Symbolism… and ‘an eye for for the unusual’

'In with the new' by Justin Dingwall

‘In with the new’ by Justin Dingwall

Recognised locally and internationally for his portraiture, contemporary artist and commercial photographer Justin Dingwall describes himself as someone who possesses “an eye for the unusual, a passion to explore avenues less travelled and the desire to create images that resonate with emotion”.

The Joburg-based Dingwall recently exhibited a series of portraits, Albus at the FNB Joburg Art Fair held at the Sandton Convention Centre last month, featuring a series of striking photographs of Durban- born model Sanele Xaba, who has albinism.

Dingwall also made the top 10 list of visual artists in The Absa L’Atelier Art Competition 2014, an annual art award competition for South African visual artists between the ages of 21 and 35. The Tshwane University of Technology graduate says the imagery he creates is not bound by language or culture. Instead, he wants his work to speak for itself and for people to interpret it in their own way.

Dingwall explains more about his work and what inspires him.

Sanele Xaba by Justin Dingwall

Sanele Xaba by Justin Dingwall

How did you start the craft of photography? I have always been very artistic, but the first time I picked up a camera was at the age of 18 when I applied to Tshwane University of Technology.

Tell us about the ‘Albus” portrait series, what inspired it and what message did you hope to communicate with it?   The discourse about albinism is generally avoided as taboo in the South African context. When discussed, it is usually viewed as negative or as a sought-after “oddity” in fashion and art trends. My aim is to create an intimate perspective to foreground the myths surrounding albinism.

“This series developed into an exploration of the aesthetics of albinism in contrast to the idealised perceptions of beauty.”

It began as an interest to capture something not conventionally perceived as “beauty”. I began this project with the ethereal portraits of Thando Hopa, a legal prosecutor who is using her visibility to address the negative perceptions surrounding albinism. The inspiring new work features Xaba, a young model with albinism, and uses specific elements to foreground the symbolic meaning behind each work.

“My intention is for the images to become a celebration of beauty in difference. They are not about race or fashion, but about perception, and what we subjectively perceive as beautiful.”

I wanted to create a series of images that resonate with humanity and make people question what is beautiful… to me diversity is what makes humanity interesting and beautiful. The symbols of light and dark are a reflection of my medium.

I use the characteristic nature of photography to capture a unique frame of reference and paint with light in such a way as to represent the revealing of the unseen.

Light represents truth, and it is contrasted against the element of darkness to emphasise the unenlightened state of mind of previous misconceptions.

Water is another element l use to reflect society’s perceptions. Water suggests self reflection and it is often used in literature as a symbol of change.

'Reveal' by Justin Dingwall

‘Reveal’ by Justin Dingwall

The snake connotes transformation – as in the shedding of old skin to make way for new and also, as in medical discourse, to represent healing. The butterflies aim to influence the
viewer’s vision to be transformed, allowing them to view albinism in a new light – as something unique and beautiful.

'Mob' by Justin Dingwall

‘Mob’ by Justin Dingwall

“Butterflies go through a major metamorphosis, and embrace change unquestioningly. For this reason, they have become symbols of growth, surrender, transition, celebration, resurrection and fragility.”

What would you list as your best accomplishments?  My career highlights include my Albus exhibition, which is a major milestone, shooting for Adobe (The creators of Photoshop and Indesign) and creating a mosaic with 48 other artists from around the world that was exhibited at the Lincoln Centre in New York for the launch of Adobe Creative Cloud, and winning the image and magazine cover of the year 2015 at the Caxton awards. And that I have exhibited in London, Seattle, South Africa and New York.

What is your favourite photo shoot you have done over the years and why?  There are way too many to count, but one that really stands out was when I flew to Zanzibar for a week to photograph the actress Terry Pheto from the movie Tsotsi for a magazine cover, inside story, as well as a portrait shoot of a fishing village on the north coast of Zanzibar.

Embrace 2

What/who inspires you and now? Every day life inspires me, but I also do a lot of research. I am inspired by many great artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, Lucian Freud, Charles Thomas “Chuck” Close and Eloy Morales.

And photographers Richard Avedon and Roger Ballen.

Before I became a photographer I was an assistant for four years, and learnt from many local, as well as international, photographers the craft of photography.

But if I have to single out two photographers that have influenced my career, it would be Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz.

“Their dedication, time spent crafting, researching, production and planning to produce a single photograph is very inspiring.”

A place in the world that you have not been you would like to photograph? Without question, India. It looks like an engaging, colourful, chaotic, beautiful country. I have heard from friends and family that it engages all of your senses – all of them, nearly all of the time. I also have a soft spot for Italy.

What are the greatest challenges to making it as a photographer or an artist in South Africa?  As a freelance photographer you can never sit on your laurels, if you aren’t working you aren’t earning. You constantly have to be promoting yourself and getting your work out into the market.

“The very early mornings and the very late nights. But one of the most important things is to be a problem solver. You have to be able to think on your feet.”

What cameras do you use and how important is photoshop to your final images? I use both digital and film. When I shoot film I use a Hasselblad medium format camera and when I shoot digital I use Canon or Hasselblad.

When I started studying and working as a photographer there were no digital cameras, only film. So it was very important to get everything 100 percent correct before shooting. I still live by that principle, but Photoshop is an important tool.

Justin Dingwall

Justin Dingwall

Who is a young or emerging photographer or artist you consider one to watch at the moment?   Tony Gum. I recently viewed her work at the FNB Joburg Arts Fair and she is creating some amazing self-portraits.

        “I live by these two quotes: Gary Player: “The harder I work, the luckier I get,” and “You reap what you sow.”

This feature first appeared in the Cape Argus on September 30 2015.

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