Our cover photographer Krisjan Rossouw talks of his journey of discovery, his first exhibition, his favourite artists and more
"It was really a process of trial and error, says Krisjan Rossouw about how he learned his art. In retrospect, I think not knowing all the ‘rules’ of taking a ‘good’ photograph was actually an advantage. It allowed me to explore possibilities. And, more importantly, discover my own way to ‘paint’ with and layer non-traditional lighting. This process was its own journey of discovery.
Before that, what did you do?
I’d worked in the modelling industry in Cape Town, which led to me eventually shooting models for their portfolios. While this was a completely different, more traditional process, it did help me to learn how to relate to and work with people from different backgrounds and cultures.
Was becoming a photographer a defining moment or more of a process?
The decision itself was defining moment. I’d just got to the point where I felt I needed to take greater control of my own employment and create my own opportunities. I’d always felt a driving need for some kind of creative outlet, which got quite frustrating at times. I didn’t have the opportunity to study or pursue any kind of creative field when growing up, so I think it just got to a point one day when it became a case of ‘now or never’.
Tell us about your first exhibition: Dark Paradise.
The idea evolved from experimentation. I didn’t have access to professional lighting so I started experimenting with smaller light sources—from singular tungsten lamps to LED torches. It then became a process of layering and highlighting, finding contrasts I thought worked. Since then I have accumulated a fair amount of traditional lighting equipment, but I haven’t used it for the series. I still prefer the simplicity and naiveté of that original play of light.
It was shot over a long time?
Yes, two and a half years—and in an underground bomb shelter. The cottage I lived in, in Sea Point, was built in 1902 to house English lieutenants stationed here after World War 1. It was originally just one floor, but had an entire basement bunker that ran under the house. I just couldn’t resist shooting against those walls, stained by over a hundred years of ageing.
How do you choose your subject matter?
In the case of people, the rapport I have with a model is crucial to me. I must have a comfortable, easy connection with them. I use various botanical elements instinctively as I’ve always loved nature. I especially love hardy plants like cacti and succulents. It’s not just their graphic shapes and subtle colour, but I think it’s also the idea that they’re resilient that appeals to me. They’re designed to survive despite the harshest conditions. I’ve heard people draw a comparison between these in some of the pieces and the apparent spirit of the people I shot in the images, which I find interesting.
When do you think you capture the best pictures?
When the moment becomes honest, and real. When working with professional models, for example, I go through a process of waiting for them to stop ‘posing’. I don’t instruct or ask for it specifically, it’s really just a matter of shooting until it starts to happen naturally.
And when people look at your work, how to you want them to feel?
The most I can hope for, I think, is that they find a moment they can engage with.
What artists do you like?
Caravaggio. I think the influence of his use of chiaroscuro is quite evident in what I do. I like David Lachapelle’s bold and playful audacity. And I have a soft spot for the decorative appeal of some of Tretchikoff’s work.
Do you listen to music when you’re shooting or editing?
Funnily enough, I shoot in silence. It’s just me and the model chatting through the shoot. I pretty much zone out when editing, so anything melodic on my iTunes tends to do the trick.
I’ll be preparing for the Dark Paradise exhibition in Germany later this year. I’ve also started work on my next series, so am quite excited to see how that evolves.
And just a little bit more about yourself…
I live and work in Cape Town. It’s beautiful here. I like to run up mountains in my old army boots, or eat breakfasts in little-known places in the city. I like DVD box sets if they’re interesting. I don’t like books if they’re not. I like weekends in small towns. I love the rain, especially when it wakes me in the middle of the night. I say a lot of silly things. I cry in sad movies and laugh too loudly in funny ones. I like people who haven’t forgotten how to laugh. I don’t think I’m ever really going to grow up. I’m totally okay with that. I don’t think anyone should have to.