Get inspired by Michelle Viljoen, a young Cape Town-based photographer who we caught up with to find out how she started in photography, the gear she loves and what drives her inspiration.
If you follow the Orms Instagram account you’ll know that we’ve started a little mission called the Orms Maker Series, where we collaborate with local photographers, designers, and creatives to showcase a variety of inspirational projects. This month, we connected with Cape Town-based freelance Designer and Photographer, Michelle Viljoen. We caught up with her to find out how she started in photography, the gear she loves and what drives her inspiration. Stay tuned to the Orms Instagram feed, Michelle will be in the driver seat for the next few days!
Please describe yourself in three words.
Observant. Friendly. Whiskey.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your journey and how you discovered your love for photography?
I’m a Cape Town born freelance photographer and graphic designer. Over the last couple of years, I have discovered a love for street photography, a fascination with capturing the every day and the moments we often pass by.
There is an unpredictability to street photography, an exchange that happens when you take someone’s portrait when they see you – or when they don’t, it’s a silent intrusion – one that can be met with a smile after the fact, with anger and frustration, or on rare occasions, indifference. It is an interaction that sparks a love that I have for capturing moments, documenting cities and the people who make these cities their home.
My dad gave me my first camera, it was an old hand-me-down Fuji compact point and shoot. I remember sitting with my folks going through photo albums, especially the albums of my dad’s travels through the east and the states, at the time there wasn’t much to it, unbeknownst to me it sparked a deep love for both photography and travel.
What does a day in the life of ‘Michelle’ looks like?
I’ll snooze for a good 30min. Then I’ll usually go grab a coffee at The House of Machines or Rosetta, because let’s face it, nothing happens before coffee. Then I’ll head to my studio and kick off with admin followed by a day of designing. My days are usually a bit haphazard, one of the perks of working for yourself is flexibility (which a bit of a double-edged sword). Routine is important so I try to keep to a schedule. On days that I can I’ll wake up early to squeeze in a photo mission (like 6am – 7.30am) the city as it wakes up is probably one of my favourite things.
Who was your biggest mentor and what lessons did you learn from him/her?
Sjoe, this is a tricky one. I guess the biggest lessons / learning curve happens when you’re fresh out of college and dive into that first job. I had the privilege to learn from my then Head of Design / CD, Chris Moore. He taught me many things, design wise he taught me how to cut through the noise and reach a solid concept with a great design solution. What I valued most was learning by observation – like how to stay level headed and calm no matter how much pressure you’re under, make sure you have good music, put your head down and work, chip away at the big thing from one side and go. Ask for help when you need it, and then listen to advice when it’s given. In my opinion, those are some of the most important things to learn from the get go.
Your favourite camera to shoot with?
I love my Canon 5D Mk II, it’s a dream to shoot with. For fun, I’ll shoot with my dad’s old Pentax ME Super or Nikon EM.
What is the best part of photography and how does it add value to your life?
I can honestly say that there are very few things what recharges me the way photography does. It’s difficult to express that feeling through words, 30min out shooting in the streets does more for my energy levels than 8hours of sleep. I guess it’s a combination of letting my mind wonder, I stop worrying about my work or things that need to be done and after a couple of minutes, I find myself completely present in the moment. It’s a mindfulness that lets me observe the world around me, the effect that has is incredible – there’s this elation that comes with getting an awesome shot. Photography as a medium is an incredible creative outlet, but it’s also about the community and the people that I’ve had the privilege to meet and become friends with because of it. I think it’s safe to say it adds an immense value to my life.
Has there been a project that you’ve worked on that has been particularly memorable to you?
There’s been a whole bunch on the design side, but since I’ve moved away from photography as a source of income and started shooting purely for the love of it there hasn’t been any big memorable ‘projects’ per say. I am currently building a body of work that I’d love to exhibit in the near future, so even though it’s not live yet – it’s bound to be something really memorable for me.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I spend way too much time on Magnum, LensCulture, and good old Instagram. There’s so much content out there, and sure some would argue that there’s too much content and that it’s become an overcrowded mess, but it’s a mess that holds many many gems.
What other photographers do you follow closely on social media?
I’m obsessed with street photography at the moment, and each photographer has a completely different approach to how they shoot. Some shoot in a furtive way and others are up close and personal or in your face – then there’s everything in between.
My top picks would be Gideon De Kock (@gideondk1) – Next to New York City I would say that Hong Kong is right up there with a dream destination for street photography and Gideon’s shots prove that over and over again.
