Jacques Marais is one of South Africa’s greatest outdoor photojournalists. He’s been in the field for three decades, with countless stories and shots published in international and local publications. He’s also written multiple guides and adventure books, with his latest work – a memoir of his incredible adventures – in its final draft.
Jacques has spent much of his life in the fast-paced world of extreme sports, doing many of the things athletes do – but with a camera in hand. After a recent fall from a cliff left him immobile for months, though, he’s shifted gears, viewing everything after as a lucky bonus, even a new life.
Tell me a bit about The Wandering, your upcoming memoir?
So The Wandering is like four, six months after I fell. Initially, I couldn’t walk, I could barely move. So it was about finding a way of channelling my sort of creative spirit, but also trying to make sense of what happened. So it’s a combination of going back to where it all started – because when I fell off that cliff, I should have died. And my surviving that meant that that was like a new life beginning.
So The Wandering is a book that ends at that moment when I fall off the cliff. Because that’s sort of where my old life ends.
Initially, the idea was to really take it all the way from my childhood and follow on through to that moment. But, the thing is, there’s just too much. And especially when you start going back into my boarding school days, my barefoot running around the farm days, my border days as a soldier fighting a pointless war. And once you start going into all that, you realize that there’s actually, there’s too much.
So what I’ve done is, I’ve reframed the Wandering as covering my days as a photojournalist. So looking at the amazing places that I’ve had the privilege of going to, like with the Inuits in Greenland, hunting with them; crossing Bolivia; getting to meet Che Guevara before he was captured and shot; sitting and doing coca leaves with the locals and travelling around Africa and all. And it’s just so, so many amazing experiences that I have written about but I’ve always written not from my perspective, but from the perspective of what the publication, really, wants the story to tell. So you are telling your story, but you’re telling it in somebody else’s voice, not in your voice. So this is an opportunity to tell those stories in my voice.
It’s like with anything else – once you start getting stuck into it, it becomes a process that becomes a little bit bigger than yourself. Because I also find that, because I’m writing not only about myself in the book, I want to run certain stories past certain people to make sure that the facts are correct. So it’s into its second edit now. And I’ve had to look at bringing in an outside editor, because I think your own eye is biased. You see what you want to see. So you’ve got to sometimes be challenged by outsiders.
And that’s what I find in my photography and what I do as well. I often bring very different age groups and creative outlooks with me on trips, because otherwise you have your format that works, and you end up using that formula cause it works well and it’s always worked for you. But if you bring a young 20-year-old street photographer with you, her outlook might be completely different from yours. And her technique might be completely different from yours. And in the same way that they can learn from me, I can learn from them.
That’s great – one of my questions is ‘do you find that you still learn new things?’ So you do!
All the time.
But you’ve gotta force yourself to learn new things. Because very often there’s a nice, comfortable cocoon where you know everything, you’re just chilling, you go ‘I know how to do this’, but occasionally you actually have to do things that scare you. Do things that you think are wrong…
That might fail.
For me, that’s these interviews. They’re a big, uh, stepping out of my comfort zone.
But it is an important thing, because I do find that you only grow when you jump. Otherwise you end up in this comfortable space, and if you’re in that comfortable space, you’re just gonna stay in there.
Do you find editing and post-production to be an important part of the storytelling process or do you usually edit to suit the brand you’re working with?
What I post on social media is usually edited on the phone, on the fly. So it’s very different from the final set of imagery that’s delivered to the client. The client gets a more realistic set of images that suits the brand and that creates the basis upon which they can build their specific tonal creative influences.
A client might be using a specific Instagram filter for their imagery so that everything looks well matched. If I post for me, it’s usually late at night, sitting on the phone quickly putting together a few edits. So what you see on social media is not what the client gets, it’s something that captures what is fresh in my mind at that moment. And then the client gets much more of a toned-down reality. And so that’s more classic while the social media stuff is more poppy.
The social media – I’ve gotta fit it in between charging batteries and prepping for the next morning and fitting in four hours of sleep. So it’s not a huge focus for me. It’s something that needs to be done, and I generally look at the quickest and easiest way to create something that sort of captures my mindset or my the vibe of the day.
Lovely. I imagine you’ve built a strong relationship with quite a few brands. Are most of your clients people who come back?
