Bringing new photographic perspectives to the world
Currently based in Cape Town, South Africa, Stephanie Blomkamp is a busy creative; between founding and editing high art photography magazine Oath, curating exhibitions, mentoring fellow photographers and finding time to take her own photos with her Hasselblad 503 CXI, she has certainly learnt a thing or two about what makes a good photograph.
And beyond that, Stephanie has some invaluable insights about how to get your photography career going, as well as how to get past self-doubt and stand out in a world which is amplifying more diverse voices than ever before.
Photography is like therapy
Stephanie describes her style as structured and surreal. She established herself on the world stage with magazine covers and exhibitions of her work – a result of many years learning the craft.
Asked what qualities she looks for in other artists, she simply says “authenticity and audacity.”
But as she is asked to name her female idols, she elaborates further. “Frida Kahlo – My patron saint. She took the personal and made it universal. She stands as a beacon of critical self-awareness, and blazing female empowerment.
“And my Mama, the greatest light of them all. I was lucky to have such a strong woman raise me. Although she didn’t instruct or preach, it was more like she led by example. Both my Mama and Frida taught me that life is about endurance, but above all it’s about love. It is what you choose to do with that love, whatever form it is that will give your life shape, and I channel a deep love into the medium of photography.”
Photography is a passion which, for Stephanie, has been in her life as long as she can remember. “My obsession with visuals led me to a career in photography,” she said.
“I realized for me, for my own practise, that the act of photographing something, someone, or executing an idea in my head is pure therapy. Being young and making my own dark room at a time of personal upheaval was therapeutic. At times feeling disconnected, it was through the lens that I was able to reconnect. It is true that my Hasselblad is a strong link to my feeling part of the world.”
She photographs with both film and digital cameras, and came to specialise in portraiture and conceptual photography. When asked how to create the perfect portrait, she explained: “When I hear this question my gut reaction is to echo Robert Frank: “There is one thing a photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment”, because it’s true. It boils down to the tingling of an emotion. What does it stir in you? Is it pleasant or unpleasant? If it moves you then it’s got something to connect us all.
“Aesthetically, I like portraits that are clean, as in visually uncluttered. What I find to be effective in my own work is a straightforward, lightly composed shot. One where I lay the foundations and create a safe space for my subject to shine, and I pull the trigger. I use the same principle when I am curating a project with an emphasis on portraits. Drawn to images that are simple yet have a profound connectivity.”
Her strong belief in the power of film photography – despite the supposed convenience and ease of use with digital – is a sign of her dedication to the craft and art of photography as a whole.
“Photography is pure magic. It really is!” she exclaimed. “We take it for granted with the snap of an iPhone, but when you shoot film you are reminded of its brilliance. Film for me is so special, for colour nothing beats it, and for black and white, well – I’ve got a thing for grain and specks of dust.”
She also has a thing for magazines and their ability to open doors for photographers across the globe. From a young age she loved art books, so to create one of her own was a dream come true. “I love what I do, photography is my greatest passion. Whether it’s my own photography or my work as editor/curator I am constantly surrounded by creativity and strong visuals.”
Shining a light on African photographers with Oath
The creation of Oath magazine is one of Stephanie’s career highlights – and through this platform, she works to shine a light on photographers all over Africa. “It’s a curated view of the sweeping frontier of contemporary African photography. In simple terms, Oath is an ode to photography. In reality, Oath is a means to showcase photography coming from Africa.
“[The idea] was born from two emotions: Frustration and curiosity. From a young age, my access to the photographic world was through magazines, books, and my love of printed matter. Which in turn was the gateway to museums, galleries and the art world.
“When I moved back home to South Africa after living in Canada I was shocked to find that I couldn’t access international titles in Cape Town, but more shocking was the fact that there was nothing home grown, not a single photography publication on the shelves.
“I became hyper curious about the photography scene in the DRC or Ghana, Zimbabwe, South Africa and all the other countries. Who was shooting there and what type of photographs were emerging? I couldn’t find a central point of information. America has Aperture, Europe has many titles including FOAM and The British Journal of Photography.
“Where was a publication for the African continent? Oath is the solution to this problem.”
Oath has now had two editions produced – themed Curiosity and Love respectively – and is sold in art and photography book stores across the globe. Stephanie currently works mostly on the magazine with her time, curating photos and making contacts with upcoming photographers among many other tasks. This is all the more challenging in a world which some say is leaving the physical and joining the digital.
“It’s been a turbulent journey, print is hard – and my mission with the Oath platform extends beyond the printed page.
