Continuing our series of interviews, we visited the South London home of South African photographer Trevor Appleson, to talk about portraiture, story telling, and art as therapy.
Photography by Kevin Davies.
Nathan Sharp, Drake's: You’ve shot in a lot of wildly different places. How does the nature of the work change when you’re in Birmingham, for example, as opposed to Mexico?
Trevor Appleson: These days I’m as excited to make work here in Gypsy Hill as in Mexico. When I was younger, I was really excited to get on a plane, fly off and go do something. Whereas now that I’m a family man and an old git, I mostly prefer not to have to do that, to be honest. I’m happier at home, really.
NS: Do you think it has something to do with maturing as an artist, the fact that you can create work wherever you are?
TA: Absolutely. I’m 50 years old now, and would honestly say I’m only just getting to a place where I’m starting to find my voice. I think that goes for a lot of artists. It’s still difficult, but think I it's easier in some ways than it was ten years ago. I had more energy then, maybe more instinct sometimes, but I didn’t have as much of an idea of what I really wanted to say. Not that I have a true vision now or anything like that, but I think it just takes time to learn your trade. I don’t think surgeons start off operating on the heart or the brain when they graduate. I think you need time to build something meaningful with art.
NS: Shall we talk about the ‘portable studio’? That’s an interesting way of working because it’s like street photography, but you’ve removed the street.
TA: Yeah, exactly. It started off with [Free Ground], where I first set up a portable studio on beaches in and around Cape Town in South Africa. I erected a simple black backdrop, usually at dawn or dusk, and photographed passers-by, or whoever happened to be at the chosen location of the day. So it was this strange dichotomy between documentary and studio photography. But I took the studio to the people, so to speak. Which was really exciting.
NS: Does that make it easier to convince people to stop and have their photo taken, if they see something already set up?
TA: It depends where. In South Africa I had a lot of people that wanted to be photographed, but in some countries, like Mexico, people were more distant – you had this strange artist in the middle of nowhere, with a studio, in their village, and they thought, ‘Who the hell is this?’ So, it took some convincing. It also depends whether you’re photographing vagrants, street kids, or posh people, basically. For a person who’s living on the street, and suddenly there's some guy erecting a studio in 'their' space, it’s a complete novelty, and maybe an opportunity for them to be part of something unexpected, and of course, to be represented in a completely different way to their norm. The majority of the South African work was focused on itinerant workers, street kids, drug addicts, alcoholics, just people kind of hanging out. People that I found in public, informal spaces, really.