photography was the photography magazines and National Geographic, and books from the library where my mom worked. My first memories of photos are these beautifully sharp large-format portraits that were done of my mom, my brother and me, while she was expecting my sister. The photos were done by a family friend I can only recall as David.
I also ruined quite a few rolls of negatives when I was young, playing ‘developing’, but instead, actually bleaching them to nothing. We’ve always had a compact camera in the house, and only when I was 20 years old or so did I buy my first compact Canon with a zoom.
MF: And how do you see that your work developed up to the point of starting the OCA course?
DB: It’s really hard to say. I don’t think I managed to develop any real direction, preferences or style, but rather overall just getting the hang of basics. The biggest step was probably when I got my first computer, and I could have prints in digital form. Right up to my first course with the OCA, I used Windows Photo Gallery to edit my photos.
Another big step was meeting digital, introduced by a friend while living in the Czech Republic.
MF: What prompted you to take the OCA course?
DB: I don’t have a degree of any kind at present. I never really knew what I wanted to do with my life, but never really wanted to study something that wasn’t practical – in the sense of using my hands.
Having no degree makes it really difficult, not only on a personal level, but also applying for any kind of position in a company. Even more so as an ex-pat in foreign countries. I was very lucky to get my current teaching position with teaching experience, and other certificates.
Also, probably more important than the degree, I finally got to a point where I felt that I want to study something, and it had to be in a creative field. The OCA was the only organisation which didn’t ask for past study grades, or crazy fees just because I am an international student.
MF: As you say, where you’re living now – especially Suzhou, with its traditions – is a rich source of imagery, exotic for a Westerner. But while you have some beautiful images of scenes such as old Chinese architecture and of the temples at Pagan in Burma, I was actually more interested by your sense of unusual relationships within the frame, both graphic and contextual. It looks like you’re using the viewfinder to explore in many instances. When you go out shooting, how much are you working towards a short list already in your head, and how much just opening yourself to opportunity?
Fisherman, Jinji Lake, Suzhou

Wooden tablets in the Confucius Temple, Suzhou

DB: Thanks, it’s kind of you to say that. This is something that has changed very much since I started my studies. Before I would just go out and shoot anything that I thought might be exotic, interesting or make a nice photo.
Now, the window in my kitchen (it was the window until they converted the balcony into a kitchen) is my scribble board, and I keep a list of numerous ideas or possible projects. When I do a certain project for studies, I try to combine one or more of these thoughts with the exercises, small notes written and kept in my wallet or in my camera bag.
But I try to keep an eye open for something I didn’t see in any research or online searches. An example of this is: nowhere during my research for my trip to Myanmar did I come across any mention or photos of these small hut-like buildings, which have one, two or three clay pots, keeping water deliciously cool, is free to everyone. Things like these, that I come across and notice a connection, very quickly become a spur-of-the-moment project.
Clay water pots, Bagan, Myanmar

About relationships within the frame, I am not really sure how to answer your question. I am always looking, at everything and everyone. That is why it is so important to me to have a mobile phone with a good camera, as I can’t carry my camera with me at all times. I can very often see the photo, the frame and the moment, but I still often fail to capture how I see things relate to each other, or to me. It is becoming easier to see the photo before I lift the camera, because I am using only one lens at this moment, and it is probably one of those practice-to-get-used-to-it concepts.
Your question was a real eye opener Michael. The connection between the photos, what you say about the way of seeing it, has slipped past me, and only once you pointed it out did I notice it. Thanks. There is often a lot of talk about personal voice and personal style, and I hope to grow something that is unique in a field that has become so accessible to many people, that it is sadly becoming so easy to disappear or get lost.
Street magazine vendor, Harbin, China

Huilan Pavilion Pier, Qingdao, China

MF: Can you tell me more about the dance assignment and layouts? What made this particularly interesting for me is that I’ve recently been working on a level two course in which I’m teaching the basics of layout and typography for this very purpose: how to juxtapose and display photographs.

Above: The first four spreads from the dance story.
DB: The dance group assignment was the last of TAOP, which was clearly influenced by the People and Place material I received around the same time as I started to plan the last assignment. My manager had to pull a few strings to get me access to backstage, for which I’m incredibly thankful. My sister did ballet when she was young, and I did sound and stage lighting when I was in high school, so backstage is something I’m a little familiar with, and interested in.
On the first evening, I didn’t take my camera, as I wanted to meet all the dancers, and get the whole novel idea of a foreigner being backstage out of the way. I also believed that if they were OK with me after the first day, from the second day they would pay less attention to me, and I’d be able to disappear in the shadows and rush. I used the first evening to sketch the movement of people, the stage, make notes of colours, shapes, light levels etc, and possible shots that might occur a few times.
The layout of the article was based on numerous magazines I paged through in Starbucks, the bulk-buy book market near one of the schools I taught at, and online research. After the first evening, I had a clear idea that the narrative would include before, during and after, as I’d hoped, and I’d be using a mix of colour and black and white to separate these stages.
When it got to the layout, it was rather frustrating to see that the best photos do not necessarily work together as a set, nor do they always work placed next to or across from each other. The main aspects I looked at were direction of movement in the frames, eye lines, where the page would fold if it was in a magazine, and placement on the pages, to give an easy flowing article… Of course I had to review it after helpful feedback from my tutor.
MF: That immediately caught my eye. It was a very clean and professional layout. Where did that skill come from?