Jon Stockford (@jonstockford) – I’ve been following Jon for ages and met up with him in NYC earlier this year, he has a really fascinating way of shooting, it’s raw, honest and in the moment. Sometimes I think he’s like a young Martin Parr mixed with his own unique way of shooting – It’s quite something.
Tyrell (@tyrell3dri) – He has this knack for capturing really great abstract moments. It’s really fresh and beautiful.
Ian McNaught Davis (@ianmc0davis) / www.ianmcnaughtdavis.com – His work is really extremely honest and untouched, it’s something that I’ve come to appreciate more and more. Shot’s that feel real and make you ask questions have a huge value to them. The more you follow his work and the stories that go with them, the more you’ll find yourself wanting to see and hear more.
This list could go on forever but let’s stick with that for now 🙂
What are your other interests besides photography?
Reading. I read a lot, give me a good book (mostly fantasy) a cup of coffee and silence and I’ll be a very happy person.
How has Orms been a part of your photographic journey?
Orms has been the go-to for me for years, I remember saving up for ages till I could finally afford my 5D – I can’t even count the amount of times I must have walked in there only to ask questions and look at various options – always to be greeted with incredibly friendly and knowledgeable staff. Not to mention all the glass that I’ve bought along the way and the decision-making process that went with those purchases! When I think Orms, I basically think the mecca of future wishlist toys. Then comes the film processing lab which is a whole different story. I love shooting film, but I’ll be honest – I still get it wrong from time to time, so the Orms processing lab is basically like one giant lucky packet pick up to me.
What about the analogue process do you most prefer?
I enjoy how shooting film forces you to be more perceptive of the shots you take, but more so, I love how it also forces you to move on from a shot. You see something, compose and shoot. You can’t review it and try again, you can simply hope you got it, forget about it, and rediscover the shot when you go collect your prints or if you’re lucky enough when you develop them yourself.
What is it about film that you prefer more so than digital?
I love the feel you get from film, for example, the colour you get from a roll of Kodak Portra 400 is like nothing else and the subtle grain you get from shooting on Ilford FP4 is something beautiful. Then there’s the experimental element to shooting film, each film reacts differently, you can push and pull, you can play with development. There is so much possibility that it’s nearly endless. There’s nothing like waiting to go collect a recently developed set of prints.
That said, I still mostly shoot digital. I really enjoy the flexibility I have that comes with digital photography and post production. (It’/s also a bit lighter on the bank than film.
Do you favour any particular photographic style?
I love shooting black and white when I’m doing street photography, I think it’s partly due to being influenced by some of the greats like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. There’s an honesty in black and white photographs, I feel like there’s less clutter, less noise.
What do most people not know about shooting with film?
You don’t have to ‘know what you’re doing’ to shoot film. I think film lately has taken on this perception of being this pretentious medium for super knowledgeable film photographers. But you really don’t need to be a know it all. Just set your camera to the setting on the pack, read up about which light conditions that film is best suited for (or ask the folks at Orms – I still do that from time to time) and go for it! I even enjoy shooting on disposables every now then!
In your opinion, what makes a great street style photography?
Stay honest. Everyday life isn’t perfect, it’s not about manipulating a scene or art directing it. There are no special lights and stylists polishing a look – that’s not what street photography is about. To me, it’s about capturing moments that are raw. A moment that you stumble upon that strikes up an emotional reaction. A fascinating face, something odd, an interaction, an expression – anything that makes you think for a second. All of it. Great street photography makes you wonder, it intrigues you. If a photograph does that, then, in my opinion, it’s good shot.
What’s your ultimate camera and lens?
Oh boy! I’m a big Canon fan, but I’m really happy with my current set up (even though it’s not brand new!), I would love to have 35mm f1.4 L USM lens BUT the one camera I would LOVE to own one day is hands down the Leica M with a 24mm 1.4 lens, but I guess I’ll need to win the lotto first 😉
Why do you think film is still very relevant these days?
I think with the fast paced lives we live these days we are inherently craving a switch to something that slows us down, even for a moment. Film is the foundation of photography – it will never go away.
If you are not familiar with the Orms Maker Series? Our mission is simple – to spread inspiration. No one knows for sure where inspiration comes from. All we can be sure of is that it exists. Some of us chase it; others have enough of it for all of us combined. It’s just one of those things. You know it when it hits you, and when it does, you have to act. You have to bake, paint, capture – you have to create.
So our big idea with the Orms Maker Series, to inspire creativity through beautiful photos of the creative process. Over the coming months, we will be collaborating with local photographers, designers and creatives to showcase a variety of inspirational projects. Stay tuned, we’ve got so much more coming your way!