I started photographing at the age of twelve. As a bit of an introvert, the camera became the perfect tool for me to communicate without actually speaking. Photography became both a way of making sense of the complex layers of existence, as well as a conduit for exploring my own passage within it. My parents insisted that I get a qualification that could lead to a ‘proper job’, so I studied Geology and Statistics at the University of Cape Town. As soon as I finished studying, I started calling myself a professional photographer, whatever that meant. The only job that I could find was that of a property photographer at a local newspaper. Although the lowest wrung on the photographic ladder, it did offer me unlimited access to free film, with which I could advance my vision beyond sunsets and pretty postcard pictures. I also read everything and anything within the photography genre.
The camera has provided me with extraordinary and privileged access to the layered complexity of people’s lives. I have also had experiences that would never have been possible if I had continued my initial career path as a geo-statistician. I have met and photographed, kings and queens, politicians and places all over the world. Ordinary people from all walks of life have invited me into their homes and their inner worlds. With this privilege has come a greater understanding of my responsibility as a photographer and as a fellow human. The most powerful realization has been that whatever class, position or status people occupy, they are fundamentally the same and deserving of a default opening position of respect. This has both simplified my approach to photographing people while simultaneously challenging me to be fully present within each interaction.
Much of my personal work remains unseen, invariably because, while I have been working on one long-term project, new ideas begin to emerge. I try to embody each essay with its own mood or feel in order to fully reflect the essence of its meaning. The photographic approach, or for lack of a better word, style, becomes just another tool, similar to one’s choice of black and white or color or between the more formal, medium/large format or the looseness of a 35mm camera. My inspiration comes from various sources: the simple, transcendence of nature or the articulate and abstract communication within great music, painting or writing. Luminous moments of connection are rare and indefinable, however they elicit a clarity that is unambiguous.
I have been fortunate over the past 25 years to have friend and mentor, David Goldblatt, to objectively critique my work. Although at times bluntly honest he was consistently generous and affirming.
The Spirit of Graeme Williams by David Goldblatt
‘In the discords and harmonies of our life, Graeme Williams has found and shaped his own vision of their existence. He brings the light, shadows, colours, materials, textures, skin, flesh, movement and muscle of our shack settlements and city streets into photographs of dynamic, unexpected, sometimes startling synthesis. He does this with the surging, seemingly effortless fluidity of a dancer. His particular vision was first evidenced, if I am not mistaken, in an extraordinary series of photographs made in 1999 of two black dogs at play with each other on a beach in a flying ballet of explosive energy. There is a straight line of development from that elemental work to the highly complex “Edge of Town”, photographed between 2007 and 2009 in some 100 of South Africa’s ‘informal’ settlements. Now there is “A City Refracted”, a more sombre but no less dynamic series of photographs that spring from the tensions of Joburg’s streets and the makeshiftedness of living in its unloved and less salubrious buildings. Williams has told me that these essays evolved from the need to transcend the limits of the reportage in which, for many years, he earned his living. But they go far beyond that. They tell of some of his strongly felt understandings of this society. With rare and original imaginative reach, they are eloquently expressive of his spirit.”