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Interview with photographer & photojournalist, Chris de Beer-Procter

chris de beer-proctor

Chris de Beer-Procter is a Cape Town-based photojournalist specialising in documentary and portraiture. Her work focuses primarily on the stories of LGBTQ+ people in Africa, on the representations of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and on gender and women’s rights.

Chris has done some really amazing work helping people tell their stories – so I’ve asked her to tell us a bit of hers! I met up with Chris for a chat about the photojournalism industry in South Africa, her work, and the stories that have most impacted her.

How were you first introduced to the world of photojournalism?

I guess I was always in love with art, and I was never gifted with talent in painting or drawing. And so photography appealed to me at a very young age because I realized that I could create art with things that already existed. I didn’t need that kind of skill, you know. Obviously then there was a huge learning curve on the photographic skill side, which has taken me decades… And I always loved reading. I was a big reader. And so when I went to university, I kind of thought I wanted to possibly go into publishing. I don’t know, why journalism? I don’t know what sparked it, but I was always a very argumentative child. Very curious. I was always looking into interesting things.

Good makings of a journalist.

Ja, and my other major at university was English literature. So books have always kind of been a thing for me.

So was it literature and journalism?

Yeah. My majors were English and journalism. In my third year, I specialized in photojournalism, which encompasses everything. You do a bit of video, you do radio, you do TV, tabloid, you do a bit of everything.

And do you still do a bit of everything? 

Yeah, so that actually stood me in very good stead. I mean, journalism these days is a very different industry to the one that my lecturers came up in. But Rhodes – I mean, give it the shit it deserves sometimes – but they were actually quite on the buck of those things with us. They said digital, digital, digital, and they hammered it into us that you’re gonna need to do video, you’re gonna need to do radio. If you’re going to take photos, you’re gonna need to learn how to write. You know? And so I think having been able to kind of touch on all those specialties allowed me to grow that skill set.

Kasi karate is ‘Like Water’ – read the story here

Would you say there’s a barrier to entry for photography in Cape Town?

Ja, I think so. I think the main barrier to entry is that it’s a lot of money just to start. To start, you need a couple of grand to get a camera, and you need a laptop to edit it on. And then I think also when people are deciding what career path they wanna take, especially if your parents are going to encourage you towards a career, they’re not very likely to be like, do the visual arts, you know, they’re like become a doctor, thank you very much.

I also think that these things are always systemic, you know, they’re exponential. It’s that thing of ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. People are more likely to think that they can become what their parents and their community are. Things seem more doable when you’re surrounded by them. Of course, there are outliers. But yeah, I think that’s part of it.

I mean, I’m noticing a huge change, especially in the journalistic industry. You have things like women photograph, and the African Photojournalism Database. I’m part of a group called Native, where they’re really trying to foreground authentic native voices, people of colour, queer folk.  A lot of grants and opportunities that are out there are explicitly looking for previously marginalized groups from various countries. So there’s a lot more opportunity. Still, very competitive. But I think it’s making inroads. Hopefully, we’re getting to the point where we realize that women, people of colour, marginalised groups like queer folk – that part of what makes us different is also what makes us interesting and what makes us in some ways better at certain things than others.

What would you say is the most important story (or stories) you’ve photographed?

Ah, that’s a hard one. I mean, the one that pops into my head immediately is the LGBTQ rights stuff that I’m working on. I still consider it myself as being at a very early stage of a long project. I think I’ve realized, okay, this is my life’s work. You know, like this is what I’m going to be focussing on in some way for the rest of my life. Not necessarily Namibia, which is where I’m focusing at the moment.  But in some way or form, LGBTQ rights is what I want my work to contribute to.

So, Namibia was a really good starting point for that. I think it was important for me because it really marked quite a shift in how I viewed myself as a journalist. When you’re being taught journalism, and you learn about the industry, there’s always this thing of being impartial. I remember not really wanting to put anything personal about my life out there, because it was like, ‘no, no, I’m just the observer’. And I think people have started to pull that apart significantly over the last couple of years and been like, well everybody has a perspective, and actually rather be upfront about it.

Namibian court rejects couple’s appeal to bring their babies home – read the story on Chris’s website

Because media isn’t really objective. 

