TP: Hi Jan! Thanks so much for joining me today.
JV: Thanks for having me.
TP: How would you describe your role to someone outside the industry?
JV: I have three jobs: I am a photographer, a studio manager, and a parent. I'm a Professional Stills Photographer and Owner of Roodebloem Studios
TP: What do your parents think you do?
JV: I'm sure they would approve, they have passed on but I'm sure they would be proud!
TP: Where did you grow up?
JV: I was born in South Africa and left for the Netherlands once I completed High School in Cape Town.
TP: The Netherlands? What did you do there?
JV: I studied Dairy Farming for 3 years in Holland.
TP: Wow! How did you go from dairy farming to photography? There’s got to be a story there!
JV: It is an amazing story. How I came into the industry was completely by default. I left South Africa because I didn’t want to do my military service here. I was born here, but I’ve got Dutch parents and I have got a Dutch passport so I left when I was around 17. When I arrived in Holland, they called me up for my military service there. The irony of ironies. Anyway, I ended up doing a year over there, I was in the United Nations Troops but I studied there for three years, I studied Biodynamic Dairy farming, which is based on the Waldorf-Steiner System
It was really an amazingly beautiful period of my life. I had an ex-girlfriend who I was going out with at the time and I wanted to come back to South Africa to visit because I hadn’t been here for about 7 or 8 years so I decided to do a trans-African trip. I drove myself from Holland down to Cape Town and booked myself a VW Combi. So I bought myself a Nikon camera, which they were much cheaper there and I bought myself a book to teach myself how to do photography. I had 14 rolls of slide film and I traveled 9 months on the road - 33,000 kilometers and eventually came down here. I had the stuff processed and I started giving slide shows to people. They all said, “You have such good eye. Have you ever thought of being a photographer?” and I had never thought of that.
TP: Oh my goodness.
JV: It was 14 roles X 14, you get 36 images on. So it is not a lot of stuff and with slide film, you have to be exactly precise because, if it is too dark, it is too dark and it if is too light, it is too light. I had very good run on my images and I had a friend whose girlfriend (now his wife) worked in a modeling agency and they said, “Come along for the weekend. This American photographer is here.” So I went along and we slowly got into it and he said, “You know, I am doing a shoot next week, why don’t you come and assist me?” I assisted him on a couple of shoots and then he went back to the States and his way back to Germany. He put me in touch with other photographers and it was kind of a nice way to get into the industry. I assisted for about 4 or 5 years and I started assisting two photographers who were working at Ogilvy and then when they left, the creative director invited me. It wasn’t called Ogilvy at the time - they bought them out because it was part of the WPP thing. Brian was the creative director there at the time - he started up the Red and Yellow School, which is for the advertising people.
Anyway, they were looking for job applications and Brian said, “Jan, why don’t you put a portfolio together? We like you.” I said, “To be honest, I have never had anything published. My work has never appeared anywhere, nobody has ever shown interest in wanting to buy my images” and he said, “Just put something together, man, for God’s sake.” and I said, “I already have 35 slides of what I have been shooting”
TP: Beautiful gift, that man. What an opportunity.
JV: I know
TP: He really believed in you.
JV: He saw the pics and he said, “You can have the job on the condition that we can use one of your images in the VW ad. You’ll get paid for it.” It was my first job that I ever got paid. I got it and I got an international award on it.
JV: That was my career.
TP: That was how things jump-started for you. Quite an organic flow!
JV: It is quite amazing how sometimes doors open to you. There are times in your life when the door opens for you and you have a choice of walking through the door or not. And those moments can have such an impact on your life. It can change your life. That is exactly what it did for me.
TP: Did you recognize it at that moment or were you still hesitating?
JV: I listened to my heart and felt that it would be good for me. I had nothing to lose. There was no fear about anything. I come from a creative family. My dad was an artist; painter, sculptor and I knew people in the industry as well. It wasn’t too dissimilar, the agriculture was different but that was getting in touch with my earth.
TP: So that was your first paid shoot?
JV: Yes. My first paid shoot was for VW. It was my first “big break.”
TP: Sounds like it was kismet.
JV: Yes, and with the church as well. Doors opened for me for me and I made an opportunity of them. Most people in that situation would say, “I can’t actually buy the building because I don’t know what to do with it.” They would panic, freeze and close that door and say, “This is too much. I’ll just move the studio somewhere else.” It was an opportunity which I hadn’t seen, but it was gifted to me. And because I took it, suddenly new things opened and I made an opportunity of it.
It’s okay to have moments of fear - those moments are there to show you that need to push through it.
TP: Yes! Tell me more about your studio - it’s a former church, right? How did that happen?