DB: Not sure really, I can only think that it must be the minimalist, or the graphic designer that I wanted to be when I was much younger, who is trying to come out. I guess it comes from paging through loads of magazines, not so much reading it, but looking at the photos, relation between photos, and so on. The juxtaposition exercise in TAOP had me thinking a lot about putting images together. (The truth is I really don’t know, it takes a few hours in PS and just trying what feels right for me).
Artists waiting on a sunken stage, Lishui Jinsha Performance group, Suzhou

MF: Why did you choose People and Place, and how did you feel about it?

DB: I was torn between the level 2 courses, Landscape and Social Documentary. I can see that Social Documentary would be more useful in the long run, in the line of documenting journalistic-style travel work. But on the other hand, Landscape may take me towards architecture which is something I’m also interested in. I hoped that by doing People and Place, a short relationship between the photographer and person would exist. I had a long list of projects I wanted to have a go at. But it is something more personal than just learning how to compose and shoot a portrait, I guess, since nearly none of these projects got off the ground. In fact, I was terribly disappointed in myself while doing People and Places, because I find the way I see the world, the beauty that is out there, even in the terrible and ugly things, I can see it, and I can see the photo in my mind, but I still cannot capture it.
MF: Can you elaborate on that? It seems from many of your pictures here that you are imposing your particular way of seeing on your world.
UK Pavilion, Shanghai World Expo

Ancient water town Tongli, near Suzhou

DB: I’m not a social person, and although I teach for a living, there is a very strong distance between me and what or who I photograph. Even back when I did the portraiture studio course in Chichester, it was extremely interesting, but it was very clear to me that this is not my cup of tea. I think it has something to do with the priority or importance to personal space that we were brought up with, and this I find very difficult, if not impossible, to change.
On the other hand, when the human body can become an abstract source of lines, light and shadow, like in the semi-nude shoot I did for Assignment 1 in People and Place, this challenge pulls me, and I desperately try to capture what I see, and the beauty in it.
MF: That surprises me rather, given the success of that dance essay. One of the reasons I wrote that course, under Gareth’s direction, was both to get students thinking about narrative, and to push them outside of their normal comfort zone. Documentary reportage has played a huge and central part in the development of photography, but many students find it challenging to go out and deal with and photograph strangers. Was it that kind of discomfort that made you feel it wasn’t for you, or something else?
DB: In short, yes. I’ve been looking at exactly this in my final assignment for People and Place that I’m doing at the moment. My tutor and I discussed the distance that seems to be between the subject and me. With the dance project, I was very lucky in that I speak some Chinese, and being the novelty of the day got me closer to the people, but I managed to disappear very quickly into the shadows and the chaos of the show, to stand at a distance and capture how I see it.
I’m currently working on a longer term project, linked with People and Place Assignment 5, working with some strangers, and once again, I realised that for me, creating a short-term relationship as photographer and person just doesn’t work, but like you say, it’s a comfort zone thing, and only by pushing yourself, will you shift those boundaries. The dance assignment worked because I had time.
Language and culture differences are huge issues for me at this moment, and I (and also the other people, I believe) get frustrated at not being able to communicate exactly what needs, or wants, to be said. My Chinese studies are not going well…
Jin’an Temple, Shangha

MF: What will you be doing next? Are you taking a break from the course, or continuing the momentum?

DB: No break, I’m waiting for my Landscape material to arrive any day now, so that I can start the preparing and reading to make a jump start at it when I finish People and Place.
I have high hopes for the course and the guidance of my tutor, and quite a bit of pressure on myself, to develop a clear way of capturing how I see things, but only time will tell, I guess.
MF: Ultimately, what would you like to do with your photography? Do you see yourself taking it up professionally?
DB: I honestly don’t know. A recent discussion on one of the forums got me thinking about exactly this, but I still don’t know. I know what I do NOT want to do, and I guess that is a start. I do not want to get into normal portraiture or wedding photography, as I truly dislike this kind of portraiture work.
In the back of my mind, and although I know the competition is fierce, and the money very little, I dream of doing documentary or travel photography. With the landscape course, I hope to explore architecture, and see where that takes me…. I really don’t know, except that I enjoy photography having become such an integrated part of my current life.
Passengers waiting at the new train station, Suzhou

Class begins, Pingjiang Middle School, Suzhou

Posted by author: Michelle Charles
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26 thoughts on “Michael Freeman interviews Dewald Botha

  • Interesting insight into Dewald’s work and development with OCA – really inspiring. I am struck by how much Dewald has grown in his practice and outlook on photography and the excellent work produced. More articles like this please!

  • Totally agree, some beautiful imagery and a very professional looking portfolio Dewald. Congratulations and good luck with landscape.

  • I must say that the plaudits are very well deserved.
    Also, it’s very interesting to read this sort of thing, something I would like to see in the student mag.

