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Andre du Plessis: A soulful contextual portraitist

by Yvette Depaepe

Andre du Plessis is a person with an incredible aura reflected in all his photographs.  His work makes us wonder about the man behind the images. Let us hear more from Andre about his life, his work, his thoughts …

Animus II

You were born, raised and educated in South Africa. Please tell us more about your childhood, youth and your early experience with photography.
When I was very young I found a diagram of a pinhole camera in a book and it intrigued me. As soon as I was old enough I built my own pinhole camera, using a cardboard box, masking tape and aluminum foil. The first picture I took with it (an upside-down image, of course) was of our house. I was probably around nine years old. My mother taught at a local girls’ school and my father was a veterinary surgeon, and although he wasn’t a photographer, he encouraged me to pursue my passion. In those days you took your film to the local chemist, who would often develop the pictures in his own darkroom. He could see how interested I was in the process and subsequently taught me how to develop and print.

We are the descendants of Jean Prieur du Plessis, a French Huguenot surgeon, who arrived from France in 1688 to start a new life in South Africa. After I qualified in Medicine, I decided to travel. I have lived and worked in many different parts of the world including Canada, Greece and the UK. I have ended up specializing in Advanced Conscious Sedation, and I am now a partner in a practice in London. This discipline could be summed up as an alternative to general anaesthesia. I mention this because of what I do — which is to suspend a patient in prolonged, non-anxious, twilight sleep — requiring patience and the ability to establish trust; the same skills that are invaluable in taking the sort of portraits that most interest me.

For many years my photography was analogue and primarily B&W. At an early stage I developed an understanding and appreciation of the latitude and creative qualities that shades of grey can offer to a composition. The standard film I used was uprated Tri-X and printed on a hard grade paper. I liked the enhanced contrast that this delivered when using Rodinal for the uprating, or even some dilutions of D-76. I found the dynamic range of the African sunlight very challenging and over time, working in the shade or other settings of lower available light became my preferred choice. While I have worked with color and appreciate that medium, my subject matter calls out for monochrome. However, I create my images in color and then convert to black and white. Essentially, when I am composing, I still see everything in shades of gray.

I took a long break from photography after film ceased to be the medium of choice and before digital became as advanced as it is now. On reflection I think that this break may have been a good decision, as it allowed me to start again in a different, more open-minded way.

You traveled extensively, working as a doctor in Greece, Canada and the UK. Did you pursue your passion for photography during that period?
Yes, I most certainly did, and I carried all my gear in a reinforced Pelican case (without wheels). That’s probably why my right arm is two inches longer than my left. During the years that I was working as a ship’s surgeon for a Greek passenger line, the bulk of my images consisted of travel photos with the occasional portfolio image. However, that all changed when I went to Canada, for the natural beauty of that land caused me to embrace Kodachrome, and I found myself photographing mountains and flowers. Not that I was any good at it, but it felt good while it lasted. My first years in the UK coincided with the time that I broke from photography, and it was only in 2007 when I started up again, this time with a digital camera.

Presently you are working in private practice in London. What about your roots? Do you miss South Africa? Do you go back on a regular basis?
Why do I like South Africa so much? Well, I was born there, as were 26 generations of my family branch of the du Plessis's before me. My immediate family is there, and they don’t entertain the thought of moving elsewhere, and most certainly not to the Northern Hemisphere.

The well-known attractions of South Africa are the landscape, which is so diverse in appearance and topography, the wildlife and game parks, and the beaches. However, I think that the fabric of our society remains the hidden jewel: no one expects it at first, but it’s one of the many reasons for the visitor to return here. One cannot help but experience it — it’s in your face the moment you step onto the tarmac. We have been calling our nation the Rainbow Nation since the mid-‘90s, and to some extent I think that it is a fitting title.

So apart from the wildlife, the landscape and the beaches, I feel that the real interest lies in experiencing the people: black, coloured and white. The animals and the landscape are the postcards you can pick up anywhere. But the society — it’s complexities, the way it has instilled humour to not only bridge the void that was left after apartheid, but also to help manage the consequences of what that system left us, combined with the general naivety and openness that still prevails — infuses and enriches your soul.

Apart from seeing my family, my visits there furnish me with the images that have become the mainstay of my work, so I try to travel there twice, and when work allows, three times per year.

Who are the photographers/artists that inspire you most, and how has your appreciation of their work affected your approach to your own photography?
I developed an awareness of the great classical photographers through my own research and interest rather than through formal study. I have always been a frequent visitor of bookshops and libraries where I have come to admire the work of many artists. Generally, they have been less well known artists with only limited exposure.