JV: Yes. It’s in a church. After I left Ogilvy, I needed a studio and I used to live just at top of Woodstock up against the mountain. Woodstock wasn’t very sexy at the time. This was in 1996. One day, I was driving past the church and I decided to stop there. I saw that they had a little shop and I stepped in and I had a little chat.
TP: And it was a functional church?
JV: It was still a functional church and the space was being used to sell stuff to local people. There were people that went every Sunday to church. There were not that many, about 15-20 of them, and they were old and dying off. When I stopped in, they said to me, “We actually had a meeting about it this week. It is funny that you popped in, but we thinking of renting out to somebody to get money.” So, I stated renting it from them for about 6 years and they finally were talking about letting go of the building.
The church was a Methodist church and is quite a big-ish one. The thing with churches is that they all need maintenance. Right now, I am busy replacing stained glass windows, which I have put off, but it needed to be done. I have paid to fix up all the other things but it was time to re-glass and lead all the windows. That is a lot of money. Buildings cost money and they hadn’t put any money into building. Anyway, I got the studio and I had all this space and I tried to sell it off to other photographers. They all made me feel like, “Why would I want to spend 325,000 Rand on a church building in Woodstock?” I was like, “You know what? I am not giving it away, R 325,000 is really not a lot of money and it is your loss, not mine” At that stage, I thought about it and I decided to start up a rental studio. I just needed to pay the bond off and I only needed like five days a month or so - that was R 1,000 a month to pay off the 275,000 Rand and that kind of grew and got bigger. I eventually bought the building across the road about 10 years ago. That building cost me 5,500,000 Rand. That is amazing in just a very short period of time.
TP: You rented for 5 years and what year did you open up the rental business?
JV It was pretty close. I think it was 2001-2002.
TP: You have had this for almost 20 years.
JV: Yes. I have got like three jobs. I rent out gear to the stills industry and I have cameras and stuff that we rent out.
TP. So you do the photo hire?
JV: Yes, I do the photo hire, I do the studio rentals and I still work as a photographer.
TP: Amazing! Those are three solid streams of income.
JV: I also have kids that keep me busy.
TP: What has been the most surprising thing about having a rental studio?
JV: Lots of things. It has made me more business-minded. I often have to remind myself that it’s not only about me. I employ 13 people, so it is big. I have a lot of overhead that I have to pay for. It is nice to know that you are looking after other people and we’re helping them by providing an income. It’s the collective journey which makes it special.
We also have a product which is really good. We aim for the best and in turn, it brings a lot of business to us, which is amazing because we have people like Woolworth’s and all the big soft-retailers who come here. The place is always booked. It is amazing and I have staff that runs it, so I don’t get into the nitty-gritty. I am more of a maintenance guy.
TP: You are macro-vision, right?
JV: Yes, exactly. I get to enjoy the fun parts and hopefully if there aren’t too many fires to put out, but I attend to those, too. All the little details.
TP: What’s the most challenging part of your work?
JV: Getting more work!
TP: Have you ever considered getting representation?
JV: I've only ever had one agent who was awesome! Agents need to love photography and especially their chosen photographers' work that they represent. I now work together with a producer who does my quotes but who can also produce. She's really fantastic! I'm responsible for my marketing which can be a pain but I definitely feel more in control.
TP: How do you promote yourself?
JV: Facebook, Instagram and my website are my three methods online methods I use for marketing. I used to advertise with Kemps or KFTV and also the occasional article in Production Paradise but I'm not sure how valuable they are. They cost a lot of money for what you get in return and it’s hard to know if they’re working. I'm not sure if I've ever received a job from them.
TP: How do you normally land new projects?
JV: My website is my center stage - everything you need to know about me and my photography is there. I send MailChimp Newsletters to industry people, which directs traffic back to my website. Cape Town is relatively small, so word of mouth also works here. I try to let my work speak for itself, it’s also about the value I bring to an assignment.
TP: What kind of work are you shooting now for yourself?
JV: Yeah. The kind of work I do now … Obviously, I was very much into advertising. I left after 5 years at Olgivy with a really nice portfolio and Craft Awards and so on. And then I had a good run with photography for several years and then when digital photography came along, the value that gets attached to photography changed.
TP: From what I understand, after meeting with so many industry individuals here in South Africa over the past few months, is that, quite shockingly, South African photographers don’t get paid usage.
JV: Yeah, it is not only that they don’t get paid their usages, it is the respect towards the craft. It is so little because people always try and get the cheapest price.
TP: It seems that there’s an established trend of the European industry coming down to South Africa to save money. They are choosing to come here because it is a cost-saving decision. You have these major production companies that are hiring photographers at a day rate and not paying their usage, which really isn’t the right mindset to keep respect for the photographer. It establishes a ripple effect for devaluation.
JV: I also think that the value of photography through the ages has changed dramatically. What photography meant to people 50 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago is very different from what it is now. For example, you now have Instagram, which holds a very different kind of place in today’s world.
