Our fifty seventh interview in this new series of intimate interviews is with talented mobile photographer and artist Jennifer Graham from Johannesburg, South Africa. This is a beautifully assured, atmospheric interview with a truly incredible insertion of dazzling imagery. Enjoy!
To read the other published interviews in this series including artists, Adria Ellis, Rino Rossi, Mehmet Duyulmus, Alexis Rotella, Lou Ann Sanford Donahue, Irene Oleksiuk, Kerry Mitchell, Filiz Ak, Dale Botha, Lisa Mitchell, M. Cecilia Sao Thiago, Deborah McMillion, Rita Colantonio, Amy Ecenbarger, Jane Schultz, Anca Balaj, Joyce Harkin, Armineh Hovanesian, Kate Zari Roberts, Vicki Cooper, Peter Wilkin, Barbara Braman, Becky Menzies, Sukru Mehmet Omur, Sarah Bichachi, Michel Pretterklieber, Alon Goldsmith, Judy Lurie Whalberg, Andrea Bigiarni, Sean Hayes, Oola Cristina, Kathleen Magner-Rios, Linda Toki, Deb Field, Emilo Nadales, Lydia Cassatt, David Hayes, Jean Hutter, Frederic Deschênes, Mark Schnidman, Fatma Korkut, Fleur Schim, Rob Pearson-Wright, Dieter Gaebel, James Ellis, Marco P Prado, Jeronimo Sanz, Manuela Matos Monteiro, Bleu Chemiko, Manuela Basaldella, Stefania Piccioni, Luis Rodríguez, Marilisa Andriani (@mitrydate) Mayte Balcells (@artofmayte), Nicole Christophe and myself, go here.
All images ©Jennifer Graham
What was your earliest childhood ambition?
To be a Game Ranger. During school holidays, my grandparents would take my cousins and I to the Kruger National Park, a huge wildlife reserve that lies to the north of South Africa. Being out in the bushveld (savannah), as we call it here, was and remains to be one of the places that I am the most content in. And so I longed to have a job that would allow me to live out there permanently.
I had a pony growing up and the place that from where my mother would purchase its food from held a drawing competition. Being a little horse mad, I’d come to perfect – well in my mind, at least – drawing the Arabian horse, my favourite breed at the time. I entered one of these drawings into the completion and won first prize. The drawing was hung above the door in the saddlery section with a red rosette next to it. I remember looking up at it and feeling ambivalent about it being up there for everyone to see. The belly of the horse suddenly looked too large and the back too concave. I desperately wanted to take it down and fix it.
My grandmother was the buyer for the children’s department at a large department store. Around Christmas time each year, they’d put together a store catalogue and from the moment I could sit unaided in baby prams, play pens, on rocking horses etc., (dressed to the nines, of course), I became the in-house model for them. Once I grew a little older and transformed into a tomboy though, I quickly put an end to this brief and nepotistic modelling career.
Private or State school?
For both primary and high (secondary) school, I attended a state school. My school years were still during the awful time of apartheid here in South Africa, and so they were enclaves for white students. It is primarily for this reason, that I did not enjoy school and developed a deep mistrust of authority figures. No students of colour were allowed to attend and were relegated to sub-standard schools in designated townships. It was only towards the end of high school that this began to change.
University or work?
I had my first daughter at the age of twenty and so work was a must. It was while I was pregnant with my second daughter, at the age of 23, that I began to study for my first degree via correspondence. I have since earned a Masters degree in Psychology.
Who was or still is your mentor?
I do not have a mentor per se. I have always been a prolific reader though and I do not think I would have survived without books. One of my earliest childhood memories was of a strong sense of not belonging and it was a great relief to discover between the pages of books, a world beyond the narrow confines of the one that I inhabited which felt so alien to me.
How physically fit are you?
I try to get to the gym at least every other day. Exercise keeps me sane and so it is a kindness, to both myself and to those around me, that I do it regularly.