One photographer who has undoubtedly influenced my thinking and possibly my approach is Roger Ballen. Although it was many years ago, I can still remember paging through a book of his, entitled “Dorps.” The impact of his studies on people living in small-town South Africa and the way in which he presented them left an indelibleimpression on me. So, I believe I can safely say that my biggest influence was Roger Ballen — American born, but for many years now a fellow South African. Lately his work has become more sophisticated and convoluted, and it lost the stark innocence that his creations in the ‘80s had, which I still treasure. 

In “Dorps” he portrayed these individuals in a way that at first seemed a bit harsh and detached to me; it was more along the lines of Diane Arbus. Yet, what he showed to me in this book was that when you go into the home of a stranger, you have the opportunity to use their environment in a way that tells a great deal about their life. Although I read this book many years ago, I did not act out on this idea; it was only after my hiatus from photography from 1995 to 2005 that I ventured into my genre of contextual people photography.


Snack Time (Interrupted)

William & Nellie

Carlos the Zebra and Joseph

What gear do you use?
Although I keep a 70–200mm f/2.8 lens handy, I seem to be using this lens less frequently, and lately it has stayed at home. My essentials remain the full-frame Nikon D3, 17–35mm f/2.8 lens and a Manfrotto tripod with a pistol grip and ball head. Given the unpredictable dimensions inside the houses where I take my photographs, the wide-angle zoom has become my workhorse lens. I take my portraits in landscape format, and the wider angle allows me to include some of the surroundings.

The Individualist

The Big Trick

Your profession seems to be related intensely to your photographic work. Not only the “body,” but also essentially the “soul” is being examined in your work. Has medicine influenced you to prefer people photography?
Perhaps medicine has assisted me to migrate towards people photography; however, the seeds of enjoying and discovering people may have been planted a long time ago. I have been curious about all people ever since I can remember. As a child I used to cycle to the townships on weekends (when “going to the townships” was a no-no years ago) to join in the soccer games on the communal playing fields.

It is difficult for me to come up with a clear explanation as to why I remain partial to photographing people from the townships. We have an older political history down there that in many ways is unique in its wrongness, and we have a recent political history down there that is a celebration of its rightness. This might play a part why I am drawn to this preference, but there are also some tangible reasons why I prefer these locations and the people that these locations offer me.

The sparseness of the homes, the raw textures of the walls, the rudimentary furnishings and the limited light all work together to provide me with blank canvases that I find irresistible. The individuals who inhabit these dwellings share those same raw qualities in personality, expression and appearance. In person and in habit they possess a naked truthfulness that is so rewarding to share in and a privilege to capture and preserve.

Given the behavioural management that my particular field in medicine requires, I do feel that my profession may have assisted me in being better and more confident in this type of photography; however, the wish to explore has been present since childhood. So medicine might have just polished my skills to some extent.

The story behind your images seems to be essential for you, although I’m sure you’re also looking for the right circumstances. You seem to have an incredible connection with the people in your photographs, resulting in a strong interaction with the viewer. Tell us how you go about approaching and photographing your subjects.

For the last few years I have mostly been photographing randomly chosen strangers in small, isolated, rural communities throughout South Africa. Although I generally photograph in my subjects’ homes, the setting is secondary. I am a portrait photographer, and what drives me is the desire to capture some aspect of my subject’s true personality. The intimate nature of my work is a direct result of the collaboration between each subject and myself. I engage them in the process, and I believe that they find this empowering.

I mainly take my portraits indoors, and I prefer to have the sun at an angle. This is partly because I very much dislike photographing in bright sunlight and partly because it means there is a good chance that an interior wall will be bathed in the soft, indirect light that I love. I frequently drive for miles along deserted dirt roads looking for situations that I want to photograph. When I find a small community that seems interesting, I stop and pick a house at random. When I knock on the door, I never have a camera in my hand, just a folder with some of my images. Only when someone agrees to be photographed, I then collect camera and tripod from my truck.

Once I am indoors there are always challenges. Maybe the house has no windows facing the sun or the inhabitants turn out to be rather un-photogenic or the interior itself is uninspiring. I never allow myself to be defeated. These people have trusted me and allowed me into their home. I must make the most of the situation to create a portrait that will please them, even if it doesn’t please me.

