Q&A compiled by LIZAR VAN REENEN
Obie Oberholzer was once known as a commercial photographer, senior lecturer, to eventually becoming Associate Professor of Photography at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. He now is retired from academia and works from his home in Natures Valley. He is known as an acclaimed travel photographer and seen as South Africans’ favourite photographer. Over the years, Obie is best known for his free spirit, humour and liaise fair approach to art and photography. Notorious for his avid storytelling – both with and without the camera, he always travels alone, occasionaly sleeps in graveyards, and generally refers to himself as being a bull-shitter and a visual thug with a sense of humour (since her retirement from teaching, his wife Lynn now accompanies him on his journeys). He has produced 11 wine table books, has had over 40 one-man exhibitions and belongs to the German Picture Agency, Liaf. Although his journeys take him to many strange and adventurous places, his life long dream is to find the mysterious and fabled Fokkelfontein.
GOING FROM ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY TO LITERALLY EATING DIRT AND DUST IN SEARCH OF A “PHOTO STORY”. WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO BECOME A TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHER? I was sweating wine and dust long before I became a professor. From the start of my teaching career, I would travel to way-out places during the holidays. My motto became: “Life without adventure, is no life at all”.
WHEN AND WHERE WAS THE FIRST JOURNEY YOU EMBARKED ON AND WHAT WAS THAT FIRST EXPERIENCE LIKE? My first major journey was around the early 1980’s. I was sponsored by G.T. Ferreira of Rand Merchant Bank to photograph some of the place names in South Africa. I learned to absorb and enjoy the back roads of our country in a Fiat 128. The left front seat was removed and a hole was cut into the front dashboard to make enough space for a bed.
YOU WENT FROM FILM TO DIGITAL, FROM AN UNCOMFORTABLE FIAT TO A ISUZU DOUBLE CAB 4X4. WILL YOU SOON SWITCH OVER TO A GPS INSTEAD OF YOUR “NO MAP, NO SCHEDULE” TO FOKKELSFONTEIN METHOD? I changed to digital in 2008. You get a feel for a country once you’ve zigzagged it for 40 years. Now I have a Canon EOS 6D that has a built in GPS. If I really want to know where I am – then I simply take a picture. I still maintain that: “Freedom, is not quite knowing where you are going”.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE LONGEST JOURNEY AWAY FROM HOME AND DO YOU EVER GET LONELY WHEN TRAVELLING TO REMOTE PLACES? The longest journey I have been on was for my book ‘Beyond Bagamoyo’ which was done in 1994. My assistant was a man called Giles and we travelled 35 000 kilometres in 9 months from the Cape to Cairo. Loneliness is a state of mind. If the mind is constantly occupied with the search for images, then this feeling of loneliness subsides.
HOW MANY JOURNEYS HAVE YOU EMBARKED ON IN TOTAL? I have lost count on the number of journeys that I have been on since 1975. I would guess that it would probably be around the world a couple of times. I would guess at 40 major journeys, maybe a lot more? Only the long dusty road and horizons will ever know. Motto: ” Over one horizon lies another”.
IF YOU COULD CHOOSE ONE JOURNEY OR PLACE THAT WAS MOST MEMORABLE, WHICH ONE WOULD IT BE? That’s a difficult one. I would say that it’s the assignment that I did for the New York travel magazine, Conde Nast Traveler to the Island of Socotra. This island belongs to Yemen and lies just off the Horn of Africa. It is a tropical desert island about 130 km long and 45 km wide. It is said to be one of the most alien places on earth. About half of its fauna and flora only exist on this island alone. It is also famous for its Blood Dragon Trees.
YOU’VE BECOME KNOWN AS A RACONTEUR. IS IT BECAUSE YOU LOVE SHARING YOUR STORIES OF YOUR TRAVELS OR BECAUSE YOU SIMPLY LOVE TALKING NON-STOP? I like to share journeys and situations with people. Actually, come to think of it, I talk very little. When travelling through Africa, your best companion is a sense of humour.
WHY DO YOU OFTEN REFER TO YOURSELF AS AN ASSHOLE OR BULL-SHITTER? Self humour with a quiet streak of pictorial confidence. My best friends often add the asshole bit.
WHY DO YOU SLEEP IN GRAVEYARDS? WHY NOT GO TO A BACKPACKER OR PITCH A TENT? Most graveyards are situated outside of town and are very spiritual, extremely quite, always have running water and have almost zero criminality. There are no backpackers where I usually go and boy scouts pitch tents.
YOU’VE PHOTOGRAPHED AND EXPERIENCED SOUTH AFRICA AND ITS PEOPLE LIKE NO OTHER SOUTH AFRICAN. HOW WOULD YOU SUM UP YOUR COUNTRY IN ONE SHORT SENTENCE? THE HAPPYSADLAND
TO VIEW MORE OF OBIE OBERHOLZER’S WORK – VISIT www.obieoberholzer.net