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An Interview with Michael Poliza

Photographer Michael Poliza is likeable and easy to talk to, and clearly passionate about his work. Exclus1ves’ Julie Wood recently had the chance to catch up with him to chat about his latest book, South Africa, which he produced in collaboration with talented South African photographers Vanessa Cowling, Chris Fallows, Justin Fox, Craig Fraser, Chris Kirchhoff, Mandla Mnyakama, Obie Oberholzer and Thomas P Peschak.

EB: For our readers who maybe don’t know who you are, who would you describe yourself as?

MP: It’s really better for other people to determine that. Let me tell you a little about the background of the book. I’ve only called myself a photographer for the last five years or so. I have an IT background, and went around the world for three years in a ship [the MS Starship] which was sponsored by, among others, Microsoft, Sony, and Stern Magazine (which is Europe’s biggest news weekly), reporting on ecological issues . I was on my way to Madagascar and I stopped off in Cape Town and it kind of clicked then. I decided maybe I should stay here for a while, grabbed my suitcases and pitched a tent… I was going to build a house in Cape Town and was just goofing around for a while and playing and experimenting with my camera as I was travelling through Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. I had met a great guy who owned quite a few camps in those countries at the time and he said: “Come any time you want and stay as long as you want, as long as there’s space”, and that really gave me an opportunity to play with my photography and to try to get some shots that are a little bit different. Then at one point in time I had to look at my bank account and that wasn’t very encouraging, so I had to think about what I should do, maybe use photography as a means of generating some income and making a living. I found a publisher with teNeues quite easily, luckily, and the first book came out (Africa), and that did really, really well around the world. It was successfully distributed in over 70 countries, and that was a good encouragement. Then I met this guy and he asked me whether I wanted to go on a helicopter with him from Europe to Africa and I said: “That sounds fun”, and we flew for eight weeks from Hamburg all the way down to Cape Town. The book that came out of that one was Eyes Over Africa which did extremely well in South Africa, and I think Exclusive Books alone sold over 2 000 copies. It was an expensive book, it was way too expensive even for Europe as well, because of the exchange rate and all I think the average retail was between R1 600 and R1 800, which is a lot of money in this country specifically, and for a book to be that successful and sell in those numbers… That was cool and fun. And then I did a book on the Arctic and Antarctic (Antarctic) because I wanted to dash out a bit, but last year in October the idea popped up to do a book on South Africa. Initially I wasn’t really in a rush, but then I thought about it and said: “Well if you do one it makes sense now. Let’s do it now, this is the time to do it.”

MP (continued): So I flew down here, I rearranged my schedule a bit (I was planning on starting to work on Australia, but it became more important to do this book), and in November I was down here and I was starting to talk to people and get ideas and discuss and see some friends. Among those friends was Chris Fallows and as I was speaking to him I had the idea of, rather than trying to get my own brilliant shark shot, why not ask him to be part of it? And he liked the idea, as well as the other guys, like Obie Oberholzer, Thomas Peschak and the others, and off it went. We said this would be fun, the publisher liked it, it wasn’t like it was the publisher’s idea, it was our idea, and there wasn’t an editor sitting and selecting the images, it was us selecting. I selected the photographers and asked them who else they could add to it, and that made a difference. It was a collaboration. We said: “Let’s do this together.” And I hope that vast range of variation shows in the book. This is a rainbow country and this hopes to be a rainbow book, and it’s a land of contrasts and this hopes to be a book of contrasts, and it’s a land of unbelievable beauty, and it’s a land of shadows as well, and I think we tried to cover all of those aspects.

EB: So do you think then that this book could perhaps for someone who doesn’t know South Africa as a country, show what South Africa is all about? The good and the bad?

MP: Well, you know, there are so many books on South Africa, but most of them have Table Mountain on the cover. I mean, what more do I have to say? We were trying to do a book that parts a little bit with the typical stereotypes, and with the typical clichés, and it’s very much up to interpretation. The feedback I’m getting, though, whether that’s in Germany, or in Europe or in the UK, or in South Africa, it’s a bit different. They all feel it really represents them well, or for the people who know, it really represents South Africa well. For all the people that haven’t been to South Africa, they do get a good sense of it because it’s not one of these typical touristy books, it is not. It doesn’t try to be that, it’s not a book, per se, for tourists.

EB: So it’s a book for people who want to know more about the country, inside and out…?