It is a very leveling experience, taking photographs of strangers. I have interrupted their lives, and by doing so I seem to create a special space that has, somehow, nothing to do with their surroundings or day-to-day existence. I will often ask them to suggest positions and poses, so we are working together to create the final image. Many of my subjects may never have been photographed before. It is both a serious business and a light-hearted one. They are participants. It is an exciting process, and we all cease to be shy strangers as we discuss how to improve what we are doing. We form a close bond, the sitter and the portraitist. There is a sense of kinship, too, in this shared experience. I often find it very humbling that I am being trusted in this way.

Most of my subjects are not wealthy. I resist ever showing their poverty. Yes, I may hint at it through my choice of background, but this is only to put my subject into context, to show them in a place where they feel comfortable and secure, i.e., their homes.

In terms of composition, I always prefer direct eye contact unless I do a double portrait, and in that case I often try to construct a triangle of energy. In the bulk of my people photographs, I prefer that the eyes look directly into the middle spot of my lens. I don’t stage anything, but I am obviously asking my subjects to pose. They have to stand still, anyway, because I am usually shooting in very dark places with low levels of light and slow shutter speeds.

In less than an hour I usually photograph about three family members and record about two or three different scenes. On average each scene consists of six images, so I leave with about 30 files. By this time the neighbours have been alerted of my presence, and if they are willing, I go to their house and repeat the procedure. I may move on to a third family, but as exhilarating as I find all of this, it is very exhausting to keep up a dialogue, constantly reassure, select areas in the house that might work, try to be fair and not only photograph the person I feel is the most intriguing, keep the neighbour's kids out of the frame and try to find the middle ground between what they prefer I photograph and what I wish to portray.

The majority of people I have photographed have never experienced dedicated photo sessions — at most they have had passport photographs taken for their ID book at the local chemist. So delivering on the promise that I will bring prints back to them holds substantial importance for both parties.

You seem to have a preference for producing images that are captured in low and available light. Tell us a bit more about how you go about this and what considerations you would like to share with others who have an interest in this type of photography.

Once I obtain consent to proceed, I usually have a walk around inside the house to see which areas are suitable for pictures. I look for a place that has indirect, filtered light. When faced with low light, my worst enemy is a bar of strong, unfiltered light appearing somewhere in my frame. It plays havoc with not only my meter readings and subsequent exposure, but also adds sweat to the editing.

That does not mean that only flat, uniform light will work. On the contrary, in low light situations I try to get “directional” low light. As I am already photographing in a dimly lit room, it is imperative that I position my subject where the low light still suggests a direction. This is possible in most instances — I simply have to search for it. This may require me to open a window in an adjoining room or use a mirror on a cupboard to reflect window light onto an opposite wall to create an accent in lighting; anything is possible, but it’s important to experiment. In some cases these houses are so dark that I move my subjects closer to an open door in order to achieve this effect.

In these low light situations it often surprises me, how a subtle change in position or light can have such a powerful effect on the actual depth of the photograph. Dim lighting creates a subtle differential between the quality of light on one side of the face compared to the other side, and it can be advantageously augmented in the post-processing stage.

I use aperture priority. In analogue, one compensates for the shadows, but in digital photography it is advised to “shoot to the right” of the histogram, meaning overexposing a little. I find this unnecessary as long as I prevent harsh highlights from entering into frame.

In spite of using a full-frame sensor camera and tripod, I usually have to increase the ISO settings to 1000 and higher. Occasionally I adjust up to ISO 2500, as I prefer a depth of field that is not too tight. I instruct my subjects to remain stationary, and if I enjoy a particular frame, I will take a few more frames to guard against motion artifacts. I find it impossible to work without a tripod.

Aperture is my prime consideration. I like to include an object or feature that complements the person in terms of context, and often the simple texture of a wall will do. This frequently requires a larger depth of field and therefore a slow shutter speed. For this reason, the need for my subjects to keep still and hold at half-breath is crucial.

There is a distinct feel and look to the B&W photographs that you have shown us. Please tell us  more about your editing work flow and how you achieve this.

The capturing of the image is usually a hurried experience, wild and opportunistic. The finishing of the image, on the other hand, is generally slow, relaxed and meditative. As I work, I find that the value of what I have and my emotional connection to it starts to grow. I am not really concerned with the technical post-processing tricks of the trade, but the relaxed, extended, second stage of my journey is something that I treasure.

In my editing I use only a few tools, but I use them over and over again. (I am not interested in taking shortcuts, and I don’t believe in trying to salvage an image through the use of technology.) When I work on an image, I am always thinking of how I used to work in the wet darkroom. The type of film, the ASA rating, the choice of developer, the temperature and the development time (not to mention frequency and manner of agitation), these were all considerations in order to produce an acceptable image. In the darkroom I could correct perspectives by angling the print beneath the enlarger. I also constructed weird-looking devices from wire and cardboard to dodge and burn, and depending on the grade of paper used, I could manipulate the contrast of an image. It was a long and sometimes arduous journey, but by the time it was over, I had established a relationship with the final photograph.