Ja, definitely. I think I’ve got like a dozen major brands that I work with. And I find that I tend to only stick with brands that I really believe in and where there’s a connection. Like Core Merino is an apparel brand that’s made from South African-sourced Merino wool. It’s a natural product. So I feel comfortable with it. It’s local, it generates local revenue, supports local communities.
It’s something I’ve started doing, is buying most of my stuff local. It makes a really big difference knowing that it’s actually supporting our community.
Ja! Also for me – natural organic non-exploitive brands. That’s why I’ve got a relationship with Bean There. They’re fair trade, right? Their coffees are great; sometimes not a dark enough roast for me – but the feel-good feeling I get out of supporting a brand that is direct fair trade, that does good for communities, that is rooted in Africa – that’s where the benefit and the value of the brand lies.
Lovely. Yeah. We’re very much focused on the same. And that’s what I’m hoping with Wander Cape Town, is to provide a platform for a lot of the small businesses and entrepreneurs – because we’ve got a lot of really great organic and sustainable little businesses, really a lot.
I mean, even T-shirt brands like Afrika Joe, and stuff like that; to me, if I can support Cape, I will, because it’s actually just putting money back into my circle.
What is your favourite space in the Cape that your photography’s taken you to?
I think it’s so wide. I mean, I like deserts. I like rainforests. I like mountains. I like plains. Generally, my favourite space is a place where the fewer people there are the better. So I do like the Northern Cape, but even if you look at Western Cape areas like Winterhoek, where I fell, you rarely see people. The Namaqua West Coast, where you have massive mountains and plains, and the Cederberg. You can actually communicate and commune with nature.
What is your process for an event shoot? Do you usually go and try to scout the location and plan what you want to try and capture?
Look, the events, they’ve got a specific route and destination and start point and end point. So you know where they’re going, but if I’ve never shot the event before I would go scout and get a feel for what they want to achieve, and just also look at it through a fresh eye, because again, your event organizers have a specific idea of what they think is gonna work as a photograph. But very often they’re not photographers. They don’t think visually, so what they think is a great shot is a great section of riding, but there’s zero dynamic or drama to it. It’s just a guy on a bike. And so what I tend to try and do is find massive landscape backdrops, either space or mountains, and look from a different angle.
So I do go and scout. I’m only shooting events really that are in wilderness areas, I’m not shooting city events or anything like that at all anymore, because basically for me, life is a balance between three things. Time, passion and money, and you’ve gotta make those three things balance up. So if an event has no passion for me, I’m not going to do it – unless somebody pays me a ridiculous amount of money to go, because money makes up for the lack of passion.
I’ve also got to look at the amount of time it’s gonna take me, and what money I earn for that period of time so that I can do a good job without rushing it.
I’m focusing a lot more on the NGOs, on conservation, on outdoor connection and nature connection, rather than ego-driven events, ‘win at all cost’ or ‘I’m going to ride this faster than anybody else’. Because I think when you’re in your twenties and thirties, maybe that makes sense. And it did make sense to me then, but right now, I think it’s the guy who stops on the knersvlakte and gets off of his bike and sits on his ass between the rocks and looks at the tiny details; he’s the winner, not the guy who gets to the end first.
I think it’s a focus of your wife’s as well?
Yes – she’s a yoga teacher and she does sort of body balancing biokinetics and somatic movement, really. One of the things she does is outdoor, sort of barefoot movement where you feel the earth under your feet, rather than this mission where you’re in big boots and you’re stepping on things and you don’t even realise you’re stepping on them. So you’re a lot more conscious and in the moment, if you have to think where you’re putting your feet down. You move a lot lighter across the earth when you have to do that.
So it’s about finding ways of being more tuned in. Buying less, creating more, stressing less, laughing more, being in that moment and being aware of the moment and actually taking time out and finding your breath and finding your stories. I think a lot of people are not able to be still with themselves.
That’s the wonderful thing about yoga, that it really does help you do that.
Exactly. And the thing is, it doesn’t just have to be yoga. It can be balancing on a rock. It can be lying in the fynbos and just staring at the clouds. People tend to think they have to have this specific skill set, but it’s actually just making time.
Lovely. Ja, for a while, when I was doing yoga, I was always pushing myself to stretch further, go harder.
It took me five years to understand what yoga was, because it was that old thing of, oh no, I’m not doing this pose right. I’m not able to do that pose. I can’t do that.