No matter hard you try. And that whole idea of like, ‘you can’t be too personally invested in the story’ – there is nothing I’m more invested in than gay rights. It’s literally, it’s my rights.

So I really started grappling with that and realizing, actually that makes me really proud to do the story, to be an insider reporting on this, because if anyone’s gonna be talking about it, it should be us. So it really changed my perspective on how I could report and the view that I took on this thing. And to be more explicit about the fact that I’m not going to justify my rights to you – that’s a given for me. I’m not gonna go there. I’m gonna report it from our perspective. And that perspective is valid.

Do you know this idea – I don’t know if you’ve heard of the view from nowhere? I think it’s a journalistic concept initially, but it’s this idea that the journalist, the researcher ‘has the view from nowhere’, that they’re an impartial non-entity kind of thing. But implicit in that is that they’re just a certain kind of person that is by nature impartial- they’re the observer, they have the view from nowhere. But they’re not impartial. They’re just generally cis-het white men with the ‘default perspective’. And so by not saying I’m a gay photojournalist (I mean, obviously it’s not always relevant), you’re otherwise assuming I’m straight. And so the idea is that there’s no such thing as a view from nowhere, there’s no such thing as neutral. Everybody has a view from somewhere.

Yeah. We’re all informed by our own experience.

Exactly. And so, stop pretending. I mean, look, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be fair and ethical, and I’m still going to look at what the other side is saying. I’m still gonna be critical. But at the same time, there are a certain number of values that are inherent in my work because they’re inherent to me. And there are a lot more journalists working like that.

Very interesting. And so you say that it’s just the beginning, the stories you covered in Namibia?

Yeah. I want to go back. I produced two stories on them – two, three stories – and then I’ve been working on a profile from there. But there’s still going to be a Supreme court case soon. The case that I went there for was a High Court case. Basically,  it’s two Namibians who each had partners who were from other countries and both couples had had their marriages convened in other countries, so that they could get married. The one was done in Germany and the other one was done in South Africa. So they combined their cases. And basically, they’re just asking for recognition of their marriages that were convened outside of Namibia.

This is the thing about Namibia, is that there are all these cases coming up, which I find really fucking exciting and interesting.

That are being brought up and pushed forward.

Yeah, and for such a small country that has not really had many gay rights cases in the last 20 years to all of a sudden have over 10 cases sitting in the High Court and Supreme Court. Tell me something’s not going on there!

It’s just this group of incredible activists, who don’t always mean to be activists. They never wanted to be activists. I mean, some of them do, some of them are born for it, but most of them just wanna be in love, man. And they want to be able to raise their kids in the country that they live in. And they want to be able to work in the country that their spouse comes from and that they come from.

I’ve called this series of work on Namibian LGBTQ rights,  ‘Where We Belong’. This comes from the activists themselves. At one point when I wasn’t there, I was watching videos of these activists sitting and chanting ‘we belong, we belong, we belong’. And that kind of inspired the idea of something a bit bigger, talking about how the right to marry someone is the right to be where you belong. Because a lot of people end up in self-imposed exile, end up leaving the country because what is a country that I can’t get married in, where I can’t do any of that stuff. So it’s like, ‘you’re not kicking me out, but I can’t be where I’m not actually home’.

And then you have to leave behind your whole community and everyone you know…

Your family, your job. A lot of them have really beautiful careers. I mean, they’re lecturers, business people, some run non-profits. They’re putting so much into the community, into Namibia, and into their skills development. They’re people with a lot of value in the community. And then feeling like you’re being told there’s no place for you, it’s pretty fucked up.

Face to face with the LGBTQIA+ activists of Namibia – read here

And you say that you want to report here as well. I know Cape Town is one of the gay cities of the continent. But are there still issues that come up a lot?

Yeah, I think that that’s one of the great sadnesses about our country is that I think we were the 5th country in the world to legalise gay marriage – we have one of the best constitutions in the world – and we were one of the first countries in the world to allow gay marriage. It’s not technically gay marriage. You kind of fight on the semantics of that, but for me in all practical senses of the world, it is gay marriage. We’re still the only country on the continent that allows gay marriage.