In my mind I am using very similar (and no less romantic appearing) techniques when I employ modern tools to finish my images.

The RAW files that emerge from those dark houses can often be convincingly bright and airy, as the sensors in our cameras have the capability of turning a dark, moody scene into what often resembles a picture taken in adequate, unchallenging light. In Camera Raw I might brighten some areas and darken other areas, in an attempt to obtain a reasonably flat colour image that is lacking in contrast. This is the starting point that I desire before I commence any further editing and B&W conversion.

My next step is to transfer the image into Photoshop and then to straighten out things using the Transform tool (perspective, warp, distort). Since I prefer using a wide-angle lens in landscape format in what is usually a limited, indoor space, distortion of lines can sometimes be a nuisance. After all, doors and closets do not fan upwards in reality, and those distortions can be distracting. Once this step is completed, I save this colour image as the master PSD file, duplicate this, and then continue my editing with the copy file, which I convert to monochrome by applying the B&W adjustment layer in Photoshop.

The Curves tool remains my workhorse, and it probably accounts for 90% of the time I spend in editing. I find it much more forgiving than Levels, which is harsher and too rapid and offers less control. I apply separate Curves adjustments to many small selections, often under high magnification, and gradually rebuild the image, now consisting of mainly middle greys, in terms of tone and mood. This slow and relaxed phase during the editing process is the part that I like most, and I think of this as painting the image back, similar to the way an image appeared in the developer tray in the red hue of the darkroom safe-light. I believe the indoor work that I do relies heavily on sensitive and adequate post-processing; otherwise, the beauty and reward of the light cannot always be appreciated, and I could forfeit a characteristic that would elevate the image to another level of appreciation.

When the results start to please, I might attempt a mild Levels adjustment at this stage to gain insight into how my final image might turn out. I always finish my editing by increasing the global contrast of the whole image, usually by making a single tweak in Levels or Curves. This produces that slight punch in contrast, which I like. If, however, I didn’t protect the image from possible clipping earlier in the work flow, this last tonal adjustment, or “test layer,” can sometimes unearth poorly prepared areas. So I inspect this test layer for areas that harbour abrasive and hazardous tonal differentiations, and then I dodge and burn any areas that might cause trouble later on. I may even add a small, faint, selective fill layer if dodging and burning has proven ineffective. I then delete or shade this test layer before toning and adding a vignette to some images, after which the file is sharpened using the High Pass filter.

No doubt there are many shortcuts and more time-saving adjustments that would allow me to achieve the same results in a fraction of the time. However, I am accustomed to this method, and I enjoy every minute of editing. Because I am usually far away from the location where I took the picture, this time that I spend painting back the image allows me to revisit the scene, to remember the circumstances, the voices and the place. Editing is my emotional bonding time with an image.

Please tell us about one of your photographs that has special meaning to you.
Almost every image in my South African series was made in collaboration with the people that I photographed, so they all have special meaning to me. However, I shall tell you more about Lorraine, who I met by chance when returning from a fishing trip. I noticed a particular collection of what can only be described as shacks, but because they were so far away from the track I was driving on, I had never explored the area. On this occasion I made the effort, which involved scaling a barbed wire fence and almost being half-eaten by a most vicious dog of suspect breed. However, the payoff was worth the effort.

Inside Lorraine’s shack there was very little choice of setting — what you see here is just about the whole dwelling. There was only a door immediately behind me, and since the light coming from the doorway was far too strong, I asked some kids who were watching to collect any white material they could find from the house next door. They reappeared with a tablecloth that they subsequently held across the doorway to shield the light.

I prefer darker tones, from an artistic standpoint and also based on the mood I want to convey — they usually are interdependent. The addition of the dog here came as a surprise; she jumped onto her lap after the previous capture, “Feelings,” and so this unplanned double portrait emerged. The poster of the man makes me think that, as in all of us, dreams are universal, and given the meagre furnishings here, this single element says so much for me.

Lorraine was not very happy at this time in her life; she had financial insecurities and her relationship was on rocky ground. She was drinking too much, lost her job and was desperately looking for alternatives. In this very isolated community where I discovered her, she was regarded as an “inkomer,” meaning she moved to this community from elsewhere, so she was therefore regarded as and treated like a stranger, which fueled her feelings of despair.

