INTERVIEW BY Amelia Brown
In the latest issue of VISI – on sale now – we commissioned up-and-coming portrait photographer Lutendo Malatji to capture two award-winning designers in our new Curators series. We found out how this Soweto-born-and-raised talent approaches his art, unpacks a brief and gets the best out of his subjects.
Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into photography?
I was born and raised in Diepkloof Zone 2, Soweto. I went to Queens High School where I discovered a love of art through my favourite subject, Art and Design. I wanted to be an architect. That’s what I thought I’d study, but I wasn’t accepted at the University of Johannesburg, which lead me towards a more artistic design path.
I discovered the Design School Southern Africa [now Vega] where I studied graphic design. I found there was a lack of the high-quality images I was looking for, so I decided to study photography at the Market Photo Workshop. That’s when I fell in love with photography and the idea of fusing it with my art background. I came across an academy called Umuzi where I put my skills to the test through real client work. An internship at The Mail & Guardian, followed and now I’m working independently.
Did you always prefer portraiture?
I’m an introvert who simultaneously enjoys working with people. I thought I’d be a photographer that was always in the background, far from people, but I discovered that my passion is portraiture.
What is one of your earliest memories of photography, art and design?
I remember getting my first analogue camera and having to process my first film roll of film. It was one of the scariest yet beautiful moments of my life to finally see what I had captured.
How would you describe your work?
Unique, authentic, detailed and emotive.
Whose work do you admire?
I look up to Zeno Petersen (@zenography) and Ben Bond (@benbond_photographer). They’re artists who have shaped my skills and how I look at photography. I’d classify Justice Mukheli (@justicemukheli) as an idol.
Film or digital?
I prefer digital, but it was through film that I fell instantly in love with photography. With digital, I appreciate having the ability to fix and rectify a mistake on the spot.
I once had an allergic reaction that blinded me for a week. Ever since then I’ve struggled with my eyesight, especially in extremely hot weather conditions or after starring at the computer screen for a while. I went to the doctor and I got it fixed, but it does come back from time and time so I find it useful to have a viewfinder.
What camera do you use?
A Nikon D750. I like Nikon and Canon, but I’m partial to my Nikon.
You manage to capture a sense of intimacy in your portraits. How do you go about approaching a subject?
I have to visualise the image before taking the shot. If I don’t see it in my mind then there’s no shot for me. I make sure that the image speaks to me before I’ll share or publish it. It has to move me. It must be timeless.
What do you hope to capture and convey?
I make sure that the image speaks for itself. It must convey a message.
How do you work to get the best out of your subjects?
I get to know them so that I can relate to them. I try to find myself in their lives. Whatever the conversation brings, I use it to make a great portrait that reflects the emotion and story I want to convey.
How did you approach the VISI Curators brief with Mpho and Thabisa?
The challenge with the VISI brief was that I love engaging with my subjects before a shoot to get a sense of their personalities, so that I can bring that out in the images. This time, I met them on the day, but I found it easy to work with Mpho [Vackier of TheUrbanative] and Thabisa [Mjo of Mash.T Design Studio] They’re lovely people and I found myself snapping away.
Are you working on an exhibition of body of work?
I’m busy with something that I can’t share much about because I want to build the project to make sure it tells the story that’s close to my heart. I hope to exhibit it next year.
What’s your best piece of advice for the amateur, everyday photographer?
There are a lot of photographers out there, so always follow your heart and make sure you tell your story as best as you can. Be unique. Be real. Make sure you are a force to be reckoned with.
Practically, do some research, go on YouTube, learn new techniques and give yourself mini tasks to do daily, like going out and shooting some street photography. Talk to strangers and seeing if you can get the best out of them. I dare you!