MP: And they have to do a bit of thinking themselves. It’s not spelled out. It’s not one of those books where you read what it is all about. You have to look at the images and make up your own mind.

EB: That makes sense to me. Your photography… I know that many photographers like to manipulate their images, but I know you say that you don’t. Is that right?

MP: You know, the term “manipulation” is a term that already has a negative meaning to it. It has always been common for any picture you get in any magazine or any book, to be, you know, slightly adjusted, whether it’s for a dust speck or maybe the contrast, if it’s a bit dark in the shadows you bring light into that. Of course now with digital photography it has become a little bit easier to adjust images, whether it’s the colour temperature, or again some of the lights and the levels, but that’s as far as I go. I don’t change the content. I try to, when I work on an image in adjusting and fine-tuning it, I try to bring it back to the same image that my eye saw at the time of exposure. So I see, when I take a picture, I see an image, and later on I might fine-tune it a little bit, because the camera still doesn’t have the ability to catch quite the same as our eye, and also because, if you know a little bit about photography, the technical side of it, you need to find the spot for the colour temperature and you might need to push up the light and the shadows a little bit, but that I don’t call manipulation. That is, as I said, returning the image to the state where it was when I took it.

EB: That’s a nice way of putting it; I like that. Now your new book, I’m sure it’s very difficult to say what your favourite image is. I’m sure you probably don’t have one favourite…?

MP: Very true, and if I had I wouldn’t tell you. No, I actually, obviously I get asked that a lot, but I don’t have a favourite image. I have a few favourite images.

EB: Could you tell me about them?

MP: I definitely can do that. And it’s not necessarily in any specific order, but you know, this. I like this image for example. It captures the spirit of the young South Africans playing football. You know, it’s in the late afternoon light, there’s dust involved, it’s not on a real soccer field, but it’s the spirit that’s behind it… These guys are running and loving it.

It’s this image here that kind of peeks into a day at the beach when you see guys being covered with sand and a little girl swimming in the shallow water, and the sky. When I take aerial pictures I try to be high enough not to disturb, but low enough to still get what’s going on.

This shows the beauty of the country very much, and it’s very popular in Europe right now, so I like that a lot.

EB: I gather there was an interesting story about that one?

MP: Well, I’m not sure how interesting it is, but there is a story. The story is that basically, there had been five days of rain and everything was grey and grey and grey, and we’d been waiting in the Drakensberg for two or three days already, and getting a bit frustrated trying to drive around looking for anything to photograph, because everything was so grey and grey it wasn’t really worth photographing. Then, the forecast was good for the next day and we drove up to a helipad and were speaking to the pilot and making a plan for the next day, and then I looked at my watch and I said: “We still have an hour of daylight, maybe we can fly around a little bit and get a idea of the place.” And that pretty much coincided with when the first clouds were starting to break up, and we suddenly saw that bundle of sunrays, of God’s rays coming through there, and giving light to this beautiful valley. It was a great thing.

EB: I’m sure!

MP: And I love this image. It’s not one of mine, it’s one of Obie’s, and I think it’s just cool how this guy is sitting there, and the shadows are really working nicely.

I just like that face a lot.

So you see, it’s a variety of images. This was right smack in the middle of town, Johannesburg, so unexpected.

Another great shot, another great shot by Obie.

EB: I think that like you said, it’ll appeal to a wide range of people, because there are wildlife shots, there are other nature, landscapes, and also then urban images… so it shows a wide portion of South Africa, more than just the stereotypical images.

MP: We’re hoping that every single shot is a good photograph, you know, and that’s what many books lack. They’ll get a great cover shot and a few other shots, and they fill it up with all kinds of [rubbish]… That’s very often the case. And I would rather make a book thinner, and that’s one of the reasons why this is not 180 pages like the others were, 180 photographs, but only 120 photographs, because we thought we’d rather have 120 good ones than 180 where 60 are mediocre. And so I think it has worked for us. You and the reader and the observer have to make the decisions, but judging from the first reactions…

EB: And you’ve brought this out just in time for the World Cup. Are you a soccer fan at all?

MP: I’m a World Cup fan. I think it’s going to be great, it’s going to be fantastic for this country, you’ll see what happens to this country for the next six weeks, the world is going to watch what’s going on. I’ll definitely watch the games, but I’m not a hardcore soccer fan. I become one every four years.

EB: I think we’ve unfortunately run out of time, but thank you very much for the interview.

MP: Thank you!


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