So we’ve got these amazing protections. We’ve got incredible laws that protect queer people, but we also have really bad violence and homophobia.

I mean, I’d still rather be here. I say to my wife all the time, thank God that I met you in this city and this time, because luck of the draw, I could have been anywhere. And that’s actually what it boils down to, I think what makes me so feel so passionately about gay rights. When I’m interacting with these activists in other parts of the country and continent, there is nothing that makes us different. I just happen to live in Cape Town, you know?

Even to be a woman – I’m so relieved to be living right now. So relieved. 

There’s never been a better time! Even though it’s still shit. And South Africa is also a really big recipient of refugees, because things are worse in many other African countries. So when you go to the Pride parades you’ll often see people from other countries that have essentially left their lives and can’t go back. Again, it’s not perfect here, but at least they can be themselves. Especially trans and gender diverse people.

Have you faced any challenges in getting exposure for your work?

Ja. I’ve only been freelancing now for about six years, I think. And as soon as I came out of my full-time job, every photographer I knew, I was like, let me buy you a coffee, tell me what you know. And everyone said thick skin, thick skin, thick skin. Rejection can kind of become the name of the game at some point because, the way a lot of our work happens is, you pitch. You’re sending emails all the time saying ‘I have this idea for a story. What do you think? I’d love to work on it with you’ and you won’t get a response.

So yeah, there’s been a bit of that. There are times when there is a story that I think is important, an editor won’t. And then I always feel like I really have to push myself to move on from that. Because I tend to think, ‘if I just phrased it differently or pitched it differently or been more timeous or managed to get it to other editors…’ But you can’t take on all the responsibility of exposure.

And so, what publications do you work with, if you’re working with multiple editors? I know New Frame.

Yes. So New Frame was pretty much my best relationship, at least in South Africa. And what’s really great about them is that they often syndicate to other papers. I don’t know if it’s technically syndication, but, you know, if I do a story on something it’ll end up in the Daily Maverick, or in the Mail and Guardian, which is great, because the story then gets to see so many more people. And it’s always an honour to see your work, you know, in print; in something as historic as the Mail and Guardian.

Uya’s story – read it here

How has your Masters studies impacted your photography? Both what you choose to document and how you choose to frame it?

Well, it brought up a bunch of very important issues with how we report on disability,  and how we don’t report on disability. So when I’m in that moment and I’m looking for a story or I’m thinking about something I feel like covering, I ask myself, is there a disability story here? Because disability is an everything story. Disability is just such a huge topic and it’s the kind of thing that really touches everybody’s lives. And yet we don’t talk about it, and we don’t treat people with disabilities like equal citizens. We don’t ask them, ‘How does the pandemic affect you?’  We’ll ask women for their perspectives on how the pandemic might affect them or how the pandemic is affecting people of colour, how the pandemic is affecting this group or that. And it’s affecting people with disabilities too and we don’t ask them. So that’s one of the big things.

There’s this phrase that I actually weirdly found before I studied disabilities, and it comes from disabilities studies. [An author and disabilities activist, James Charlton wrote a book called] ‘Nothing about us without us’. I’m considering getting it tattooed somewhere. Because before I knew where it came from and why, I always thought it was a really good mantra for journalists. Because we so often foreground certain voices, and I think it’s a good check. Nothing about us without us. Who is the story about? Are we allowing them to talk about their own story?

So it’s really deepened my understanding of that basic idea. I mean, there were so many interesting things that came out of that research. And in doing the research, I was developing my own ideas of what it means to photograph someone.

Especially – because my genre interest in photography is documentary and portraiture – what does it mean to make a portrait of someone? And I particularly gravitate quite a lot towards the old-style artistic look and feel of portraits. I really love that very stoic, somber, important-looking kind of thing.

That’s probably part of why I felt there was such strength of character in your subjects

So, how was Fest? Read the story here!

Yeah, exactly, exactly. That became very conscious. There’s just so much dignity and honour imbued in creating a portrait of someone. And who do we choose to turn that lens on? So I think it kind of gave me that awareness of how we give respect and dignity – and making a portrait of someone is a way of telling society that they’re important. So when you understand that basic concept, and then you go nuts, you can be like, ‘Why don’t I make a beautiful portrait for that person? Maybe they deserve to be immortalised in that way, you know. So that was actually one of my main focuses.