For us, we’ve moved away from structured yoga to more animal movement or somatic movement, where you feel the movement you’re doing. Hanging from tree branches and walking and balancing on a log or immersing yourself in an ice-cold waterfall pool. To me, that has so much more value than confining yourself to this two-meter-long rubber mat.
Don’t get me wrong, I think yoga is an incredible tool. And you have to understand yoga before you move it into a different space and a different sphere. But I think people mustn’t be stuck on that idea that you do yoga in a yoga studio on a rubber mat. You can do yoga under the trees. You can do yoga without doing yoga poses by just finding a combination of Tai Chi and natural movement, somatic movement and breath, and just working it out for yourself. But that is all about taking time.
I’m sure it’s helped a lot with your recovery as well
Hugely. It has. It’s a process. It’s an ongoing process. This will still take a while; but, after the fall, I didn’t think I would actually be able to walk for anything up to a year.
And you’ve been walking for quite some time now.
Ja. It took me about two months to really be able to walk, took me about five months to be able to see properly and things like that. So it’s taken time, but the main thing is, if I look at what could have been and what is, I’m pretty happy.
And your brain was safe. That’s really important.
I was very, very fortunate. Well, it was a combination of fortunate, but also being aware while I was falling. I knew I wanted to fall as flat as I possibly could to absorb the impact. And there were just stones all around, but then there was like a little shift – and that’s what I keep on going back to. I don’t know what happened there, but instead of falling on rocks, I fell on earth. But I don’t know how that happened because as I came down, there were just rocks everywhere.
The way I fell, I connected with my hips and my thigh. And then this arm hit the ground, pushed my shoulder up into my head and my scapula acted like a leaf spring and protected my head. My scapula snapped, but my head never dropped. So I had zero head injuries, zero neck injuries. I completely shattered everything here, but my head was okay.
Were you unconscious after that though?
I was unconscious, probably for about two-three seconds, but it wasn’t unconscious. It was just drifting across to the other side where you’re in no man’s land, between being alive and being dead. And then I snapped back into life.
That would be a lot of pain to be conscious through.
No, no, I mean, with all those injuries, I still had to walk out of the mountain and then do a four-hour, 4×4 trail to get to civilization, with, I think I had two myopain tablets.
Okay. Rough day.
It sucked. But it is what it is.
And you made it out to the other side.
What’s the most intense thing you’ve had to do to get a shot?
I mean, hanging off cliffs to shoot rock climbers, ice climbing in Greenland, dogsledding expedition with Eskimos…
So you had to join on the actual dogsled?
I had to actually get a dogsledding licence so that I could operate a dogsled.
And then I think also with wildlife – I’ve been chased by black rhinos, very narrowly escaped being gored by a wild buffalo. It’s not planned, but when you’re in extreme situations you often cannot plan for the outcome. And so it’s about trying to push the limits but within a safe space, and realising that if things go wrong, you have to have an exit plan.
How has Cape Town’s adventure sports scene changed since you started?
I think adventure is in the eye of the beholder. So for some people what is extreme is to other people a daily thing. You look at rock climbers, you look at base jumpers, what they do, they don’t see that as extreme, they don’t see that as adventure. So I think there’s a definite growth in the Cape Town adventure scene. But I think the growth is in the accessible, controlled adventure section, it’s sort of where you can book a guide or you can book an experience. People see cage diving as adventure – well, it’s very controlled. They see kayaking at boulders beach as adventure. And it’s not necessarily adventure for me, but adventure is specific to a person. It’s exactly like what you consider a healthy diet, what do I consider a healthy adventure.
So I think there’s been a lot of growth in the outdoor market. It’s all more accessible, because of the internet, because of access to information. So a lot of people are doing adventurous things, and I think a lot of people are coming to Cape Town to do that. Obviously, the pandemic had a massive impact on the local, outdoor, adventure market. But I think it is probably returning to its pre-2020 levels.
Okay good, so not too many people in adventure had to shut down permanently?
I think a lot of people lost their businesses, a lot of people lost their income. But I think we’re back at the level of 2019 with the local adventure. International people coming to Cape Town has definitely not gone back to full capacity yet. But I think another year or so, we’ll be back.
The problem with South Africans specifically, when it comes to local adventure – South Africans tend to say ‘I can do it on my own’. They’re not going to hire a guide, they’re not going to go with an operator. They’re going to go hike up Table Mountain on their own. So a lot of my friends who are mountain guides, climbing guides, are really still battling, because they were very much catering to the international market.
