Celebrating Female Photographers

As this is the month we celebrate women, I thought I should dedicate my blog to the female photographers that have inspired me through my studies and my career. I was introduced to most of them during my studies and some only recently. Some have guided me towards portrait photography while others have inspired me to document my life.

Mary Ellen Mark

I was introduced to the work of Mary Ellen Mark by my lecturer at the Ruth Prowse School of Art while studying photography. At that stage I was convinced that I was going to be a documentary photographer,  which is why her classic documentary approach really spoke to me. I appreciate and admire her remarkable ability to win the confidence of her subjects.

Mary Ellen Mark  -  The Damm Family in Their Car, Los Angeles, California, USA 1987

Mary Ellen MarkThe Damm Family in Their Car, Los Angeles, California, USA 1987

Mary Allen Mark was an American photographer known for her photojournalism, portraiture and advertising. She had 18 collections of her work published, including Streetwise and Ward 81.  Her work was widely published with exhibitions worldwide accumulating numerous awards along the way. Her photography addresses social issues such as homelessness, loneliness, drug addiction and prostitution, with children a reoccurring subject.

I feel an affinity for people who haven't had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence.

Mary was known for establishing the strong relationships she built with her subjects and to maintain those relationships. That is why there is such honesty in her portraits. There was a massive trust between the sitter and the photographer, something I aspire to.

Mary Ellen Mark  - Tiny, Halloween, Seattle, 1983

Mary Ellen Mark - Tiny, Halloween, Seattle, 1983

Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz has been an inspiration since I was introduced to photography and my own personal idol. I will even say that I aspire to be the South African Annie!  

Annie Leibovitz   - Yao Chen, the first Chinese UNHCR goodwill ambassador, 2016 Pirelli calendar

Annie Leibovitz - Yao Chen, the first Chinese UNHCR goodwill ambassador, 2016 Pirelli calendar

Anne Leibovitz  -  Susan Sontag

Anne LeibovitzSusan Sontag

Anna-Lou "Annie" Leibovitz was born in the States on 2nd of October 1949. She was doing night classes in photography while studying painting at San Francisco Art Institute. She continued to develop her skill while holding on to several jobs until she started working for Rolling Stone Magazine in 1970 as staff photographer. Three years later she became chief photographer and continued to work with the magazine for 10 years and shot 142 covers.

Leibovitz joined Vanity Fair in 1983 and became known for her wildly lit, staged and provocative portraits of celebrities - Whoopi Goldberg submerged in water;  a nude and pregnant Demi Moore are great examples. To me, one of her most powerful works is the recent 2016 Perelli Calendar where her interpretation created a beautiful, powerful collection of portraits displaying unique, independent woman of our time. For my full blog on her development and accomplishments have a read here.

Rineke Dijkstra

I was introduced to the work of Rineke Dijksta while I was working as a gallery assistant at the Photographers Gallery za.  I loved this one image, Kolobrzeg, Poland, 26 July, and was amazed at how a simple pose and an uncomplicated setting could have so much power. I felt a connection with the subject which is when I realized that as photographers we are able to capture the connection between ourselves and the sitter in a way that viewers are also able to experience.

Rineke Dijkstra  -  Kolobrzeg, Poland, 26 July

Rineke DijkstraKolobrzeg, Poland, 26 July

Dijkstra is a leading contemporary Dutch photographer born in 1959 and lives and works in Amsterdam.  Her career started by taking corporate portraits and images for annual reports. She was known for her single start portraits, usually concentrating on particular groups of people. In most of her series you can see a clear emphasis on capturing the awkwardness of adolescence. 

With young people everything is much more on the surface - all the emotions.  When you get older you know how to hide things.

'Beach Portraits' (1992-94) was life-sized colour photographs of young teenagers in bathing suits on beaches in the US, Poland, Britain, Ukraine and Croatia.  It resulted in international prominence after showing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  Dijkstra concentrates on single portraits and usually works in series. Series that followed were 'Buzzclub/Mysteryworld', 'Tiergarten Series', 'Isreali soldiers' and 'Park Portraits' to name a few.