TP: yes, social media campaigns and micro content...
JV: Freezing moments. Somehow, I have had talks with other photographers and I have even spoken to Nick about is as well. I spoke to an art photographer and I said, “Do you think that Instagram can ever be looked at as art?” he said, “I don’t know”. The essence of what I see as art is someone who is incredibly creative, which is what Picasso spoke about. He said, “The bests artists are children because they are so untouched by what goes on around them.” If you can go back to that space where you can be free to be, you can also be that artist that you once were.
I see endless creativity being showcased on Instagram. I don't think humans have ever created so many amazing images as we do today. Ninety percent of what you see on IG is lamely mediocre, but it's that spectacular 10% you can find on IG that makes it worth following.
TP: It seems that you are making your way back towards that child-like artist because you don’t have the constraints and the pressure of outside external factors. It is much more internal for you.
JV: I am lucky to be in the situation where I can because I have a studio. I have everything. My costs are paid for and people kind of recognize me for that. Now, I get booked on TV shoots and I get paid usages.
TP: Oh good!
JV: It is also nice. The funny thing is that through Instagram, people recognize that inner core that they see in an image and they respond to it. I get a lot of feedback from people and they say, “We love your essence” and they respond back to it.
TP: You mentioned that digital photography really changed things from your perspective. Can you expand on that a bit?
JV: What I did is thanks to digital photography, because I could work very differently, especially in regards to the post-production-side… the grading, I love grading. I love the feel. I also did a whole black and white period of my life where I did exhibitions and stuff like that. I was fairly successful in it but eventually, you bump your head because people would say to you, “Are you a commercial photographer or are you a fine art photographer?” Somehow, our society does not allow people to be both.
TP: It is very black and white here, huh? Sorry, pun intended!
JV: I think it is a lot like that overseas, too. People don’t really seem to dabble in both. There are individuals who have been just naturally very creative people, but they’re often not given the platform they deserve. I was talking to someone about it on the weekend. Do you know the story about the composer of Disney's original soundtrack for Jungle Book? Here is a guy that is incredibly creative and I remember reading an article about him and people looked back at him and said that in his lifetime, he was never awarded the credit that he should have got. There were other people that won Oscars and other things and had far less talent. But because he did shows in Las Vegas at casinos, the perception of him was that he undersold himself. But the talent he had was always there. That is something that is very funny about our society. You are either a fine art photographer or a commercial photographer because people want to understand you by putting you in boxes. be put in boxes.
The people, who buy fine art, buy it as a resource. Investors put their money in that and they want to know that in 20 years time, their asset has grown. The investors are trying to protect their artist & investment as much as possible. If suddenly, someone says “But you are commercial,” the value drops. I am not talking about having beautiful shots in anyone’s home on the wall, I am talking about art, as in big money.
TP: Yes, the fine art industry.
JV: It is an industry
TP: And the re-selling of the art is where they actually make the money. It is not the original sale that the artist makes.
JV: I kind of moved away from it and I adopted an attitude of, “I am just going to shoot because I have fun and I love photography, I am not doing it for anybody else, I am doing it for myself”
With digital, it freed me up. In black and white, I was caught up in dark rooms and being perfect and kind of “Ansel Adams” - tonal values and being very serious. You do it because you have an audience that expects this kind of work. Now, I just shoot people. I love that I have transitioned into that phase.
TP: You do seem to have kept that spark.
JV: I have kept that spark and enjoy photography more now than I ever have before, funny enough. Because when I was with Polaroids under my arms and, it was all locked off and you had two rolls of film in which you had to get the thing, it could be stressful. Whereas now, I can shoot until I have the shot and I feel happy with my results. It’s become freer.
TP: What makes your work unique or stand out from others?
JV: Over the years I've become truer to my inner self, which allows me to enjoy what I do and it allows me to be far more creative. As a stills photographer, one is always on the lookout for that one shot that captures a quintessential essence ... the essence is different in each shot. Sometimes it tells a story, or a moment in time, the essence of another human being, a message, a sense of humor or just warm empathy. Always veer away from the obvious. Infuse it with your uniqueness.
TP: What’s next from here? What are your future goals?
JV: To carry on Producing amazing images. I've never shot a documentary style assignment. I think that could be amazing. I love shooting people, real life stories.
One question that always crops up for me in regards to the future of the industry is the question of the relevance of photography in a future world. I've seen tremendous change in the last 30 years - my first assisting job was on an 8" x 10" camera with a 8"x10" mechanized Polaroid back. I think about this all the time - what does the future hold? How will we as humans interface with images in another 30 years from now? I don’t know, but it’s fascinating to consider. I love that unknown feeling of what tomorrow holds.