Ambition or Talent. What matters more to success?
For the most part, words like success, ambition and talent are tied to things like output, visibility, and external validation, which usually leads to disillusionment and burnout. I recently read an article on the topic, by Mary Imgrund, and I tend to agree with her take on it, “Perhaps the concept of success has become so toxic that its no longer relevant, and we need to find another way to contextualise our lives within the tapestry of human history.”
How politically committed are you?
Having grown up in a country in which racial segregation was once institutionalised and still having to navigate the devastating economic and social legacy of the apartheid system here, has meant that I am and have been since a very young age, politically aware and committed. The year that I was first old enough to vote corresponded with South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994, and I volunteered as electorate officer to assist voters in the process of casting their votes during this historic occasion. Currently, gender based violence is a big problem here in South Africa, and it is also concerning to see the regression in women’s reproductive rights in the US. Other concerning issues are the global rise in nationalism and racist right wing ideologies, and the greedy and myopic use and abuse of our planets finite resources. While my political awareness and commitment does not translate into a like of politics – I’d love nothing more than to never hear another disingenuous politician speak again, in fact – burying one’s head in the sand won’t bring about the change that is needed, unfortunately.
What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?
My husband and I are aiming to get our home off the grid, and so things like rain water catchment tanks, solar panels, vegetable tunnels etc., are all on our list of things to get over the next few years. Oh, and I would like to upgrade my camera sometime soon.
What is your biggest extravagance?
It was books but this has been usurped for the moment by the costs of experimenting with printing my art work on a variety of different mediums.
In which places are you happiest?
I’m a homebody and we recently extended our patio and turned it into a wonderful space. An incredible variety of birds visit our garden daily and just sitting on the patio, watching, and, of course, photographing them, brings me great happiness. Away from home, it is anywhere in nature really. I particularly love the unique and varied beauty of the Cape: the fynbos vegetation, the rugged and mountainous coastlines, the starkness of the West Coast. And then there is nothing like watching the sun rise or set over an African savannah somewhere.
What ambitions do you still have?
Expressing myself through my photography and art in whichever way that plays out. I’m also driven to exist in a more mindful and environmentally sustainable way. I would, for example, like to reconnect with the land, hands-on, through small scale farming, utilising methods that are not harmful to this beautiful planet and in so doing, encourage others to do the same.
What drives you on?
Caring for my family, keeping food on the table, for us and for the people employed by a business that my husband and I run. On a more personal level, a deep need to create and express myself artistically and to connect with mother nature.
What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
Without a doubt, seeing my two daughters grow into such interesting, resilient and competent young women. This, in spite of some challenging times we have endured as a family. In 2006 their father was in a serious car accident which almost claimed his life and left him with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). The dissertation I did for my Masters degree was on TBI and its effects on a family which I hope to turn into a book one day.
What do you find most irritating in other people?
Fundamentalism. Life has taught me that a rigid allegiance to something leaves very little room for personal development and authenticity. All because of a blind loyalty to some or other ideology, usually political or religious. It alienates self and others and promotes an ‘us and them’ mentality which leads to the dehumanising of the ‘other’.
If your twenty year old self could see you now, what would she think?
A mix of things, I suppose, but mostly relieved to still be around.
Which object that you’ve lost do you wish you still had?
It’s not really an object, but I feel a sense of loss at not having the foresight to photograph my grandmother, who died recently at the age of 100, in her home before she was moved to a frail care facility some years back. It was filled with such wonderful art works and antique pieces collected over a lifetime and each room had a name. In the mornings, she would make tea for herself and sit at her kitchen table listening to the radio and in the afternoon she would doze off in an armchair beside a bookshelf. What I would give to go back in time and see her there again. I so wish I’d captured a few unposed moments like that.
What is the greatest challenge of our time?
Do you believe in the afterlife?
Not in a religious sense. To quote Rebecca Solnit, “leave the door open for the unknown, the door in the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.”
Contact Details for Jennifer Graham
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