Rineke Rijkstra -   Amit, Golani Brigade, Elyakim, Israel, May 26, 1999

Rineke Rijkstra - Amit, Golani Brigade, Elyakim, Israel, May 26, 1999

Rineke Rijkstra -   Berlin, Tiergarten, Germany, 1999

Rineke Rijkstra - Berlin, Tiergarten, Germany, 1999

Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi only caught my eye a year ago when I saw her work on exhibition at the Zeits Museum of Contemporary African Art. I was blown away by her powerful female portraits.  

Zanele Muholi -   MaID I, Syracuse, NY (diptych) , 2015

Zanele Muholi - MaID I, Syracuse, NY (diptych), 2015

Zanele Muholi is a self proclaimed visual activist. She was born in Durban and now lives in Johannesburg. She co-founded the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW) in 2002 and in 2009 founded Inkanyiso, a forum for queer and visual (activist) media.  

Some of her work delves into very personal experiences, while other pieces comment on South Africa and its historical troubles. Her mission is "to re-write a black queer and trans visual history of South Africa for the world to know of our resistance and the existence at the height of hate crimes in SA and beyond."

Read my blog for more about this extraordinary South African photographer.

Beauty and the Brain

What do we perceive as beautiful? How much of our perception is nature and how much is nurture? Where does the primitive brain kick in and where does culture take over? As I find all my subjects beautiful because of interaction, I decided to explore what the brain does before being able to connect features to personality.


A Ted talk by Anjan Chatterjee triggered this urge to explore the concept of beauty.  He is a professor in neurology from the School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and has done several studies on how the brain reacts to beauty.  Beauty has been a major discussion for decades but has mainly been discussed with logic or speculation. These days we have more information with tools of neurology and rules of evolutionary science.  Beauty is subjective being influenced by factors that are best for the survival of the group.  Through his studies, Anjan has pin pointed certain parameters of beauty:


Averaging - Composite or average faces are often found more attractive than each individual face.  This is where many different features of different individuals are put together to create one face.  It agrees with the idea mixed races are found more attractive than inbred families.  The reasoning behind this is that genetic diversity and adaptability indicates a stronger breed.

Symmetry - Most people find symmetrical features more attractive as we tend to choose perfection. Think of choosing a piece of fruit in the supermarket...you tend to go for the perfectly shaped apple because of survival and instinct.  Developmental abnormalities are associated by asymmetries and these imperfections in animals, plants and humans are usually connected with a parasitic infection. So symmetry is an indication of health.


Hormones - Estrogen and testosterone have an influence in what we find attractive.  Men are attracted to women whose features are both youthful and mature. If the face looks too young, she's not fertile and when the face is too old, reproductive success is in question.  Men will look for big eyes, full lips and narrow chins, all of which shows youth as well as high cheekbones which indicate maturity. Testosterone produces typical masculine features like thicker brows, thinner cheeks and square jaw.

So what happens in the brain when we see beautiful people? Areas that form part of our visual cortex recognize faces and activates an area that processes objects. Reward and pleasure areas in the frontal cortex deep within the brain get activated. So in essence the visual brain that recognizes faces combines with our pleasure centers to underpin the experience of beauty.  They have also found that our brain reacts to beautiful faces without thinking of beauty but identity meaning that the brain automatically responds to beauty by linking a visual with pleasure. 

The brain has identified beauty but automatically takes it a step further.  We also have a 'beauty is good' idea embedded in the frontal cortex, which overlaps neural responses with beauty and goodness, even when you’re not thinking of either.  The brain seems to naturally associate beauty with good which could explain the biological trigger to social effects of beauty.  Attractive people receive privileges, are regarded more intelligent, better jobs with higher pay. In his studies he has found that people with minor facial abnormalities are regarded as less intelligent, less hardworking, less good, less kind and less competent.  So it seems that the brain will have a negative association with disfigurement.


So why do I like redheads, a concept my friends can't seem to comprehend.  Why is beauty so objective?  Even though the brain has such a big influence on subconscious ideas and decisions, the primitive brain gets challenged continuously by popular beliefs, society and culture. What influence has society had on our idea of beauty and how has it changed over the past couple of years?  Look at gaps in the teeth that became so popular with models when previously everyone needed braces to close those unwanted gaps. Trends seem to move away from the average and we become attracted to what is different.  Is that conscious thinking, marketing and the need to be different? Is the brain still just interested in the big eyes and full lips?

