Featured Photographer: Johnson Tsoku Maela

by . March 18th, 2015

Finding inspiration from dreams and fueling creativity by constantly moving are just some of the things we can learn from today’s featured photographer. Meet Johnson Maela, Johnson is a photographer based in Cape Town and has been taking wonderful conceptual photographs, portraits and street photos.

Patrick: Hello Johnson! How are you? Please tell us something about yourself.
Johnson: Hi Patrick! I’m very well, thank you for speaking with me. Straight to the hard questions huh? I was born and raised in a township called Lebowakgomo in the Limpopo province, South Africa, currently based in Cape Town. I’ve always been fascinated with the art of storytelling, ever since my mother started telling me elaborate bed time stories as a child. Since then I’ve gone out of my way to learn as many storytelling platforms as I can in a hope to one day create a unified narrative translatable across all these mediums. Right now I’m focusing on photography and it has really opened my eyes to a more surreal world.

© Johnson Tsoku Maela

P: How do you usually start your day?
I’m a nocturnal creature! I’d sleep through the day then wake up to play an affluent vigilante in Gotham at night if I had my way. Mornings are very difficult for me so I try to begin each day with silence and a prayer of thanks because the moment you step out of the comfort of your home it becomes anyone’s game, everything is thrown out of balance. Only a clear mind will prevail.

P: Can you share us your creative process?
My creative process is synonyms with the relationship I have with myself: It’s something I learn about on a day-to-day basis. The more I learn about the process, the more I learn about myself. My process is also a chaotic, it’s a process of constant searching and going to places where you feel most vulnerable in a deep meditative trance. It’s a spiritual process.

Most artists that I know [of] usually know what the final image will look like, it’s a vivid picture in their minds, but I never know what I’m going to end up with because I’m not the one creating, my Muse is. There hasn’t been a single conceptual photograph that I have conceived further than the starting point, in my mind.

© Johnson Tsoku Maela

Johnson Tsoku Maela
“I’m just going to keep creating and telling as many stories and keep learning and getting better at what I do.”

P: How do you tackle creative block?
It’s important for a creative to study themselves and define what a creative block is to them before they can tackle it. In my experience, creative block is a symptom of fear – fear of silence, the fear of non-existence, fear of mediocrity in search of perfection and most importantly the fear of the self and what we are capable of. My remedy for a creative block is quite simple: Keep moving. Don’t think about it too much. What good has ever come from that piece of advice you ask? ‘Rediscover not Recreate‘, the self-portrait I shot during an alleged creative block.
© Johnson Tsoku Maela
P:How did you discover your love for photography? Was it something you wanted to do ever since?
J: I’ve never given photography a second thought in my life. I own a camera today because I wanted to make films and for some time my camera sat in my room and gathered dust. That was until I collapsed one morning before work and I found myself laying in a hospital bed for four days with more questions than answers. My mortality was nothing more than peaks and valleys on an EKG monitor.

I arrived at my home on the fifth day and took a portrait of myself looking up into a light. Highly accidental but the portrait had such a story to it and from that moment onwards I wanted to use photography as a medium to tell more abstract stories that we can all relate to.

P:I am really interested with your conceptual photography work. Where do you get your ideas for your photographs?
J: The ideas behind the conceptual work I do come from dreams and imagination. I believe that dreaming is a human’s way of tapping into a higher frequency of consciousness, a frequency we do not have access to in our waking hours. The places we go to in our dreams are real and if we paid more attention to the signs and symbols in our dreams, we would have a better grasp of our reality. The work speaks to people because it appeals to their souls more than it does to their minds. It appeals to emotion and not logic.
© Johnson Tsoku Maela© Johnson Tsoku Maela

P: When you are shooting, what are the common obstacles that you encounter? And how do you go around it? 
J: I’m a newbie in photography, it’s been like 5 months now? So I deal with a lot of technical challenges when I photograph. Especially because the self-portraits are shot via self timer with no trigger or remote so I have to find ways of getting focus on the subject (me) and I use an entry level camera that has its limitations as far as camera stops go, but I take it all with a pinch of salt and find creative ways to get the image.

I’ve broken a few lenses in the process but it has all been worth it really. On a personal level, I find difficult to explain my ideas to people or they take a while to understand the idea, but I’m working really hard at being more layman and vocal when I work with other artists.

P: To you, what are the most important lessons you learned from these obstacles?
I’ve learnt to be more confident! I’m a quiet person who likes to keep to themselves and I used to keep my ideas to myself because I didn’t think I could pull them off. Now with a bit of trial and error and a bit of self belief I’ve managed to pull off a drop in an ocean of ideas.

