In the first of a new series focusing on work made in isolation, the South African photographer discusses her collaborative approach to portraiture
She began her career during South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, shooting stories for The Star newspaper, having attended just a handful of short courses at the legendary Market Photography Workshop in her hometown of Johannesburg. Two years later, Jodi Bieber was selected to participate in a World Press Photo masterclass in the Netherlands, opening up a new world shooting assignments for international magazines.
A string of awards followed, culminating in her winning the World Press Photo of the Year in 2011. But by then she was already focusing more on her own self-assigned stories, three of which have been published as monographs: Between Dogs and Wolves – Growing up with South Africa, Soweto and Real Beauty. She had also returned to Johannesburg, after several years living in Europe, and was increasingly shooting portrait-based series. We catch up with her at home during lockdown to talk about her approach to portraiture, and the project she’s been working on while in isolation with her husband.
Simon Bainbridge: Lockdown must be difficult for you, as you’ve spent so many years travelling the world on assignment. Do you still do that a lot? What kind of projects have you been working on in recent months? And what were you supposed to be doing during this period of isolation?
Jodie Bieber: The beginning of this year had been running surprisingly smoothly, which I am grateful for, as the economy out there is very dire. Assignment work is sporadic, and I seldom shoot them anymore. So now my attention is focused more on my own work, exhibitions, print sale production, and so on, [and occasional] special projects. I don’t have assistants or interns, so I am a one-woman show, spending a great deal of time in front of my computer.
A great example of a special project I received late last year was a collaboration with Dior on a photoshoot where eight women artists and photographers were asked to interpret the 2020 collection. We all proposed our own concept and storyboard. I selected the models I thought would work for the shoot idea, which included selecting the appropriate outfits, props and so on that would resonate best with my vision. I was pretty much free to do as I pleased and received everything I needed to make the collaboration work. It was an incredible experience. I want to explore this more as I believe ethical fashion photography has a place right now.
Before lockdown, I was working with Marie Claire France on an assignment. Right now, I would have been working on the post-production before travelling to France to participate in two outdoor photographic festivals. And on 14 May, I was to have my first solo show at Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York.
SB: One of the things you’ve been doing during lockdown is shooting a portrait series, posting daily updates on Instagram. Can you tell us how that evolved?
JB: We have a pretty strict lockdown in South Africa. Basically, you can go to the supermarket, and that’s it. So my thoughts kept coming back to photographing at home. I have been photographing my husband, Francois, for many years on and off. Francois has character, he dresses with style, and he used to perform as a clown at children’s parties many years ago to make extra money. So, I thought it would be fun to create portraits of him all dressed up.
Everyday – besides yesterday, as he was on strike as he said I was misbehaving – he comes to me in my office next to our bedroom and says, “Okay, do you feel like [doing] a photograph?” He then tells me 100 times not to come into the bedroom whilst getting ready, and then when he is ready it is always a surprise. I had no idea he had so many clothes in the house!
“Francois has character, he dresses with style. So, I thought it would be fun to create portraits of him all dressed up.”
We chose one set location in the bedroom for the shoot. The backdrop is our ‘love wall’, as that is how the artwork on the wall behind is themed. Depending on what he is wearing and our moods, we work on expressions, hand gestures, and so on. So I am suggestive, and plant an idea, and we work with it. The shoot doesn’t last very long, sometimes just a few minutes. Overworking it seems to destroy the process.
I am trying to skill up in Photoshop, as I usually have a lab work on my professional work. With Francois, after the shoot I go edit, then call him in to have a look, and I have a slight meltdown about which photograph to choose, as I am so close to it. Then I work on the image and post it on Instagram. This is the first time I have done that. It feels good, as during the lockdown it is making many people laugh.
SB: The way you describe making the pictures, it sounds like a collaboration, where he’s thinking about how to express himself through his clothes and props, and you are directing, intervening, misbehaving… In that sense, is this typical of how you go about your portrait-based projects – beginning from a spirit of true collaboration?
JB: Yes, within the realm of portraiture, or any other form of photographic practise, I strongly believe that the person you photograph has to want to participate and believe in the project you are undertaking. It deepens the process if it is collaborative, and it definitely makes the person you photograph feel less exposed, and gives you freedom through consent to explore deeper.
People might not always love their photograph for varying personal reasons, but I have always believed throughout my career that the person I photograph has the highest order in the pyramid, so to speak. I continue the process by offering artist proof prints from the edition in many of my projects as a thank you for participation.
