Through the intentionally slow process of analogue photography, Kent Andreasen deftly captures a long history of tension in his native South Africa. His work explores our relationship to nature, revealing how exploiting nature can inflict indelible societal impacts.
South Africa is underscored by tension. It occurs naturally in Cape Town, which is situated at the southernmost tip of the great African continent where two oceans meet. The cold Atlantic. The warm Indian. They’ve combined and collided to shape the many peaks, bays, slopes and beaches that make Cape Town one of the most diverse landscapes in the world.
But place shapes people, too, and Kent Andreasen is no exception. After looking through his portfolio, the natural tension is unmistakable. A complex presentation of work informed by the collective memories and experiences of a nation. Most often, Andreasen is drawn to the environment and the rural parts of South Africa where the effects of forced land removals are still felt long after apartheid, and where big industries enter little towns and leave destruction in their wake. What happens to the land? What happens to the people? These are the questions that motivate Andreasen’s photographic enquiry of the human-nature relationship.
A graduate of the AFDA Film School in South Africa, Andreasen’s cinematographic eye is apparent in everything he creates. But Andreasen, to use a cinema analogy, is equally suited to the director’s chair. Aside from this formal cinematography training and his intense attention to light, Andreasen is truly gifted in the art of storytelling.
Whether a portrait or the landscape before him, Andreasen creates Hemingway icebergs — as in, the story only just breaches the surface. Andreasen shows us the tip of the iceberg through the everyday language of documentary photography, but more importantly, we’re also made to feel fear, sense thought and the subconscious. Tension. The power of ambiguity. And then he sequences these little fragmented vignettes like chapters in a literary novel.
In this interview, Andreasen discusses some of his ongoing projects and how he uses photography as a tool to raise awareness of environmental and socio-economic issues faced by rural South Africans.
“We’ve seemingly lost respect for the systems that sustain us. More than ever, it’s become apparent how lost we are.”
Aaron: You’re from Cape Town in South Africa. How do you think your upbringing has influenced your artistic output?
Kent: For a long time, I’ve been looking past Cape Town and even past the South African borders to drive my work and recently, I’ve been really fortunate to find some projects that really satisfy the kind of work I want to make.
Outside of that, Cape Town has shaped me as a person in every way possible and has allowed me the chance to meet and collaborate with some incredible people. Cape Town continues to surround me with interesting scenes and it’s nice to be able to keep exploring my work in a South African context.
Aaron: Throughout your work, there seems to be an interesting tension between humans and nature, a really palpable sense of the love we humans have for nature, but the repercussions of progress perhaps. In reading your work, it appears that one comes at the cost of the other? Could you talk about this idea?
Kent: Thank you for the observation. I’m really glad that you get a sense of that in my work. It’s something that I’m deeply troubled by, but also deeply fascinated with. The conflict we have with the natural world is something I can’t come to terms with. We’ve seemingly lost the respect for the systems that sustain us. More than ever, it’s become apparent how lost we are.
I’ve met some traditional healers, musicians, indigenous foragers and historians that have opened my eyes to another way of seeing things. Just last weekend, I spent a morning with a lady by the name of Zayaan Khan. She works as an ecological artist and practices in seed collection, fermentation, natural dyes, and botanicals that link to the indigenous tribes and peoples of South Africa. Whenever I’ve had experiences like this, it always comes with a feeling of real human connection and the realisation that some people need to alter their views in order to benefit both us and the ecosystem.
As a disclaimer, I’m still trying to figure it out but it’s important for me to photograph people like Zayaan and hopefully learn something.
Aaron: You’re currently working on a number of long-term projects. ‘Heaven’ is an exploration of small South African towns. Could you tell us a little bit more about this project and your motivation for undertaking it?
Kent: ‘Heaven’ is driven by two places that I’ve visited that have left me asking why people continue to live in a place that is seemingly set on making life tough on its inhabitants.
What adds more complexity to these towns is that they were once thriving, run by massive companies concerned with mining and the railways. These corporations have since left and all that remains is a gaping hole of unemployment. This has then affected the social landscape. I’m trying to explore where these communities are today, and how they are navigating the present, and if they have plans for the future.
The working title for the series explores the idea of religion and morality but touches more on the notion of heaven on earth. Often, members of these communities speak of the good ol’ days and how these pockets of remote land were utopias full of abundance.
I find it hard to see how it was possible and that’s why I started making images to try and make sense of these people’s lives.
Aaron: Lately, you’ve been adopting a multimedia approach. Is it important for you to work in different mediums and what do you think working in multidisciplinary ways does to your storytelling?
Kent: It’s very recent indeed. I’ve been thinking about working this way for ages but have only taken the leap in the last couple of months.
Working in a cross-section of mediums is a means for me to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of my photography. It helps fill the gaps and may ultimately strengthen the story.
In many ways, it’s the same with staging images or using still life in among the more conventional documentary work. If it strengthens the narrative, I am all for exploring it and using it to shape a project, even if these works don’t make it into the final edit.
If you feel strongly about the projects you’re working on you will make them happen. Ideas are really easy but seeing them through is extremely difficult.
Aaron: Why is the photobook format important to you, and to the eventual presentation of ‘Heaven’, for example?
Kent: I guess having a book to work towards allows for a timeline to be set on a project. Especially with a project like ‘Heaven’ where the spaces have infinite opportunities to make fresh imagery, it’s important to set a deadline where it becomes a body of work that people can see and learn from. Selfishly, it’s partially for my own sake as it becomes taxing working in areas like that. I cannot tell the whole story of a place. You would need someone from the area to take up documenting and do it for the next 20 years. I don’t claim to be the person to take up such an endeavour. So, yeah, the book will hopefully be a jumping-off point that people will then go out and document more of South Africa and ask themselves about the inner workings of our country.
Aaron: What’s in your camera bag?
Kent: A 4×5 large format film camera that was built for studio use mainly. Then various 6×7 medium format film cameras. I try to keep it simple.
Aaron: Are you able to tell us about any of the other projects you’re working on? And how do you find the time to balance commercial work with personal projects?
Kent: I’m working on a project about land removals in an area of Cape Town, called Constantia. It’s a very green and leafy suburb that once was mostly farmlands where people cultivated various crops including flowers. My project centres around the last remaining flower farm, the people who continue to run it and the families of the area who got forced from this prosperous land by the apartheid regime and what has become of their lives in the often harsh environment of the Cape Flats. This area I refer to is poverty-stricken, full of gang and domestic violence and plays host to a wide spectrum of social issues due to lack of education, unemployment and the fall out of failed systems under the Old South African government that has been exacerbated by a complete lack of service delivery by the current power structures at hand.
In terms of balancing my personal work with commercial… I don’t really. There’s always time to do both as long as I stay focussed, then the work continues to happen. That’s one thing I’ve learned in the last year or so. If you feel strongly about the projects you’re working on you will make them happen. Ideas are really easy but seeing them through is extremely difficult. I just keep that in mind and keep pushing at whatever project is at hand.