Since its beginnings, photography used to record and reflect reality. But these days, expectations of this medium have risen as viewers want to see a world different from reality.
Now, if you have ever seen the work of Zak van Biljon, you might share the same feelings I had: they are truly special. How does the world Zak wants to create look like? And what message does he want to deliver? I have recently met with Zak at Café Oscar in Zürich where he has shared his story.
Cloudia: Tell me a bit about your background and about what has led you to the creative work you are doing today.
Zak van Biljon: I am from South Africa where I grew up in nature. In fact, I had only seen a neighbor for the first time when I was 12 years old. Nature is important to me and I really like the outdoors where I do hiking or rock climbing. When it comes to my photography, I like to learn more by exploring. My first camera was a disposable camera which I took along on our first family trip to Namibia.
For one, I always loved landscape photography. My father is a hobby photographer who inspired me a lot. Since I have been exposed to different cultures, I think that the various social environments influenced me as well.
I started with black and white infrared photography In 2001. The popularization of infrared photography started in the 1960s. A number of recording artists, including Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, made use of the technique on their album covers. The CD cover of Bob Dylan attracted my attention. Later, I tried color infrared photography in 2009 and I really love the way it presents.
Your work ranges from analog to digital, with skills in contemporary advertising and modern art photography. Why did you use infrared photography to show your art?
There are so many photographs already out there, such as on Instagram. It is to the point that they almost become irrelevant where viewers are no longer interested in nature.
I feel that some photographers shoot just to document that they are there, and not to actually “be” in the location. I want to use my work to attract people to go to nature. And I think using photography in a modern way will attract the younger generation.
I called it modernizing nature. It is a new way to look at nature, because people thought that neon signs in urban cities and bright lights are so far away from nature. But no: when you see a pink photo, it is not a pink photo. It is nature. This makes people think. And this is the reason I like infrared photography.
How is it to be self-employed? How much do you work, and how do you keep a work-life balance?
My life as a self-employed brings its ups and downs. On the one hand, it is nice and flexible. But throughout my life, I have never been employed. I grew up knowing to look after myself and to look after money.
Since 2012, I started concentrating on commercial work. I do many things since I like challenges. I sometimes do still life photos. But I dislike event photography as I do not like people posing. As for work and life? Work is life. I used to work until 2 AM. But after having two kids, I learned to move slower.
How does it feel to be commissioned by a luxury brand like Audemars Piguet? What came to your mind when you were asked to do this project?
I enjoyed working with Audemars Piguet. They really look at the environment. All of their advertising shots and campaigns were done in Vallée de Joux where the company was founded. They are interested in arts and support it.
This was the first time for me to work with a Swiss company outside of Switzerland. One of the agencies in Paris contacted me for this project and told me that they wanted infrared works.
“To break the rules, you must first master them.” This appealed to me a lot. It is exactly what infrared photography does to nature and landscape photography. They gave me some suggestions of spots to shoot, but I had lots of freedom. The project involved many rounds of back-and-forth communication. I shot in April and the works were published the following January, so the whole process lasted eight to nine months.
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What's the inspiration behind your work? Tell me about your piece and how it fulfils AP’s brief.
AP launched a new collection, something totally different and unique. The agency had the task to live up to the high standards and also create something unique. The idea came to show Vallée de Joux in a new unseen light, infrared. I had to find a balance between the Infrared red bits and the other natural elements, and it had to be moody. The misty mountain and the lake separates the pink and red tones and balances it out.
What does art mean to you?
Art for me is creating something with a purpose behind, or a story. It doesn't have to be beautiful, that in any case is up to the viewer to interpret. If you create something that inspires, provokes or moves someone emotionally, that's art.
What do you like best about your job? And what is the most challenging thing about your job?
To me, freedom is a big plus. I like my job. I am able to do something I really like. Would it be easier to be employed at a company? Sometimes, I think about this, to shutdown at 18:00 and not think about the work until the next day or having a weekend off.
The most challenging would be to stay focused and work hard on a project, I have so many ideas and possible project that it is easy to drift away and lose track. Anyway, If you are determined and work hard, everything is possible. Switzerland is great in this way. The economy is strong and stable and that allows you to take more risks.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
To be able to do what I love and having a family. I think it is already an achievement. Currently, I am working on a project that means a lot to me, since it involves my home country. I hope that I can leave something behind or make a change for the next generation.
Any advice for amateur photographers who consider turning their hobby into a profession?
They have to be aware when the hobby becomes a job. Since you have to make a living out of it you cannot just shoot what you like. For pleasurable shoots you might have very little time left. You have to make a conscious decision if you are willing to live with the compromises. If you are still passionate about it - do it.
Now, lean back and soak in Zak's infrared photographs of the Swiss Alps:
(All infrared photographs copyright Zak van Biljon)
Previously based in China, Hong Kong, London and the South of France, Cloudia currently lives in Zürich.
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