SB: When I knew you when you were living in London a dozen or more years ago, you were putting together your first book, Between Dogs and Wolves, which in style at least drew on the observational, catch-the-moment traditions of classic, humanist documentary. When you moved back to Johannesburg, you seemed to embrace portraiture more. Is there any reason behind that? It’s quite a big shift in the sense that you are intervening, setting things up in a sense.
JB: The process behind Between Dogs and Wolves and Soweto and other projects was also collaborative, but in a different way. I might seem to be invisible in the photographs, however, to access people’s lives and homes, there needs to be trust involved to allow me into their personal space. This includes sharing photographs where possible. You are also living their life at that time, and in many ways it is a deep experience as you spend so much time with the people you are photographing, such as the gangsters in Westbury [photographed in Between Dogs and Wolves].
You are correct that on returning to Johannesburg I started creating more and more portrait-based projects, even though I had already started to explore different ways of telling a story, such as Las Canas and Survivors of Domestic Violence . I believe you evolve as a person and photographer; your essence remains the same, but through life experiences, shifts within the wider context of the world, your perspectives often alter. I also started questioning the photographic process, which is a whole other discussion, and I suppose it allowed me to free myself from the strict restraints of documentary photography.
“I was about to give up photojournalism. I wanted to follow a different path. I was exhausted. So, in a way, winning World Press Photo of the Year was both a blessing and a very small curse.”
I remember initially feeling that maybe I had sold myself out by moving in this new direction, as I had grown up as a photographer in this other realm. But I have learnt that having more freedom creatively with collaborative intervention to tell stories in different ways doesn’t take away from their meaning, and the process becomes less isolating for me personally than being that ‘fly on the wall’.
SB: Although I don’t think of it as particularly typical of your work, you are best known for your portrait of Bibi Asha, an Afghan woman who’d been mutilated by her husband – a picture that was awarded the World Press Photo of the Year in 2011. What was the effect of winning such a prestigious award? And did it cement the idea that you are a documentary photographer that works primarily in portrait series?
JB: I was about to give up photojournalism when I received the portrait assignment from Time to photograph different women of different standings in Afghanistan. I wanted to follow a different path. I was exhausted, wanting a personal life and not really confident anymore in the photographic process of assignments, more specifically within vulnerable communities. So, in a way, winning World Press Photo was both a blessing and a very small curse.
The small curse being that many people haven’t moved on with my developments and are stuck in what was. The huge blessing of winning the award and feeling okay about my accolade is that Bibi Aisha found a new life for herself in the US with an Afghan-American family and underwent surgery. I feel really good about that.
“It is all about who you photograph, and not all about you.”
I went on to travel to 20 countries that year without my camera to give talks and interviews, and was often in front of the camera rather than behind. This allowed me to grow as Jodi the person, to develop my ability to speak about my projects and learn more about my photographic self through this process. It really helped to build myself up. It also was the icing and the cherry on top of the cake at the very right time – a huge acknowledgement.
I also saw the symbolism in the photograph of Bibi Aisha as the fluid movement between darkness and light, which draws on the central theme of my work, and was in a way also a symbol of me moving on.
The pictures you’ve shot that I have most appreciated are nearly always portraits shot in domestic spaces – be that Soweto, Real Beauty, or even Women Who Have Murdered Their Husbands, which although it was shot in a Johannesburg prison, it highlights how their cells are turned into a home away from home. Is that a very conscious thing, shooting in domestic spaces, or just a consequence of your curiosity about people’s lives?
Home is for many people – but not for all – a private, intimate space that we find comfort in, and surround ourselves with the things that have meaning for us and make us feel safe. When I travel, the first thing I do is unpack and create a home for myself in my hotel room. I often sit at the same table for breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Hence, when I photograph someone, I prefer photographing them in a place that feels comfortable and familiar to them and where they have a sense of their own power. It also speaks so much about the person you are photographing and adds layers to the photograph. It also helps to remove the noise that surrounds us daily. I also love being at home.
What’s the secret to creating a great portrait? Do you have a particular approach you could share? Is there a particular ethos you share with students in your workshops?
Collaboration and honesty in your intention. It is all about who you photograph, and not all about you. Break through the protective bullshit we all carry, gently. The background is equal to the foreground; it adds layers to the person you photograph. Work it. It can take time. And share the process with your collaborator as you go along whilst photographing.