But my research got cut short because of the pandemic. I was meaning to do like 10 portraits, and I only ended up doing three. But the basic idea for me was that I wanted to use all the tools at my disposal that we would use for a big commercial or high-paying client or whatever; I wanted to give all the same considerations that are given to models, to people with intellectual disabilities. And so I brought in a stylist. I got a makeup artist. I got a studio. I worked with Sunshine Studios who I have a good relationship with; they were incredible. I pulled on all my resources. I had other photographers looking at the work and  sort of helping with lighting and whatever. I was really calling in the troops because I really wanted to give the same dignity and respect to these people that we don’t generally see in the media.

It’s a real pity you could only do three in the end. 

I know. I know. I know… And you know what the thing is – and I’ve found this working in journalism too – that sometimes it’s such an honour for people to be photographed, you know. And that is one of the very special side bonuses that I get from my work, that sometimes just the act of photographing someone is so meaningful for them. Because I’m telling you that I think you’re worth it and I’m spending the time and my professional expertise and all of that. I feel really lucky about that, you know?

That’s really wonderful. I’m sure it’s very good for the heart.

Yeah, it is. Because the story might not do anything for you, you know. Media doesn’t really work like that. It’s not going to necessarily lead to exact policy change or anything that’s gonna make a tangible difference in your life. But what it can do is foreground your story and show the world that you’re an important voice on something.

And if you can then have that photo, I’m sure that’s also something that’s special, that’s good to have. 

Yeah, exactly. I photographed a boxer once called Bukiwe Nonina; the Anaconda, they called her. And she won her match and she was incredible. When the pandemic hit, I called her up to ask her how this was affecting her, see if there was anything that she wanted to say, or if maybe there was some possibility for a follow-up, because I just loved working with her. And she actually sent me a picture of one of the photos that I took of her and her mother praying right before she went out to compete; and how she’d had that printed and framed and put in her house. And I’d never even thought of that. You know, it’s just these little ways that you touch people’s lives and you don’t always realize it.

Being a photographer is fun, but being a journalist is amazing because you get to photograph people often at a very important time in their lives. Sometimes horrible, oftentimes horrible, but always very poignant.

And so it was the time she won the world Bantamweight championship title. And then there was a professional photographer documenting her. And she has that now. That’s special.

What NGOs do you work with and how do you usually work with them?

I kind of knew, going into journalism, that there are different ways to use your journalistic tools. A journalist has a very specific skill set which you need to tell stories. It’s visual storytelling. So corporations, NGOs, sometimes social and entrepreneurial platforms… they need someone who has not only the photographic skill, but a sense of storytelling that they can use to highlight their work, get funding, and front themselves a bit.

So what I’ll do is help document their work, the issues they are concerned with that shows the need for their work and the outcomes of their efforts. There’s of course many ways this content gets used by different organisations.

Is there enough money in what you’re doing to make it sustainable?

Ja. Look, we earn a fraction of what our colleagues in commercial earn. We do. But there are different ways. I think also, our archives become quite valuable later on in life. That kind of becomes your retirement, is what I hear. But it’s not a money game, photography – photojournalism, specifically. If you wanna make money, you’re not gonna become a photojournalist. You’re gonna probably become a commercial photographer. Or an art photographer, if you have enough money to put into getting your name out there.

You can’t really do all of it, can you? 

No. It’s hard. Look, some people do quite a good job and most photographers have their commercial work and their personal work. I’m just lucky that I managed to kind of make my personal work, my commercial work too. It wasn’t easy, and it’s still a struggle. It’s still hard, but my personal work is my queer rights stuff, and my disability stuff, like it’s personal because I choose to do it. I love it. But I also can get paid for it, and most personal work is not really like that.

There are also grant opportunities that people often do, a lot of competitions that my colleagues will enter. But it’s not a consistent stream of money. The money really becomes more bread and butter when you’re looking at working for corporations and NGOs and big organizations like that. But that work is also incredibly rewarding. So again, nothing close to what our commercial colleagues make, but, there’s money. You won’t necessarily starve. It’s just hard to get your foot in the door.