An then culture and conditioning.  What we are used to will be attractive for us while previous experiences might create a negative connotation with feature that might be regarded as beautiful.  Be it conscious or subconscious, our perception of beauty is continuously evolving as we are changing and developing as a species. Next time your head turns or you do a 'double take', take some time to figure out what that trigger was.  Popular belief? What you're used to, or your brain trying to get your gene into the next generation.

The Haven Night Shelters

I've been asked many times how I decide on the charities I choose to offer my services.  Some arrive at my doorstep, some I've heard about and sometime I ask friends and people that I meet which charity is close to their hearts.  This one is for a good friend Pieter Basson, who's asked me a couple of times to work with the Haven Shelter in Cape Town.

Hassan Khan Chief Executive Officer

Hassan Khan Chief Executive Officer

I met with the managing director Hassan Khan and his assistant Waheeda.  Hassan took the time to explain their concept, aim and mission which is truly exciting!  We decided to initiate a campaign that Hassan been wanting to do for a couple of years already. 'Spot the homeless'.  The idea is to create a campaign of awareness.  Where people can identify, relate and realize how close to home this could be.  Anyone can be homeless, it takes one bad decision, one wrong move.  So I started to project of capturing the entire Haven community, from the Board members, the staff, residents as well as visiting the old age home.

The Haven believes that no one should be living on our streets. There comes a stage in the downward path of certain human beings at which point, they literally can no longer help themselves. At that point someone has to step in and give them a lift; that is what THE HAVEN tries to do.

- The Haven Night Shelters

Donovan Murphy - Client

Donovan Murphy - Client

The aim is to create opportunities for adults living on the streets that are committed to reintegration, by supplying temporary shelter, physical care, rehabilitation opportunities and social welfare services.  Alongside this they try to reduce the opportunities to continue life on the streets by also promoting community awareness and encourage the public to alleviate the social problems that arise.

Sheila Jacobs - Manager

Sheila Jacobs - Manager

Fieldworkers hit the streets to encourage people to get of the streets and go back home.  Sometimes the process of getting them back to their loved ones are not that easy and this is where a shelter like the Haven steps in, by actively trying to find the person’s family by any means possible and when the integration is not wanted by either party, closely working with a social worker to start the process.

Angelique Coakley - Client

Angelique Coakley - Client

Benedict Alexander - Board Member

Benedict Alexander - Board Member

Now the Haven is also very aware that giving beds and food to all the homeless in the Western Cape is an impossible task.  Also the plan is to empower these people the they can get off the streets, out of a shelter and back on their own feet again.  When a homeless person arrives at the shelter, he/she is a guest.  They are welcome to stay and eat and make up their minds about the shelter in 5 days.  After that, decisions have to be made.  If they wish to stay at the Haven they have to start working for their bed and start with a social program. 

Antoinette Meiring - Social Worker Supervisor

Antoinette Meiring - Social Worker Supervisor

The Haven are not giving people fish but teaching them to fish.  Getting homeless people to take responsibility for their own lives and taking the power back into their own hands.

Buy a Bed!  The Haven Nights Shelters started a campaign where people can buy beds for homeless people who wishes to be guests at the shelter.

Or contact Hassan or Waheeda for more information on how to get involved:

+27 (21) 425 4700



The History of Photography - Black & White Development

As it is the beginning of the year and I have not yet covered this subject in one of my blogs, I have decided to give you a brief History of Photography.  As we have come so far in the last 2 centuries, I will have to break this into 3 parts.  Concentrating on the development of basic photography, analogue black and white firstly.  Then I'll give you a idea of how colour photography developed and lastly I'll jump into the development of the Digital Age...

Understanding Photography

To find the beginning of photography we have to look at what photography is.  It is capturing light onto a durable 2 dimensional form, this can be on a copper plate or on a digital screen.  Now to understand photography we have to understand light.  Light is reflected off surfaces and objects and captured by the rods and cones on the retina at the back of our eyes. In photography we capture the same light and make a permanent representation of this reflected light.

The Philosophy

So if you look at photography as a science and an understanding of light you realize that it already started in the 5th-4th Century BC with the Greek and Chinese Philosophers when they started to describe the basic principles of light and optics.  Founder of Mohism, Mo Zi contributed in basic concepts of linear optics, the straight line propagation of light and refraction of light, explaining the inverted image nature of an image in camera obscura.  While Aristotle explained how a ray passing through a hole would project an image of whatever comes in it’s path on the opposite wall.