Do you work mostly for local or international brands?
It’s a 60-40 split – 60 local, 40 international. But then also, my offering is split between destinations, brands, media and conservation entities, NGOs like the Table Mountain Fund. And the only way that I’ve been able to sort of manage to sustain myself through the pandemic was – you’ve got to look at a single project, and it needs to generate various funding streams.
So if I go and do a magazine article for Getaway, I’ve got to say, okay, you are a destination on the West Coast. I will do an article for Getaway, but you need to cover my costs. Because Getaway can’t do that, they don’t have the budget. So basically, media pays a pittance these days. Everybody wants everything for free, basically, their photography and things. But there’s an inherent value to it, which for a destination like Bergriver tourism or Swartland tourism, it benefits them, they would pay me to come and shoot their images. And then you’ve got to look at maybe incorporating a few brands. Like I incorporate Isuzu, Dunlop, and various brands, who then get their product featured in the scope of the article, so they get value out of that.
So I need to be paid by the media, by the destination, by the brands involved, and then further content that I can sell on at a later stage, in order to make that actually worthwhile.
The old days when I could purely make money out of the media, that hasn’t existed for the past five to ten years. Even, sjoe, ten years ago, as a photojournalist you could still make relatively good money just being a photojournalist.
But that’s why you have to consistently and constantly reinvent yourself. You’ve got to go, okay, my focus now is going to be a combination of this and those. Instead of having a situation where you’re purely focused on one item, or one channel, we’re going okay, so that’s a brand that fits into this destination. That destination and brand speak to this readership profile, therefore it’s going to work in this medium. You’ve got to create your own media as well.
It’s a good thing you’re also a writer. So that you can pull all of it off at the same time and don’t need a team.
Ja, that’s a huge advantage for me. Instead of a magazine having to send a writer and a photographer, they send one guy who can do both jobs and deliver a quality product and save half the cost for them, so that they can pay me a proper rate as a photographer.
And do you do much video?
More and more. But I tend to collaborate rather than doing my own. I found that if I’m already writing and taking stills and handling social media, to now focus on video as well, you end up dropping the ball in various areas. I think it’s also quite important that you take on enough that you’re able to deliver on the various requirements of the job. Otherwise what you’re doing is you’re constantly trying to play catch up. And that’s one of my key things, is good planning.
I think people take on too much at too low a rate, and then end up not delivering.
Ja I’m sure especially somewhere like South Africa, where people aren’t as used to working with big brands and don’t have that experience.
And that’s one of my advantages is, when I do work with bigger brands, the international brands, you can work at 50% of the rate that a British brand pays their content creator, and you are still making double what you would make here – while they’re paying half. And they don’t have to send somebody over to South Africa, they’re saving on travel costs.
You’ve had so many adventures and been to so many places – what keeps you in Cape Town?
Ag the thing about Cape Town is that it’s a great place to bring up kids, and it is one of the few major cities in the world where you have nature five minutes from your doorstep. I can walk down to my surf break, my laaitie can skateboard down with the surfboard, leave his skateboard with the guy looking after the parking lot, surf for two hours, and walk or ride back.
We’ve got mountain trails half an hour by bike from us. We’ve got the mountains, we’ve got caves, we’ve got hiking, rock climbing, trail-running. Literally can run from your doorstep. So that’s a major, major advantage.
I do find that it’s becoming busier and busier, and it becomes difficult for the infrastructure to handle what is happening. And so I see a lot more rubbish, a lot more garbage lying around. I see that the quality of the ocean water is being reduced, because the sewerage is being pumped into the bay. So, that is the downside. But, you know what, you can’t have everything in life.
You said that you’re working with some NGOs – is it because of the changes you’re seeing?
Generally, the NGOs are the people trying to make a difference. And I’m not focused purely on adventure anymore. I’m focusing on a wider scope – to me, it’s more about reconnecting with nature than adrenaline. I think especially post-pandemic, that’s where the real value for humans lies, is the reconnecting with nature. So instead of being out there with your watch, trying to run a personal best or climb a higher grading, it is really about breathing, taking time out, noticing what is happening around you.
NGOs like the Endangered Wildlife Trust, Table Mountain Fund, the Cape Leopard Project – they are the entities that are making a difference. So it’s about trying to find ways of supporting them while making a living and driving your passion.