Shaun van Wyngaardt bought his first camera in 2011 and has spent most of his free time shooting the streets of Cape Town ever since. As most successful street photography, his shots are boldly candid. In a fraction of a second, he ‘steals his subjects’ souls’ to let us take part in their lives. The belief that a camera extracts a spirit may in fact be superstition, but the insights a photograph gives us to a stranger’s inner colours can nonetheless be overwhelming. This casual intimacy portrayed in a lot of Shaun van Wyngaardt’s photographs is harder to achieve than it looks — it can be seen as an invasion of personal space after all. Here, he talks us through his ‘street techniques’, creating a picture that provokes a reaction and making double-exposure art from documentary-style photographs.
What draws you to street photography? Is a spontaneous shot perhaps a more honest shot?
I love photography in all its forms; it just so happens that the street is where I feel most at ease. It’s all about stepping out of my comfort zone, straight into someone else’s and possibly creating a picture that provokes a reaction…good or bad. Honesty is something we all seek and I try to remember that when I’m out shooting.
It’s all about stepping out of my comfort zone, straight into someone else’s
What’s special about Cape Town’s streets?
I think if people paused for a moment to really take note of what’s going on around them, it would not take long for them to see what makes the streets of Cape Town special. Having said that, I suppose every city is special to the photographer shooting in its streets. I just find the vast differences between the people of Cape Town to be an endless source of inspiration.
A lot of your images capture ‘slice of life moments of real people’ – as is the nature of a lot of street photography. What is your approach to getting these shots? Would you use a smaller camera – or a mobile phone maybe – to be more subtle?
Over time I have gained the confidence to simply walk up to people and take their picture or just steal a frame when passing them. I mostly use my trusty old 550d, which isn’t huge, but it’s no spy camera either. I do tend to ‘shoot from the hip’ sometimes. This is a technique I picked up after discovering the work of Daido Moriyama, who is a true master of the candid shot. I don’t really hide the fact that I’m out there stealing shots though.
The other day I took a photograph of a street scene in Woodstock, Cape Town, with my SLR. I was on the other side of the road thinking my camera was relatively inconspicuous. But one of the subjects noticed me and came over declaring that he doesn’t want to be in the newspaper. I couldn’t convince him that it was just a private shot and – although I really liked the photograph – had to delete it. Do these situations happen to you?
I have encountered a few situations similar to the one you’re mentioning. I try to stay relatively level-headed when this happens and usually explain to the person that it’s fully within my rights to take a photograph of someone within a public space without breaching any laws. If the person is persistent and polite then I might consider deleting the shot. If I really like the shot I’ll turn around and walk away. If they want the photo deleted so badly they can wrestle me for it, hahaha.
History as we know it from textbooks is generally focused on heroes and epic moments. It’s in our nature to want to document the extraordinary and glorious, which means our perceptions of the past are often framed and therefore very limited. How can street photography influence the future? Do you feel a moral obligation to document everyday life?
If we could take a look at all past events, without our usual biased pre-perceptions, there would definitely be a few extra heroes and villains out there. One of the greatest rewards I get from my street photography is the thought that I am perhaps taking a photo that could possibly be viewed by people 100 years from now. Street photography gives us the opportunity to document everybody, not only those in the limelight. I think we all have a slight obligation when it comes to documenting everyday life. Without proper documentation of past events, we cannot possibly attempt to avoid making the same mistakes as those before us.
Street photography gives us the opportunity to document everybody, not only those in the limelight.
Do you often get ‘surprise shots’? Like you’d press the shutter release button and think the angle wasn’t right or the light wasn’t ideal, but afterwards realise you’ve taken a really good photograph?
Every once in a while I come across a ‘failed’ shot that turns out to be visually intriguing. When this happens, I often try to recreate the same effect or composition. Sometimes it works, other times it turns into a prime candidate for the trash.
What street photographers would you ask for advice?
I believe there is a vast amount of knowledge to be gained by studying the work of the great masters of street photography. William Klein, Bruce Gilden and Diado Moriyama would probably be first on my list of photographers to learn from, but there are way too many to mention them all. The new generation of street photographers are not holding back though. Every day I learn by reading online blogs by people like Eric Kim or studying the images of great street photographers like Tatsuo Suzuki.
Your double exposure work is very striking in the way that it arranges objects in places they normally don’t belong – yet they seem to fit perfectly. It’s like ‘sensible surrealism’ in a way. What’s the inspiration behind transforming street style photography – which has a certain truth claim to it – to achieve a more abstract result?
I never get tired of shooting the streets, but I got to a point where I wanted to create something new while still retaining my style of photography. I saw a few examples of double exposures online and thought I would try it out. The results were pretty good, so I started to focus more on capturing images that I could use to create striking visual art. Because I use my street shots to make the double exposures, I don’t find it very difficult to come up with new images to use. I have only made a few that I‘m satisfied with, but it’s an ongoing project so there will definitely be more in the near future.
What else will the future bring? Are you working on any interesting projects we can look forward to?
I recently started work as a photographer at a local digital marketing agency so my free time, which was usually spent shooting, has dropped substantially. However, as soon as I have enough pieces, I am keen to host an exhibition to showcase some of my double exposures alongside my other street photographs. This will only be later this year or early 2015 though. In the meanwhile you can find me in the streets of Cape Town, our Mother City, stealing souls.
Stay posted to Shaun’s Facebook page for updates on new projects and exhibitions.