While travel will always be the preferred way to delve into a new culture, photography is another passport to people doing nothing but living. Photography serves our love for discovering new cultures which commonly precedes our desire to travel. The stimulating fascination with other people, their living conditions, neighbourhoods and gastronomy makes us want to see more, and if anything our fascination with other cultures grows as we travel and explore. In South Africa, we reached out to photographer Justin Mitchell to talk about his love for film and how it is an extension of other forms of art like music and skateboarding. While some photographers aim to show the differences between countries, or the problems within a country, some aim to show that a country can have a wide range of people that bring to light parts of life that many of us simply overlook.
Please can you start off with an introduction about yourself? Your name, where you are based currently and if you feel comfortable you can throw in a little about your upbringing
My name is Justin Mitchell I am a skateboarder and artist that dapples in music and photography – all of these are my first loves and an extension of each other as they go hand in hand. I am a POC that grew up in a township in Johannesburg, South Africa where some POC are located called Eldorado Park, a southern township that is mostly a coloured community. Being from where I am it’s a really tough neighbourhood, but luckily I discovered other things to keep me out of trouble like staying on my board and creating.
What made you want to become a photojournalist or document your surroundings?
I’ve always been a fan of capturing a memory whether it was on an old Nokia 6600 and further investing in cameras or filming my friends. Just documenting moments happy or sad is something I admire. Late nights and trips I just want to remember them all. I also love film and some directors also dappled into photography which is interesting because you can have a film look inspired by a director and vice versa or even a painter. My favorite photographers and artists highlight the importance of this and try to capture everything about your personal experience.
I want to capture what’s happening around me with social media and It’s so amazing nowadays to experience places you haven’t seen before through another’s eyes or even connecting through another artist. That’s the one thing that is amazing. It’s inspirational to become better yourself. Create a bit of permanence.
How do you feel when making these images?
At the moment, to be honest, I don’t think too much at the time. I try not to overthink about it or stress much. It’s a time usually when my head is empty. It’s only when I sit down to look at my developed images then thoughts could strike me about how I felt or what happened that day maybe, but with people, it’s different I love observing and wondering about people’s lives. How important they are to someone maybe.
Through your photographic eyes, what will you say South Africa is really like ?
There is still a huge gap in economic distribution between the rich and poor. I go to different places, being a skateboarder we are always exploring on foot or by car. It takes me to so many places that many would not be caught in like downtown Johannesburg to the Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg. There is a huge contrast like right next to a gentrified space there is a poor community. Next to Sandton, there is Alexandra. Really what is the best thing though is the diversity in our culture and the variety of people and races one can encounter but we are also some of the most photogenic people as well with people always ready with a smile. There are people from all walks of life you can encounter. We have a variety of things to shoot from breathtaking beaches and natural places you can discover on a hike to busy intersections with beautiful brutalism sometimes these highlights the strong contrasts
Are there other photographers that inspire your work?
Among the many my first favourite photographers I discovered through skateboarding like Ed Templeton, Jerry Hsu who is really amazing that some of his photos were even called out for being fake. Obviously, I expanded from this skate circle of photographers and discovered many like Saul Leiter, Robert Maplethorpe who has always been a huge inspiration. I recently read just kids by Patti Smith and some of his Portraits were so good. Fan Ho for his use of black and white making use of it in such a way he uses lights and shadows. Todd Hido for his urban photography documenting the suburbs where he used to roam at night primarily documenting the loneliness of it all. Sandra Mann for documenting night partying with flash and glistening sweat. I honestly could go on forever.
Q5: Are there restrictions you face as POC while photographing in South Africa?
Luckily opportunities are a bit better now as a photographer and a lot of people are going the independent or DIY route and freelance and put out their own prints. I think with all industries having friends helps. I am honestly really proud to say that I have seen a lot of POC work being exhibited in all forms so opportunities are there and a lot of people get the exposure they deserve