A brief personal history
“Now, tell me something, what is it that you DO exactly”? Not so much a question as it is an interrogatory. “What is it that I do”? Well, first and foremost, I consider myself to be a visual communicator, a storyteller if you will. The difference is, I use images to tell my story.
In taking pictures, does this make me a photographer? Yes and no. In an interview, while applying for an in-house junior photographer position, the chief photographer went on to say, “You’re good – as an enthusiastic amateur. Not too sure about you being a professional”.
Well, that was half the story. Taking pictures is something I’ve been doing all my life – not just my working life. Obsessive? Compulsive? I don’t think so – just curious. Let’s put it this way, with a camera, I’ve gone places where I wouldn’t have ordinarily gone – done things, met people, been places and a lot more. But, had I not been curious in the first place, I may never have picked up a camera. As mentioned elsewhere, I take pictures to inform and to share the experience.
This story starts in South Africa. With this page’s header image, the image above and, to the right, this is, more or less, where it all began – as in moving beyond what might have been a hobby into something, let’s just say, more “cogent” – as in the real thing.
At this stage of my life – as in getting into photography – I was stuck in something of a horns of a dilemma. Meaning to say, being an apprentice or an assistant somewhere or, just getting on with it.
“Apprenticeships” at this time were far and few between. Universities were offering photography as part of a Fine Arts degree. Colleges were only just starting their diploma and certificate courses. Thus, the remaining option was getting on with it and hitting the road.
At around this time I hitch hiked to the desert port town of Lüderitz in Namibia. While there, I caught sight of that town’s fishing industry. Thereafter, I conceived the notion that I wanted to document South Africa’s fishing industry. For the next 18 months or so, did just that – a project that I put together and financed myself. At the time, I was 22.
The scope of this project covered almost every facet of the industry – from subsistence handline fishing through to commercial handline fishing, rock lobster fishing through to purse seine and deep-sea trawling.
The picture opening this page, to the left and above are from this project. More details can be found at this link.
The time around this period was pivotal. Between finishing the fishing project as best as I could, I took an in-house position as a junior photographer in a public relations firm. I was there for about a year.
While on the way to a job interview for another in-house photographer position, I bumped into the school friend just outside the company’s offices where I was headed. While at school, it was his interest in photography that basically put the heat under my caldron as it were.
Also, unbeknown to me at that moment, he was working for the same company. Thereafter, it was mere formality. And soon, I was working for Group Editors – the largest public relations company in the country at the time.
The scope of work was enormous. Clients included multinational conglomerates, mining houses, FMCG companies, transportation, pharmaceuticals, retailers, NGO’s and more. One day we might be up in the air somewhere. On the next, down in some of the deepest mines in the world. On another, maybe in a large steel plant or, on a production line somewhere. This was during the day. In the evening, we would be covering a social or corporate event elsewhere. All in a day’s work – as some would have it.
Group Editors folded and with that, went what was an experience of a lifetime. For the next year or so, I worked in-house as a press photographer for one morning newspaper before going to freelance on another. At around this time, things were becoming quite interesting in South Africa. On the cultural side, the country’s music scene was coming into its own. Featured above is Johnny Clegg during his Jaluka days. On the socio-economic side, huge changes were in the air.
South Africa was becoming the focus of international attention – this as civil unrest simmered around the country. With the collapse of the Rand Daily Mail, I started stringing for a number of international picture agencies. While an incredibly interesting period, it was weird – the reference here being to the prevailing technologies of the period – as in having to rush to the airport to ship out one’s work – packages of film to some other parts of the world. At round this time I scored a few “successes” such as this Maclean’s cover above.
At around this time, the government of the day clamped down on the media and more or less put an end to coverage of the prevailing unrest at the time. This didn’t mean to say that I stopped documenting what was going on around me. Far from it. But, at the end of the day, there was rent to pay, putting food on the table and related practicalities. In this regard, I put my talents to work – as a commercial photography. One such assignment was this annual report cover for the Southern Sun Group.
