INTERVIEW: Photographer Retha Ferguson

Cape Town based photographer Retha Ferguson recently gave us a sneek preview of her year long project on Voortrekker Road in Cape Town. We caught up with the 2008 Gerard Sekoto Most Promising Artist to learn more about her approach, the project, and her impressions of a city in transition.

1: You recently exhibited your photo essay on Voortrekker Road at Open Streets in Bellville. How was that experience, and how was the work received?
As far as I can tell it was very well received, people honestly seemed to like it. I had a box of 800 postcards on the pavement, and people spent a lot of time finding their favourite pictures which they could take home. One lady came up to me and told me I shouldn’t put up pictures of a graveyard scene because it will make people sad. So that was one criticism. 

I also met some people who wanted to discuss the history of the area with me. One guy told me that the abandoned house in one of my pictures used to belong to his family before the Group Areas Act, and he is currently in the process of trying to reclaim the land. That was a great connection to make.

2: Tell me more about what it is in Voortrekker Road that draws your interest? And how is this project similar or dissimilar to your other work?
I’m mainly drawn by the cosmopolitanism of the area and the different communities, groups, individuals; how they situate themselves and relate to each other. Mostly I have just been interested in the complexity of the community and I wanted to explore and capture this complexity. I still don’t think I have adequately done so; it’s something I’m still working on and I hope to finish the project in the next year or so.

It’s the longest running project I’ve had. It’s also the project that i’m most emotionally invested in because of all the different experiences it has provided me. These images are outlets to try and make sense of a small part of our country.

3: How would you describe the style and approach to your photography? 
I'm not really someone for setting up pictures, big lighting or post production. Everything about my pictures are about spontaneity, which is in opposition to the current trend. There seems to be a strong focus on staged pictures and post production. I'm very old fashioned in my approach, and my greatest heroes are Elliot Erwitt and Helen Levitt. My contemporary influences are people like David Solomons, Martin Parr, Txema Salvans and Tanya Habjouqa. I love photos that capture complex compositions and situations, especially those that make it work in one frame. In the Voortrekker Road project I have not really achieved this as much as I’d like yet, and it’s something I’m hoping I can work towards.

4: Does Voortrekker Road reflect something of a changing city? In what ways?
Voortrekker road today certainly looks very different from Voortrekker road during the 80s. Far from a predominantly white area it is now an extremely diverse and mixed area. 

5: There is something in the composition of your pictures that fudges public and the private life; almost like a shared or "in-between" space. Some of the pictures that I'm thinking of includes the charismatic church gathering and the boy getting ready for a hair cut. How did you go about situating yourself in these moments?
I visit the area fairly often, and after a while you start to get to know the shop owners. Often I would take prints back from my previous visit; most people really enjoy getting a hard copy of their picture taken by a professional photographer. So it's a matter of building up relationships. For me the interaction is almost more important than the outcome. If I know someone is uncomfortable with having their picture taken I immediately retreat. Apart from that it’s also a matter of luck; being there to witness when something happens, having an eye for composition and being ready in that moment.

6: Are you selling prints? How can people get in touch with you?
I haven’t really thought that far yet, the project is not complete yet, and it will probably still take another year to be completed. In the mean time I’m just giving prints to my subjects and am happy to distribute postcards freely to anyone. 


Check out Retha's website and her Instagram account. All Instagram reposts done with Retha's permission.