“You need to have a very compelling reason to do print in a digital age. But I believe in the power of a collectable and tactile object. There is something sacred too for photographers to finally see their work in print. It is a validation. I want Oath to serve as a beacon for photopapers on the continent - a place of inspiration and support.”
And Stephanie has big plans for Oath for the future, believing it will continue to put photographers on the world stage in a democratized way. “It’s an incredibly exciting time for photography – a highly democratic art form, and what’s happening in Africa needs to be seen and championed.
“It’s time for work from here to be seen on the global stage and for photographers from Africa to join the larger photographic discourse. I’d like Oath’s mission to continue so that photographers included in its pages and events can have the visibility they deserve. That’s what I’d like to achieve: to provide a platform to grant visibility and provide a springboard for emerging talents. “
Mentoring advice – go out and shoot
Thanks to her illustrious career in photography and magazine editing, Stephanie can offer a wealth of information and tips to newcomers to the industry. And she’s made it part of her mission to lift others up and celebrate their craft.
With the photographers she mentors, she admitted the most common question is simply ‘is this good?’ – “And the answer is usually yes!
“We all need someone to root for us and I do this well. I look for the good elements, granted at times I can be ruthless, but very constructively. My skill set is spotting a talent at the very beginning, and then nurture that light. When bodies of work grow I really shine at editing together fragments, and taking threads I observe and linking it all together.”
Apart from validating their work, she is often asked about the business side of being a photographer – from invoicing to writing statements and bios, or submitting proposals for grants. Having a mentor to help with this part of the business can be the difference between becoming a professional or not.
Stephanie also offered some insights on how she chooses the photographers for Oath magazine – “Oath’s purpose is to carve out a space for photographers to share their pledge to the medium. Photography is difficult, so what are they aiming to do with their craft? What are they committed to? If this comes across both visually and in my communications with them then it merits being included. Oath has a celebratory voice, so when I encounter great talent I want sing its praise.”
She is also full of valuable tips for people looking to better their photography skills, explaining: “first, GO OUT AND SHOOT.
“Second, find a rabbit hole, something that you are curious about, and go down it…armed with your camera. Experiment. Third, learn darkroom techniques, it helps to see photography from a film developing side to understand the medium.
“Research photographers you like. Research art movements you are drawn to. Read. Recontextualize what you see around you through your lens.
“And also, take a course in the history of photography. The more informed you are about what it was at its genesis, the more you can take part and help shape the future of it.”
Giving women more visibility
As a magazine editor, Stephanie believes that it’s up to people in her position to give women opportunities to get their work seen – something she actively does in her work with Oath.
“The key is to give women photographers more visibility. To re-write the history books and sing greater praise for founding female photographers that paved the way. To commission more female photographers.
“I know in my role I am constantly seeking female photographers to commission. It’s the job of heads of departments to make this change. Also actually paying them what they deserve.”
She has also seen an upturn in women in higher positions in photography – something she hopes will continue downwards as well.
“I’ve been noticing a changing of the guards in the art world. Many strong females are being appointed as directors of museums, and there’s a shake-up in private gallery spaces.
“I would like to see that trickle down into more female photographers being exhibited. My hope is that we support one another, be secure in our work to confidently celebrate and uplift each other.”
A Hasselblad camera lost and found
For Stephanie, Hasselblad has a very special place in her heart. Her film camera was cruelly taken from her but somehow, like a historic love story, they found each other once again.
“When I graduated from University my brother bought me a Hasselblad 503xci. When I opened it my heart swelled, what an honour! I pledged to always shoot with it and to dedicate my life to photography. It is not just a valuable camera, it is deeply symbolic to me.
“I got the gift in in 2012, flash forward to 2021 and I had a devastating blow in Cape Town, I had a home invasion, and I was robbed of everything… including my beloved Hasselblad. Took months of grieving, felt like I lost a limb, and then after trying to find it with the police with no luck, I eventually gave up.
“Then in a peculiar turn of events I encountered someone who was in the market for a medium format camera; and mentioned that they saw my specific model (rare in SA) for sale in town via a vintage camera dealer.
“So I put on my detective hat, and sure enough I tracked down the naughty dude who was selling my camera in Cape Town. Long story short, in the most miraculous of miracles, I got my Hasselblad back. If it’s not a family heirloom now after this story I am not sure what is. It’s going to my grandkids, and because it’s so reliable, they can probably still shoot on it in the future – just hoping that a passion for photography can be genetically inherited!”
She describes Hasselblad as “magical, reliable, satisfying… and quite simply the best of the best!”