Some how and after the hectic period that was spread across the early and mid-1980’s, work-wise, things were steady and the work was good.
Above is an example of attempting to breakaway from conventions – this relating to corporate photography in general and group portrait photography in particular. Here, I wanted to do something more engaging. The boardroom here was quite small. As a result, could only use a standard lens on a Hasselblad. There was a window to the right. This natural lighting was augmented with fill-in flash – a soft-box near the window and an umbrella to fill in behind me.
From career perspective – and what photographer has a “career” – 1988 ushered in something of a pivotal and productive period. The highlight of this period was picking up something of an open commission for PG Glass, South Africa’s premier glass supplier. Their principle business was with the automotive industry but, with the resurgence of Post-Modern architectural design and the use of glass for cladding high rise buildings, PG Glass had themselves a new market. Above is the former Tiger Oats headquarters in Sandton, Johannesburg.
While not exactly a matter of, “All good things must come to an end”, I just needed to move on. I left South Africa and headed to the UK in May 1990. It took a while to settle in but, like all else – together with a little help from family [my younger sister Bronwen in particular] and a few good friends [a big shout out here to Orde Eliason in particular] – we got on with it. In April of 1991 I approached Smithfield Market asking if I could document the activities at the market – as in, “a day in the life” thereof. I spent two weeks on this this project – the results can be found at this link: the Lost Years Project
If I wasn’t walking the streets of London – from one side to the next – and documenting much of what I saw, there was still work to do. A “staple” at this time was doing corporate portrait photography. The source of many of our clients at the time were in the financial or legal communities.
With a lot of the corporate and public relations photography we did at the time, I had a strong preference to do location and in situ photography. And often, where possible, taking whatever liberties I could. In this particular portrait, I wanted to do something relating to the products this company was producing. The machine shops at this site were lacklustre, messy and “confusing”. The next best option was, to get on top of it.
In April of 1994 I wanted some time out – as in going somewhere new. China beckoned. At the time, I had some relatives living and working in Hong Kong. This was my starting point. 5 weeks were spent travelling around what was essentially the southern, central part of China. I got up as far north as Luoyang before heading across to Nanjing and Shanghai. The image above was taken on farm road outside of Yangshuo. More images of this trip can be found over at the Lost Years Project website.
Do these two images work together? No, not particularly. “Well then, how do you reconcile the two”? You don’t. This is known as being “expeditious” – as in doing commercial photography so I could afford to pursue my passion – social documentary photography. If I sound a little factious here, my apologies. The fact is that, after completing my April trip to China, I took up employment as an in-house photographer with a Hong Kong toy company in October of 1994. Here we have a portfolio shot I did for one of the company’s designers – shot on 4 x 5.
Towards the close of the “century” [ just sounds so nice to say it like that ], I took something of a “sabbatical” and got out of photography and operated as tech consultant for a couple of years. Same tune, different fiddle. When graduates with IT degrees started pouring out of the local colleges, this seemed like a good time to make a return to photography. For a period I teamed up with TDA, one of Hong Kong’s premier graphic design companies at the time. And, together we worked on several corporate capability projects. Above is a picture we shot on location for the chairman’s page in an annual report. Yes, an all in one shot taken on site – no “dropped in” background and very little in the way of Photoshopping.
Besides corporate photography, we did a fair amount of editorial and other corporate branding photography over the period. I also continued with my social documentary photography – mainly street and cultural projects but, nothing significant. Which eluded to something else…
… as in time to move on. In April of 2006 I moved to Montreal, Canada. The reasons for the more were various but I needed to venture out and do something different. I needed “new air” and, I certainly got it. It kind of goes without saying that Montreal is something of a cultural capital in the grand scheme of things. The short summers there are peppered with music festivals and other cultural events and, this suited me just fine.