I’ve also learnt that it’s not the camera that makes the photo, but the photographer. So my 500D and I are going to take over the world! (hahaha)
© Johnson Tsoku Maela© Johnson Tsoku Maela
P: The Ma Ndau: The guardians is wonderful not only because the image is amazing but the text that accompanies it is definitely inspiring. Is it based from personal experience? We’d like to hear your story about it. 
Thank you, I’m really happy that it connected with you! I had a childhood that was filled with a lot of loss. A lot of my friends passed away when I was growing up. I also lost my father and my favorite aunt (who just happened to be his sister) in the space of a year, then followed by my grandmother when I was only 9 years old. I felt like death followed me everywhere I went and that soon I’d be next. But my life always had a light, even in the darkest times, there was a light.

I never really understood where that light came from until recently when I started embracing my ancestors (Ma Ndau) as my guardian angels, angels that I can speak to and hear them speak back to me through my work. They’ve always protected me and showed me that I am strong enough to make it through anything in life.

The cracks on the wall resemble that strength. If I pushed hard enough, that wall would fall apart and the shark in the water would never get to me because they’re watching. I think we all have those moments when we can’t explain how we made it and this portrait was made so we can remember to be thankful.

P: Aside from conceptual photography, you also do portrait and street photography. If you are to only pick one from the three what would be it and why? 
That’s a really tough one! I love connecting with people through photography and portraits do a great job. They tell personal stories and you share a moment with the subject. But I would have to say conceptual photography because for me I feel it requires something more. Perhaps it’s the ability to create something from nothing. You become a creator of worlds.
© Johnson Tsoku Maela
P: Of all the photographs you have done which one is your favorite and what is the story behind it? 
No! Don’t make me pick one! I’m on the spot so I’m going to say ‘Rediscover not Recreate’ for its sheer simplicity and strong message. How many of us live out every single day comparing ourselves to someone else. Trying to conform into a reality that isn’t ours? We spend more than half of our lives trying to recreate ourselves, to become something we are not.

The irony is that we spend most of our days trying to get to know other people very well. We buy dinners, go to movies and do things with them because we feel it’s important to know someone if we’re going to be friends or in a relationship with them. To build trust.

Do we spend time with ourselves? Do we know ourselves well enough? Everyone knows what their favorite color is, but do you know what ticks off? Do you know what you want? Do you know who you are? Life is not a journey of recreation.

Life is a journey of rediscovery. If you know yourself well enough, then no one else can tell you who you are. For me my medium of rediscovery was art, so I used a paint brush to wipe off the facade.

Johnson Maela
“I think we all have those moments when we can’t explain how we made it and this portrait was made so we can remember to be thankful.”

P: Are there any photographers or artists close to your heart that inspires you? 

J: This is going to sound very arrogant, but not really. Well, I haven’t found one that speaks to me just yet. I like Brooke Shaden’s work though. It’s absolutely brilliant! I think I’m going through a phase where my work looks something like her’s in a way with the use of textures and simulating lighting in scenes.

I like a lot of conceptual photographers, but I do sometimes leave with the feeling that their work, albeit very stunning, looks similar so I try not to reference too much from them. I stick to what I know and I try to stay true to my process.
© Johnson Tsoku Maela
P: What do you do to stay inspired?
I spend time going through other artists work really. Pages on pages. I watch films. I read novels. Conversations keep me inspired (F.O.M.O came from a conversation). People and human behavior keep inspired. I also like sad songs (hahaha), they get me into the mood. I’m not sure how that works, but don’t fix it if it ain’t broken, right? I encourage you to listen to Max Richter’s ‘On the nature of sunlight’ before you create anything. You’ll go from a kitten to a Tiger. Raaawr!

P: If you are given the chance to photograph one famous person (alive or deceased) who would it be and why?
Why do you keep asking me to choose one, Patrick?! I have so many! Albert Einstein is one of them, but I would imagine he would a boring subject to photograph. We would have lovely chats over tea though. Salvdor Dali is the person I would love to photograph. He looks like he was so much fun! I’m also writing a short film about a young conceptual photographer who discovers his father is Salvador Dali. In case you’re wondering, I’m that young conceptual photographer.
© Johnson Tsoku Maela
P: Where do you see yourself 5 years from now? And what are your future plans? 
As crazy as it sounds, I don’t do five year plans and so forth, I literally take each day as it comes and put my all into everything I do. A lot can happen in five years and sometimes it’s not what we plan that gets us to that place, it’s what we do in the present and right now I’m just going to keep creating and telling as many stories and keep learning and getting better at what I do. It would great if my work would be in galleries all over the world and in people’s homes though! No pressure, oh great Universe.

For the moment I’m working on exhibiting a bit more and shooting a new set images that have a different look and feel compared to some of the conceptual work I’ve shot. Something nostalgic and vintage with a modern touch to it. I want to make a movie in pictures! I want to take it to the next level. I’m ready!

P: Thank you Johnson for spending some time with us. Anyone you would like to be thankful for?
Thank you for having me Patrick. What would I be without my lovely mother? She has been very supportive of my creative journey from day one and I really do believe that without her stories and her guidance I wouldn’t have been the man I am today.
© Johnson Tsoku Maela© Johnson Tsoku Maela
Don’t forget to check out Johnson’s website and his Facebook page to see more of his awesome works!