Yes, you have to have really, when you start, a great level of writing and photography. 

Exactly. Yeah. And it’s competitive. It’s very competive and you never really get to relax as a photojournalist. You never get to say ‘I’ve got my clients. I know what I’m doing. I’m cool. And so, you know, you need to keep yourself relevant. You need to keep your work interesting. You’re always kind of looking for a way to kind of stay in the game. That does make it sound worse than it is, but yeah.

I think the big thing is, with the photojournalists that I know, and with myself, our client and our revenue streams are very diverse. Which can make it hard, because it means that sometimes you don’t feel like you’re focusing on the things you want to. Obviously, if everybody had their way, they’d only be doing their personal work. Just staying in Namibia for six months and documenting the whole journey. But the client work is also really, really interesting, you know. You end up finding out about stories you would’ve never found out about. I’ve worked with schools – I’ve definitely worked for like corporations or so, but more in my younger years was the corporate CSI kind of stuff. And then I also work with private people, mostly portraits and headshots.

How do people usually find you?

I guess word of mouth? How did you find me?

I actually found New Frame through one of the photographers I know. And then went through a bunch of their content, trying to find Cape Town-based photographers. And I found you through that shot of the woman standing in the field.

Mom’s determination forces police to act – read the story here

Oh, the recent one? Ah, that story, it was very bittersweet getting that piece published, because the story was so beautiful and the images were so beautiful, but it was such a fucking horrible story.

That must be really difficult, as well.

It is! Sometimes I’ll be like, Oh, cool! No, wait, not cool. I’m excited to photograph this, but sad that it happened. Sometimes it’s that weird kind of balance you have to find.

So I think people find me through social media, but mostly I think through word of mouth. For young photographers – make friends with photographers. Make friends with photographers because we are often the ones who give each other work, you know?

Do you have any upcoming projects?

At the momentI’m profiling a whole bunch of entrepreneurs working in the environmental space for a client. So that’s really exciting. I’m doing quite a few, and I’m kind of really starting to get stuck into them now. The stories that are coming out of them are just wonderful. It’s businesses that are trying to help with the circular economy. So they’re really interesting stories too, about how we can make our world better. So I’m really, really enjoying that.

I will hopefully go to Namibia again when the Supreme Court case comes up, and I’m hoping to stay for a bit longer. But we’ll see.

Are planning to stay in Cape Town?

Ja, my wife is finishing their PhD and they’ve just started private practice as a clinical psychologist specializing in queer work. We’re still putting down strong roots here. So yeah, it doesn’t seem right for us to leave. I mean, all your people leave, every year you lose a couple, and it’s very heartbreaking, but we both feel quite strongly about investing our lives in South Africa.

And I mean, the travelling I do is work stuff, and you get to see a very interesting part of a country when you go there for work, especially in my line of work. So the wanderlust or the drive that I used to have to move overseas has lowered, you know? We’ve got an idea here that everything overseas is better. ‘If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere’. I’ve kind of started to think the opposite. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. I mean, I know that if I moved abroad, I would get different opportunities for work and things like that. And it’s a lot harder to foster those relationships from here. But I also think that it’s a real boon that I am based in South Africa, and am South African.

I went to Hong Kong after I graduated. My sister was in China, and I had such a crush on Hong Kong. I was like, oh my god, everyone is so fashionable. There are art galleries everywhere. And there was just something about the city that I was so in love with. And I was there for, I mean, look, I wasn’t there for very long. But I remember thinking ‘Cape Town has a lot of the same things as Hong Kong’. It’s got the water, the city, the culture, all of that, but it’s also got South Africans, you know? I mean, yes, it’s also very cosmopolitan, but why am I looking for something I have, somewhere else. My home is exceptional.

We have just exquisite beauty 

Oh my God. Yeah. And just wonderful people, talented artists. You look at our film industry, even our commercial photographic industry, people come here to work with our teams. I mean, we’re cheaper. Sure. But also because we have hard-working, nice people who are very highly skilled, you know. We do top-notch work.

Interested in learning more about Chris de Beer-Procter’s work, buying a print or commissioning a piece? Check out her website, or follow her on social media!

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