Austin Malema x BudxAfropunk
Interview by Naledi Sibisi
Cover shot by Pixel Kollective
Styling by BANGYISDEAD
When it comes to Austin Malema, in my mind, one of the greatest co-signs of his influence would be trending because someone online had claimed that they had a photograph taken by him (because that is just how much people wanted an Austin Malema photo credit at the time). The second of course, would be the popularization of crediting photographers in the industry as a whole.
Without being completely biased, I am sincerely so excited and honoured about the fact that I got to chat to him at this stage of his career. I remember a day when we briefly spoke about how we had frequented the same circles from the era of creating and posting content on Facebook groups, to showing up at places like Black Orchid as we knew it back then. From that, to freelancing, working as a videographer, working behind the scenes for the hit television show The Queen, he is now a full-time photographer.
“The day I decided to leave my job on The Queen as an Editor; I think that moment was the moment that set up everything to be the way it is right now”. Malema found himself in a place where many creatives tend to arrive; unhappy or agitated behind a desk for hours. His decision to quit his full time job coupled with a desire for more adventure was a defining moment for what would become his career. “There was a point where I felt like, I do not want to do this for the rest of my life because if I carry on, I am going to be good at what I do but I am going to be unhappy. I don’t want to be good at what I do, get a good cheque and still be unhappy. I saw a lot of people in the film industry who were happy with the cheque but unhappy overall”.
His career has since taken undeniable strides in recent years and today, Austin Malema is considered one of the most prolific and sought after photographers in South Africa. He recalls that the transition from videography to photography was smooth for the most part with the exception of people still wanting to book him for filming jobs. With time and insistence, he can no longer be boxed in in that regard. He tells me that social media had a similar effect on his work and what he stands for. “I am always making noise”, he jokes. “You know, it took a long time to be stern and stand for what I believe in. It’s important to be unwavering; you learn to be more free as a creative that way. I believe that being vocal on social media has helped create awareness for a lot of people. I have had a lot of fights with a lot of entertainers but those fights have led to where we are now with photographers being credited for their work. I think that’s the biggest thing; you become the first one to die but later on, people realize that you were actually fighting for them. It’s an amazing time”.
It is because of this sort of background that I consider Malema one of the pioneers of the era we are currently in creatively. As someone who started to gain a lot of traction during a time when it was smart to take advantage of the new and dynamic ways one could push their craft across social media, he is epitome of being a trailblazing creative; the kind we would love to celebrate as AfroPunk season approaches us. “I think my current photography style is a blend of a lot of styles. When I started, I started off shooting events. I was just trying to get into events and trying to make some money. Then I moved into street style, that is what also helped me grow. Eventually I got into concept photography which was similar to the content I was creating for events. So my style is definitely a blend of all of those put together with influence from guys who shoot street fashion purely, or guys who shoot architectural street style”. On when his best ideas come to him, he mentions that this usually happens while he is driving. He jokes about the fact that his radio died and as a result, he often finds himself driving in silence and subjected to his thoughts. Between that and regular reminders from the documentary Everything Is Remixed, Malema pushes himself to find inspiration from different sources and put his concepts together.
To add to his current journey as a photographer, Austin Malema recently added ‘businessman’ to his catalogue. Pixel Kollective is a platform aimed at guiding young photographers on their own journey. When asked about the lessons or observations he has picked up so far from a business perspective while still being a part of that creative field he expressed the following: “The name of the company is bigger than the individuals of the company. Sometimes people can be stuck on the individual and sometimes that can make it harder to try and build a platform. I came up with Pixel Kollective when I was still lecturing at AFDA in 2013 so it has taken five whole years to make that come to life. People see the glory but not the graft. There is a lot of hard work that people often don’t get to see. We always say it is hard but no one really wants to accept how hard it is. We are living in the age of a lot of young people committing suicide right now and I think a lot of that has to do with what you don’t get to see. You just see the picture on social media never the process or the failures”. On what Pixel Kollective looks like in the next five years, he says he is looking forward to becoming a fully-fledged creative agency doing commercial work on both large and small scales. He further shares that he is passionate about hiring a lot more young creatives and pushing the work of more people of colour.
The diversity of African culture and creativity has sparked a lot of discussions online but moreover, the youth are undoubtedly redefining the narrative around what creativity looks like in an African context and how it manifests in the creative industry in both a local and international sense. When asked about who inspires him in terms of the content they are putting out in that regard he shares that a lot of the people he looks up to interestingly come from Kenya. He mentions that he loves photographer and storyteller Osborne Macharia’s work as well as Cedric Nzaka’s portraiture.
On what the 2019 looks like for him, he says that he wants to get into more editorial and advertising work. “I believe that for people to take you seriously, you need to move away from what they know you for or into something new and make that the thing that they now know you for. I became known for events at some point. I definitely want to get into more advertising projects”. As we wrapped up out chat so he could make his way to AfroPunk to conclude the year, he was most excited about seeing The Internet, Kaytranada and Muzi’s sets.