First published in Renegade Collective, May 2015.
Few job descriptions spark the same envy levels as the professional Instagrammer’s. Scrolling past another art-directed brunch taken during an all-expenses paid weekend in Paris or still life featuring a designer candle and newly procured Chanel handbag, it’s easy to believe that those who’ve turned mobile photography into a career have cracked a secret code of the digital age. Gareth Pon is interested in discipline, not excess. The Johannesburg-based filmmaker and photographer, who’s widely considered South Africa’s top Instagrammer– 219,000 followers and counting – says that freewheeling creativity is only possible when you’re strong enough to put boundaries in place.
“I always try to take a photo that you can’t Google,” laughs Gareth, sipping the morning’s first coffee from an oversized mug. “There are lot of guys out there who just shoot landscapes and although they look absolutely beautiful, I set some rules for myself. I try to avoid taking photos of sunsets and I try to avoid landscapes unless it’s under certain conditions. I’m working on a series right now where I take photos of people through windows as I’ve always loved layers. Whenever I go out, I always try to depict a different perspective and I’m drawn to things that are abstract. I’ll try to capture an image according to very specific limitations.”
There’s something magnetic about Gareth’s commitment to originality. Tagged #gpwindowportraits, his latest photo series uses the reflections that bounce off window panes to draw out the unseen side of subjects that range from fellow photographers and local musicians to strangers he encounters on Johannesburg streets. Like all good storytellers, his work traffics in depth and contradiction. It’s safe to say that he couldn’t care less about how to nail the perfect selfie.
“It’s always about the quality of the content and the story you want to tell,” says Gareth, who’s just been elected Digital Imaging Brand Ambassador for electronics giant Samsung and who’s created images for everyone from Nike and Apple to South African beer manufacturer Flying Fish. “Some people have gotten really big on Instagram by just taking one kind of picture but it’s not about taking pretty photos, it’s about the thinking and the creativity behind it. The first thing you need to think about is what you can capture and how you can make it different.”
Gareth, who was born in South Africa to a Chinese-Mauritian mother and Cantonese architect father, was honing his creative instinct long before Instagram bathed our mobile photography efforts in its ‘seventies glow. Although he studied fashion design and architecture, it wasn’t until he enrolled in a visual communications degree at respected art and design school The Open Window that he recognised that the craft of using images to tell stories might be his true calling.
“I started a fashion design course, got frustrated with that industry and moved on and eventually went back to study visual communications where I realised how cool it was to use camera and video and discovered that I had a passion for making films,” recalls Gareth, whose short film Oxford Circus, a cleverly edited montage that sees anonymous Londoners swing between connection and loneliness, proves that his poetic sensibility also extends to his filmmaking. “When I started using Instagram at the end of 2012, it really forced me into taking more photos. I started discovering more about Johannesburg as well as the more unusual parts of the city and the places around town that people wouldn’t visit. We have a lot of different cultures here so it’s all about branching into different places – I’d go out and explore to get the next shot that I could share and that just made me want to seek it out more. And of the back of that, in early 2013, I founded the South African Instagrammer’s Community, started organising Insta-meets and threw the net out to the entire region. I like to tell people that it was a really interesting process of making all the right mistakes. It all just snowballed from there.”
In the last 12 months, Gareth’s eye for creating compelling images might have taken him to Paris, London and Amsterdam – while sparking a newfound obsession with travel – but his Instagram account often feels like a love letter to his hometown. An image of a smiling boy leaping into the air in Soweto, a Johannesburg township known for sprawling shantytowns and struggles with apartheid, shimmers with an optimism that’s the flipside of a city often unfairly equated with racial tension and high crime rates while a shot of a woman holding an umbrella under a majestic overpass nods to the city’s soaring urban development. Unsurprisingly, it’s attracted 2602 likes.
“When I was travelling last year, I realised that European cities had so many cultures but that everyone’s really intertwined,” says Gareth, who also contributes his images to The Huffington Post. “In Joburg, everyone drives and a lot of people are really ignorant about what happens on the streets. Shooting here has given me the opportunity to merge into other cultures and just reclaim the beauty of the city. A few decades ago it was quite rough, there were a lot of abandoned buildings and squatters but today one block might be quite bad but if you go back a few blocks, it’s really beautiful. It’s opened my eyes.”
Gareth’s biggest challenge has nothing to do with the online accolades or dream client roster – it’s about the age-old artist’s conundrum where commercial success may come at the expense of using your voice.
“I used to do a lot of content and corporate stuff but about midway last year I took a step back and realised that I wasn’t honouring the medium that I studied and that was waking up in the morning with a heavy heart,” he smiles. “At the moment, I’ve got some personal projects that I’m working on and I’m looking forward to embracing the art photography space. I’m moving into an artist’s building full of painters, sculptors and creatives from South Africa at the start of April and am looking forward to exploring what Instagram can do as an art form as well as a medium. I feel like mobile photography has become like the new pencil – when the pencil was invented, it gave birth to thousands and thousands of art forms. It’s levelled the playing field in the same way.”