  • Congratulations Dewald. I so enjoy looking at your work and it was very interesting to read your thoughts about the direction you’re heading in with your photography. Wishing you lots of luck with the next Course (although I don’t think you’ll need it really as you have a lot of talent.)

  • A really interesting article. I always find your work interesting and inpsiring Dewald, and am glad to see you get this well-deserved recognition. I think the magazine article set was particularly inspired. I also really enjoyed the discussion of your inspiration and creative process.

  • Excellent, Dewald; some really creative imagery, but even more powerful when viewed alongside your fresh and honest commentary. Really, really well done!

  • Simply eye-catching.
    Brilliant images which are the type I purchase in book format and browse through when I am relaxing to get my creative juices bouncing again. Perhaps you should get a few copies printed up somewhere, I would certainly purchase a copy!
    Look forward to seeing more
    Keep Well

  • Hi everyone….
    Thank you so much! It is a great honor, but also credit go to all the students and my tutor for all the help, advice, and patience along the way.
    Something like this should get a mention on a blog I think 🙂

    • Final Scene
      ( The banqueting Hall – a friend and admirer leaps to his feet, draws his long sharp shimmiering blade clink!, Clink!, Clink! on a silver goblet, he calls out )
      ‘…Speech! ‘

      • Nigel, if that ‘speech’ was directed at me, I’m smiling, but have to disappoint. Thanks so much for your note.
        I’m taking it all in at this point, and have taken so many things that was said to heart, but what Alan as said has been going through my mind so much….
        ‘to not be blown off course’…
        I’m at such a strange place right now, where TAOP and PaP (probably mostly myself) brought me to a point, where I’m pulled in so many directions, but it’s not really a feeling of being lost, but rather of someone who has too much to choose from.
        TAOP brought me to see the world in elements of light, textures, shapes, PaP has brought me to see people and how they interact with the world, and my recent exploration of more intimate space has brought me to look at how I interact with people.
        How, and where I go from here, I’m not sure… I don’t think I will ever be, but ‘ to be blown in directions of exploration’… that one I’m all up for.
        Thanks again to everyone for the posts.

  • I’m going to sound a note of caution here. I think Dewald’s work is excellent, and this is the cause of my concern. As a fellow student, it is a bit like going to train for the 100m with Linford Christie – he’s out of my zone of proximal development before I know what’s happened.
    Does excellent work of this standard inspire everyone – or does it cause some to think ‘I might as well give up now’ ?
    Inspire or despair?

    • Aspire to the care, thought and approach, not the images. Dewald’s work is his work, your quest is to find yours.

      • And BTW, continuing your analogy, he’s not breasting the tape, he’s still got a race to run; as he well knows. ‘ }

  • Picking up Jim’s comment, and at the risk of embarrassing Dewald, I think it is worth pointing out that this work is really exceptional at level 1.

  • Errr … picking up on Gareth’s comment about my comment… yes, I agree this work is exceptional … but is there a place for something a little less aspirational and more motivational – something to look at, and say, I could do that, if I tried a bit harder?

  • As someone has commented earlier, it was great to see your work in the context of this interview and your responses to the questions. Very interesting to read and congratulations!

  • I find Dewald’s work excites me and at the same time it depresses me to realize how such creativity as I had, has been corrupted, squashed and moulded by the demands of commercial photography and multiple influences over six decades of earnest endeavour. Dewald appears such a single-minded person that I am sure he will not be blown off course by this appreciative outburst.

    • Act 2 Sc I
      ( some crazy, forlorn figure, wandering about on the heath )
      ‘….. but alas! Life is but a dream!…fidgety, ridgety, widgety booh!.’

  • Whilst I’ve always been a big fan of the basic philosophical contentions of existentialism i.e existence before essence or man is born first and then creates himself or design for life you know I’ve never really liked John Paul Sartre’s rather snotty nosed criticism of the ‘autodidact’ ( the self taught individual, the university ‘outsider’ ).
    But whilst the likes of Sartre – who sneered at the self educated person with the typical superior contempt of a Sorbonne trained university professor – persist in our society and remain fairly prominent in our educational institutions its a breath of fresh air to read an article on the career of a fine artist/photographer that demonstrates the basic truth that when we as human beings learn the art of self education we will find if not create opportunity beyond our wildest dreams.
    Its in this spirit that I really love everything about Dewald Botha and If I had the opportunity I would tell him directly not to worry about his lack of university education, and in turn I would echo the proverbial wisdom that too much dependency on others for knowledge supports the habit of procrastination i.e. his rapid learning and career climb may have come to a significant standstill if he had become embroiled in university training.
    Oh yes be confident I would say and take pride in your achievments because your life and journey as a successful and indeed excellent photographer is testimony to the fact that man has the ability to learn without instructors.

  • Congratulations Dewald. Your work is very inspiring and I have enjoyed reading about how you reacted to the course requirements. I gave my all for DPP and now I am not sure it was enough but I will try and be positive and aspire to a similar standard one day. Like you I was not sure whether to go for Landscape or Social Documentary but have chosen the latter and have just started this week. Good luck for the rest of the course.

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