Paul Samuels is one of South Africa’s latest breed of artistic and conceptual photographers. His work has captured the imaginations of the fashion and media set, with images that intimately reveal contemporary South Africans from all walks of life, which may explain his interest in identity.
Having built a portfolio that ranges from urban to portraiture, to fashion photography, Paul Samuels inevitably appeared on the commercial and fashion radar. With a youthful curiosity and a mature eye, Paul’s raw visuals are something to behold: in their candidness, edginess and gritty appeal.
The Insider goes behind the lens to meet the man who “exists in different worlds of photography.”
What inspired you to become a photographer?
When I was young, there were always cameras in our house. My father was an amateur photographer at this point, and I started to play with them. But further along the line, I started skateboarding, along with a few of my friends. My father just bought a digital camera, and I started taking images of us to document us skateboarding. There was this one image that I became obsessed with, and that’s when I knew I wanted to be a photographer. The ability to create something beyond the moment that could in some way live forever in the world, long after the moment had disappeared.
What do you love most about being a photographer?
I don’t sit behind a desk every day. That is one very big perk for me. But I think mostly I get to experience this world and spaces in a very different way than most people. I have landed up in spaces where a lot of people will never go to or see. The camera allows for that access into these environments that the average citizen would not have.
What attracts you to each shoot and what do you look for in a potential shoot?
A shoot without emotion is dead.
Feeling. A shoot without emotion is dead. No matter if that feeling is hate, love or disgust, it then exists to move you. There is nothing worse than an image that just exists and the viewer is ambivalent about it.
How would you describe the kind of photography that you do?
That’s a very hard question. I exist in different worlds of photography. I exist in this fashion and advertising world. But also in the art and documentary side. But I do feel that my images are raw. Not necessarily beautiful, but hopefully [they] make people feel and think, as I believe my images are in some way emotive. Well, at least I hope so.
What key themes inform your work?
I think at the moment it’s about youth. The feeling of being young and unsure of yourself. Well at the moment at least.
Which of your shoots are you most proud of? And which ones did not quite turn out the way you had hoped?
The creative process is a strange one. There are moments when you love the work and other moments when you hate it. I feel I’m in a constant battle with myself if an image is good or bad. So all my work made me feel both I guess. But at the moment, I am very happy with my work on the Gusheshes, and hopefully, I will feel the same when it’s done.
Why do you love working with portraiture?
The portrait is something which I feel is inescapable. It’s this image that everyone can relate to on some level, just by being human. The portrait is also something which I feel represents the world in its current state. This allows you to almost tell the story of the world, or a group, through a singular person or persons.
Which photographers, past or present, do you look to for inspiration?
Well, there are a few I would have to say. And from different genres. Mostly local people to be honest. David Goldblatt is up there, his work is something else, he dedicated his life to telling the story of the south African landscape, and the values of this country of the past decades. His latest show at the Standard Bank gallery was the most incredible exhibition I have ever seen. Jo Ractliffe is one as well. She is my mentor and has changed my view of photography and its role in the world, and how we look at images, which I think is fundamental to image making. That approach to viewing and creating images is something I feel I try to apply to my work. Guy Tillim, also an incredible photographer, whose work has transcended journalistic photography to something more. His child soldier portraits are something out of this world.
Ross Garrett, along with being an incredible person, is also a great inspiration to me, as his images are some of the best fashion images I have seen. His care for people, I feel is translated into images, and that makes his images more intimate than I think most people will ever achieve.
In a world that is consumed with the moving image, what do you think makes photography such a distinct art form?
the still image can never be replaced.
I feel that the still image can never be replaced. There is some sort of primal attachment to the still image. If you look at film, intimacy and feelings are often presented in slow motion, almost an attempt at replicating the still image. I think that says a lot about where the world stands with the still image. The attachment to a tangible physical object is also an important aspect for us. The ability to hold a photograph, touch the printed face of a loved one, placing that print into your wallet and keeping that exact moment alive, always. That is distinctive of the still image, and what will keep it alive
Also on a practical level. I don’t see us hanging TV screen on walls to show moving images of family members. It might just be awkward, ha ha.
What shoot are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a project on the Gusheshes. I have been photographing it for a few months now, and [I’m] planning on having an exhibition with it sometime soon. So watch this space.
What is your favourite camera to work with at the moment?
The camera is just the tool. It’s mostly about vision. In that way you don’t look at a car and ask what wrench he uses to build it, or tell a chef that his food is really good, his pans must be really good. I feel the same about cameras. They are just an extension of the person creating it. I think this can be demonstrated with the international Sony photography awards now having a mobile phone section.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to get into photography?
you are going to fail, if you are not [failing] then you are not pushing hard enough.
Trust the process, and trust yourself. Things take time, and nothing great was made without that trust. Also, you are going to fail, if you are not [failing] then you are not pushing hard enough.