Interview with photo retoucher and photographer Juan Stockenstroom from Cape Town, South Africa
Most photo retouchers have a bad reputation for setting impossible beauty standards for the world, do you think this criticism is fair? How is the work that you do similar or different?
To answer this question I think I firstly need to clarify that there are many different types of retouchers focusing in various areas such as beauty and fashion or automative and product. I think that there is definitely a preconceived idea on what retouchers do. Most people I speak to think that we just manipulate images of womens bodies and skin and this is very far from the truth.
Whether it’s a fashion or beauty campaign there is a whole team of people behind it. The client who could be a cosmetic or fashion brand, will work closely with an ad agency who employs creative directors, art directors and client services. Usually the agency will commission a photographer to shoot the campaign. Once the photographer is finish shooting, the photographs are marked up and briefed to a retoucher by the agency or the photographer. The retoucher is given very specific directions on what to do to the images in post production. The next step is for the retoucher to be working close with the art director and photographer and constantly bounce things back to the agency to their clients for feedback. So as you can see this production line is quite long and the retoucher at times works simply as a “gun for hire” with no real conceptual input as to the actual direction of the image.
My work is different in the sense of the subject matter not being beauty or fashion. I work predominantly in high-end creative retouching. My area of expertise lies in the commercial and advertising sector. I work with multi-part composites, which means I use various photographic and CGI (computer generated imagery) elements and put them together to create one seamless image.
Do you think most people are naive about the ability to recreate or redesign reality?
I don’t think so, I think with the rapid pace that technology is is evolving and the use of various mediums that compliment it, most people are quite aware of pushing the boundaries of reality in every day life. Take instagram for example. Not so long ago we might have had mobile phones, but we were not using the cameras on our phones in the way we do now. We are able to digitally enhance our experiences with automated photo filters and share captured moments with our families and colleagues. This in turn presents our realities to the rest of the world on social media in a very self curated and redesigned way. I recently paged through my old family photo album and there is definitely a less engineered feel when flipping through it in comparison to going through a facebook photo album or an instagram account. Then there is technology like augmented reality which now has become quite available to consumers through mobile technology and apps.
You have used your professional skill as a Retoucher and CGI into your own artwork, how do you balance your professional work with your personal creative projects?
I see myself as an “image maker” I see photography, computer generated imagery and post-production as tools for me to create what i’m visual trying to communicate. I think being self-employed has played a major role in my creativity. I don’t really look for balance in my work as a retoucher. Since I fell in love with retouching many years ago, I have never really felt it to be a job. I am able to do what I love and get paid to do it. I think that I have been blessed and very fortunate to be in this position. Its not all roses however, sometimes I can spend 2-3 weeks working non stop 12-16 hour shifts (straight through weekends) grinding away till early hours of the morning working towards a deadline on a project.
Then there’s the flip side of that, when i’m not retouching and having down time in my studio, I usually work on my own photography projects. Funny enough my own photographic projects are very different in style, feel and concept from the commercial projects I retouch. My photographic work is a mixture of street, social documentary, portraiture and fine art photography. Many photographers have a certain style after years of developing their craft. So for example if you were to look at one of William Kleins photographs you would know its him because of his particular style and the same for Henri Cartier-Bresson they have very particular styles. These masters of photography spent many years developing there styles drawing from many different influences but ultimately developing there own. For me on the other hand though it’s quite strange, since I work on so many different photographers images I don’t really have a particular style of photography, its more like a mixed bag of sweets, drawing inspiration from many different styles and unable to develop my own. Therefore I have 2 separate website for my work- Retouching and Photography.
Do you have any specific habits as a creative person? What do you do to get into your creative zone?
Its quite funny because I actually don’t think of myself as a creative person, even though the work I do is creative and i’m constantly using creative problem solving. I think my mind is always switched on (and sometimes thats a bad thing) I’m always running projects through my head or possible images that I would love to create and it feels like second nature to be in the zone. I think what adds to being switched on is being curious about of visual literacy. I spend a lot of time studying light, textures, objects, compositions and the relationship between them and how the interact with each other in the real world. My creative zone sometimes can also offer a place of serenity to escape to similar to mediation.
Have you ever doubted your talent? If so, how did you work through your doubt?
Yes indeed, I doubt my talent all the time. I often feel like a fraud and think people are going to catch me out or reject my work…hehehe. Whenever I start working on a new project or with a new client I feel nervous, like i’m going to mess the project up and the worst case scenario always comes in my head. It’s only once I get stuck into the project, start picking away at it and start getting feedback and direction that the doubt and fear starts lifting. I think that fear and doubt is an asset to me, because it keeps me on my toes and keeps my attitude fresh and humble towards each new project.
What is your favorite tool and why?
I have 4 favourite tools, please don’t make me choose : My mind , my eyes, my wacom tablet and my Canon 5d Mk2.
What is the best creative advice that you have been given?
The best creative advice i was given was by an old school photographer while I was living in London. I had just bought my first digital camera and I was trying to mimic other peoples work and pictures. After putting together a portfolio I showed my work to this photographer, with the expectation that he would say well done. He looked me dead in the eye after looking at my portfolio and said: “ I think your work is crap, it looks like everything else out there and I see nothing of you any there at all” I was quite angry at first about his remark and got quite defensive but as I continued to create my own body of work I realised what he meant and his comments definitely pushed me in a direction to seek out my truth in my work and just have fun doing it.
Do you think being from Cape Town has influenced your creative work?
Yes, there are certain things from Cape Town that has influenced my creative work both good and bad. My relationship with Cape Town is a strange one even though I do consider it home I find it very insular. The city is visually beautiful but at the same time it is also dense with many social issues and still champions segregation racially, socially and geographically. It is a city of haves and have nots. I think in my own personal photographic work I am influenced by many factors of Cape Town: the people, struggles and also the everyday mundane.