Madiba magic

Hillcrest Camera Club was very fortunate this week to be able to host, for the second time, photographer Matthew Willman. For those who do not know the name, Matthew works as a photographer for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, among other clients, and still regularly photographs our iconic former president. One of Matthew’s pictures, which many around the world will have seen, is of the palm of Mandela’s hand. The picture was used as the poster for Mandela’s 46664 Birthday Concert and is included in the banner on the 46664 Concert website.

On his previous visit to the club, Matthew explained how he had seen Mandela at an event, while still at school, and decided then and there that he wanted to meet the president. It took a long time and an incredible amount of persistence but eventually, the dream came true, and Matthew was invited to interview and photograph Mandela. He has written about the experience, and there are a number of the pictures from that shoot on show as well.

Since then, Mathew has photographed many of the great and good, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Bill Clinton, Annie Lennox and many, many others. You can get a feel for the scope of his work in his online portfolio.

Anyhow, he was at the camera club last Tuesday night to share his vision of photography in three mini-sessions, which included lighting, location, and composition.

  • Lighting: Better pictures have better lighting, and Matthew demonstrated as much with many of his own images. Many of these were taken using only ambient light but some had flash added, to draw more even attention to the subject. In several of the pictures, for example, he used the technique of underexposing the background and using flash to brighten the subject. The subject really pops when the exposure contrast between it and the background increases.
  • Location: An obvious point, perhaps, but one that photographers sitting at home wondering what to photograph, often forget. There is an old exercise where you have to take a picture within a meter of your back door, but Matthew’ point was that you’ve got to get out and about if you want great pictures.
  • Composition: With reference to his work, Matthew showed how composition is one of the most important elements of a picture, in drawing attention to the subject. Leading lines, the rule of thirds, and all the other compositional devices are very important. He is not blind to the possibilities of breaking the rules, however, and will put his subject dead-center in the frame, or break any of the other rules, if it works.

Overall, the message that came through on the evening was that gear and technical perfection are unimportant, when it comes to photography. The most important thing, for Matthew, is to be emotionally involved with the subject and that the resulting pictures successfully convey that emotion.

He did not use the phrase himself, but the message was also that successful pictures are made, not taken. The making of a picture could have many aspects including a careful choice of viewpoint, including just the elements needed to tell the story, the use of light to draw attention to the subject, and waiting for a decisive moment. Snapping mindlessly away is not the way to get the jog job done.

We club members learnt plenty that we can hopefully apply to our own photography and were otherwise entertained with anecdotes from shoots that Matthew had been on. One very interesting story concerned a recent visit to Nelson Mandela’s rural home in Qunu in the Transkei, where Matthew happened to notice a substantial red leather chair in the office attached to the home. It turned out that the chair had been Mandela’s while he was president of South Africa. Permission was sought, and given, and the chair was carted out into the veld (countryside), where it became the star of an impromptu photo shoot.


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