Not too sure what it is with me and the music scene? Blame it all on Leonard Freed. Is this “documentary photography” by some other name? Let’s put it this way – I couldn’t ever find it in myself to be some sort of passive fan sitting in an audience somewhere. Not my style. Perhaps this comes back to my mem, “… to inform and share the experience”. My interest goes back to my time in South Africa and the music scene there. On arriving in the UK in 1990, the music scene was my first port of call. Here in Montreal, it was no different.
And, before anyone asks, “Is there any money to be made out of this sort of work”? Of course not. Yes, there’s the music press and, unless you’re Annie Libowitz, they don’t pay. And, they don’t pay unless you’re on the paparazzi circuit. Again, not my scene. Yes, this work was usually filtered back to the picture agencies. Even then, most people in this industry – the minders in particular – were usually looking to get something for nothing.
More blocks have been dedicated to 2007 than any other year on this timeline – for the simple reason, things to do, places to go and people to see. I returned to the UK in the third quarter of 2007. The idea was to more or less pick up where I had left off in the early 1990’s. Over this period I was fortunate enough to team up with FilmMagic where I was on call to cover media events, do theatre photo calls, the celebrity circuit and, of course, the music scene.
While the cultural scene in Montreal is quite tight and intense, London often appears to be a little more laid back and suffuse – more diversified and spread out. Well, in “spread out”, we could cover the whole of southern England for that matter. In this part of the world, slow and steady wins there race. Just wish I could have felt “more settled” over this period – a lot of good things were happening at this time.
I returned to Hong Kong early 2008. I guess this is where I knew I could earn regular money. At around this time I again teamed up with TDA and where we were working on various corporate and editorial projects.
The above image is from a commissioned project, one of the biggest I had ever worked on to date and for which a 6 figure fee was paid. The purpose of the project was to document the refurbishment of an indoor wet market. Other than marketing collateral, the outcome of the project was a commemorative book on the market and its development.
In July 2012, I spent the month in Singapore. While there, I worked on several commissions and did what I do best, this regarding street photography. Featured here is the Marina Bay Sands – a casino and resort complex. This complex is huge and has a couple of firsts and records attached to it.
Let’s put it this way, Macau is a boat trip away from Hong Kong. Over the past decade or so, there’s been building boom of sorts in the enclave – most of it relating to the gaming industry. While commissions were few and far between, there was always a demand for editorial images.
In July 2013, I made yet another return trip to Shanghai – the first being in 2011. On this occasion, this was to finish off a project that was started back in 2011. This was a large multi-purpose project consisting of 2 office tower blocks, a hotel and an annex. The commissioning architects were Architectonica. We got some really good press – print and digital – from the work we did on this project.
In effect, in the early part of 2013 I made a move to the Philippines. Put more prosaically, I was looking to have one foot in the Philippines and one in Hong Kong. With present day technologies, the idea was to run my business affairs in Hong Kong while benefitting from a lower cost of living living elsewhere. Not easy. As they say, “There is always a price to pay”.
Let’s just say that 2014 was something of a “crash course” year – a year in which I had to “readjust” my sights and my thinking and to look at doing things in different ways. Little of this had to do with my photography per se. More a matter of “packaging” and presenting oneself.
It is with sincere thanks and deep gratitude to friend and mentor, Edward Stokes where, from late 2014 through to 2016 and beyond, we collaborated together on a number of interesting – and, to my mind, influential – photography projects. This collaboration resulted in several well received photo exhibitions held in Hong Kong and Singapore over this period. More details can be found on this page – Rogan Coles Artist Statement
While this maybe the last panel on this timeline narrative, it is by no means the end of this story. Featured here is the poster for an exhibition of photography entitled, “HONG KONG, at the water’s edge”.
The Hong Kong Maritime Museum invited me to put together and curate an exhibition of my photography. To date, it was one of the larger projects I have worked on in a while. For this, I am indebted to Richard Wesley for according me this great opportunity and to all his staff for all their support.