Mo Zi

Mo Zi

The Science

prism rainbow light of christ.jpg

Then a basic understanding of the nature of light and optics developed with Leonardo Da Vinci discovering the use of lenses to create sharper images and Hans Lippershey that created the first telescope in 1608.  The telescope might seem far removed but that is exactly what a camera is.  It uses convex and concave lenses to bend and manipulate light to enhance clarity  and visibility.  Our modern understanding of light and colour started when Newton refracted a ray of light into a spectrum of light.  Proving that white light is composed of different colours of light.

Capturing light temporarily

In 1727, Johan Heinrich Schulze discovered that the darkening of various substances when mixed with silver nitrate is due to light and not heat as previously believed.  He also used this phenomenon to temporarily capture shadows.  He found a way to capture light but if wasn’t permanent.  After him Thomas Wedgewood and Humphry Davy were able to beduse more substantial but still temporary shadow images on coated paper and leather around 1800.

View from the Window at Le Gras - Nicephore Niepce

View from the Window at Le Gras - Nicephore Niepce

Making it permanent

In 1816 Nicephore Niepce was able to photograph camera images on paper coated with silver chloride, but was also unable to make it light fast and the image had to be exposed for 8 hours. It was only in 1835 that Willian Fenry Fox Talbot created the first successful camera photographs using paper sensitized with silver chloride. As he created a negative to reproduce, the exposure time was n hour or more to create a suitable negative.


Photography becomes public

After Sir John Herschel coined the term photography in 1839, the French Artist Louis Daguerre invented the ‘Daguerreotype’ process of photography.   The Daguerreotype is the process of using a sheet of silver plated copper, exposed through a camera to light, resulting a latent image.  This latent image will be made visible by fuming it with mercury vapor and removing it’s light sensitivity by a liquid chemical treatment.  It was the first photographic process that was available publicly, needed less than 30 minutes exposure and most commonly used for nearly 20 years.

In 1841 Talbot introduced the calotype or talbotype to the public, which used paper instead of metal sheets, but it did not displace the daguerreotype. Although the Calotype was the first negative-positive process, giving you the possibility to reproduce the image, it created a less clear image than the daguerreotype.  The use of paper as a negative was not ideal as the texture and fibres were visible on the prints made.

Salt print from a glass collodion negative - The J. Paul Getty Museum

Salt print from a glass collodion negative - The J. Paul Getty Museum

Speeding it up

Ten year later the invention of the Collodion process offered clearer images with 2-3 second exposures.  This technique was invented by Englishman Frederick Scott Archer.  A glass plate was coated with silver iodide and exposed in a camera while still wet.  After which it was developed and fixed to create a clear detailed negative.  These negatives still needed to be developed immediately as it became waterproof when dry.

George Eastman, founder of Kodak

George Eastman, founder of Kodak

And then there was Kodak...

Richard Leach Maddox invented the gelatin dry plate silver bromide process in 1871, which allowed negatives not to be developed immediately.  Before long the emulsion could be coated on celluloid roll film.  This is where George Eastman invented flexible, paper-based photographic film in 1884, popularizing the use of film and making photography more mainstream.  He was the founder of the Eastman Kodak Company.  In 1888 he perfected the Kodak Black camera, the first camera to house a roll of film.

After establishing a stable portable and affordable photographic process, people now wanted colour...  


Xola Educare

I met Vivian Mthwesi while working on a project for CTO.  Vivian runs a preschool in Khayelitsha.  She asked me to help with taking picture of the kids for graduation.  She was such an inspiration in her approach to educate and to guide.

Vivian started by opening her home to 7-9 children in 2008 and now she's accommodating40-70 children between the ages of 1-6 years.  With the help of her family, Vivian dreams to develop the school through sustainability.

As preschools do not reach the governmental standard of requirements, Non Profit Organisations have to step in to cover this very important phase in a childs life.

In Khayelitsha alone, there are more than 400 preschools for Grade R, and only 50 of them get financial support from the government.  Now if you also consider children younger than 6 and put that into the calculation, you realise what a great need there is.

Vivian concentrates on teaching all the kids to be able to communicate in English so the have a head start when going to school.  Also she accepts all races and cultures under her roof, making the kids used to living in a rainbow nation in peace and acceptance.

To get involved:

Vivian Mthwesi - 071 814 0120

CTO - sofia@cto.world