When I returned with her prints a few months later, I was told that she had relocated, and it was only after using what is still colloquially called the “bush telegraph” for getting the word out that I was looking for her, that I finally managed to meet up with her again. Her pleasure to see me was great, and she took great pains to reassure me that her life had made a turnaround. She told me about her new job, how she had stopped drinking and that she had a new, good man in her life. She was close to tears when she saw the prints. I have not seen Lorraine since, but the feel-good experience is there whenever I see this picture. Maybe I will look her up and take another set of images. I am sure that the energy and dynamics will be different next time, or so I trust.


What advice you can give to a beginner in environmental portrait photography?
Anyone who wishes to photograph individuals in a manner that gives the viewer a glimpse into their subjects’ immediate environment has already completed the first step of the journey. That desire suggests an inherent passion and interest in people, and this will pave the way for the personal development and confidence that is a prerequisite for being effective in this particular genre of people photography. The next step in this quest is to consider the technical options, and in due course your decisions will hopefully end in what can be called a personal style of expression.

With regard to my own style, the term environmental portraiture does not rest easily with me. I feel that this genre of people photography indicates that the photographer records the subject within surroundings that assists the viewer to appreciate the more functional, explanatory considerations, putting too little emphasis on the more impassioned and emotive elements.

I can only offer advice on my type of work, in which I choose to include varying amounts of background detail, but these are merely to place the subject in context. This means that from my perspective, the point of interest and fascination in the photographer’s work should be the personality and aura of the subject. The inclusions in the frame can be limited and need not reflect or provide true environmental or cultural interest, or be of factual documentary value. However, they nevertheless should be of such a nature that their presence assists the viewer in appreciating the subject on a more personal level and engage with the subject with empathy.

I like to think of the way that I portray my subjects as contextual portraiture, which in contrast to environmental portraiture, is less of a recording and more emotional in its delivery. It is also less indicting and more forgiving than what can be termed as social portraiture, which often reflects a predetermined personal statement.

If your preferred medium is B&W, you should try to visualize the scene in shades of grey. With practice you will begin to understand and discern beforehand whether the contrast differentials between the more important areas of a composition will work or will not. On many occasions a simple shift in vantage point is all that is required.

As to environmental considerations, relying on what is available is my modus operandi. I shoot in low light, most commonly without reflectors, often using a high ISO and always using a tripod. Whenever possible, I try to include a few personal belongings — parts of the room or even the outside of the structure people live in —this in an attempt to show the viewer something that is owned or valued by the subject in the frame.

My preferred focal length lies between a true 20 mm and 30 mm, hence I try to not include objects in the frame between my subjects and my lens, since this can distract the viewer and will often further draw undue attention due to distortion. This applies to all body parts in particular for the same reasons. The environmental features that I try to include or that determine my setting are preferably in the same focal plane as the subject or behind them.

As far as the equivalent of “the decisive moment” is concerned, I feel that even a portrait that is taken in low light with a long shutter speed can have that distinguishing moment. It is my habit to take two or three images when I have a promising arrangement or scene for a portrait in front of me; when reviewing those near identical portraits, there will always be that one that is just a little different — the one that I connect with more than the others.

I find it very useful to communicate my purpose to the people I photograph, and as I have addressed before, to obtain their cooperation and maintain the enthusiasm of engagement about this joint exercise. You should never underestimate the willingness of others to assist and should be open to discuss and accept their suggestions. The desired result is often a compromise between what they wish for and what you intend to capture. The motive should be to work as a team, and this can be achieved in a matter of minutes. Even though you will inevitably need to dig quite deep into your own resources, to find connections and common ground to share, it still can be achieved. We all find our own ways of doing this, and like most things in life, the more you try, the sooner you will develop a method that works for you.


Lindiwie: Miss Sunshine 


Sonja and Nelie


His Soul Lives On In My Soul

Nwabisa and the Crooked House




Unyielding Love Abiding Sorrow

My Warrior
Impressive captures, straight from real life as it is. Eyecatching images.
Thank you very much for this insight Andre! I wish you where still using film, i could learn a lot from you!
I was so amazed to see all your work andre , very touching and very meaningful in every portrait
In this series of photos can be black children and women and husbands to see that poverty still live happy and full of hope. Thanks a lot and BRAVO!
Wonderful b&w photography Andre, love your work and contact with your subjects. Good to get to know you a little bit better. We have some things common; living in many different parts of the world, passion for photography, when portraying people making it a cooperative project and respect people the way they are. Keep up the good work!!