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Paul Samuels: An Intensity of Looking

Award-winning photographer, Paul Samuels, speaks about the worldwide exhibition of his Edenvale series as ‘an intensity of looking’.

Paul Samuels completed his Fine Arts degree in 2012, and quickly built up an extensive and impressive portfolio of works. Including exquisite (and sometimes dark), as well as creative advertising campaigns and captivating fashion shots. Samuels was also awarded the Tierney Fellowship, joining a world-wide elite group of photographers recognised for their exceptional talent, and given the means to develop further.

The awarding of the fellowship ‘was a collaboration between Wits and Michaelis School of Fine Art and Market Photo Workshop. We would get together and discuss work, have huge crit sessions for a couple of days; we’d do it in Johannesburg and in Cape Town. It was really interesting because it was cool to see the other people that have gotten the same award and we would discuss our work.’

As a result, his Edenvale series, which he was working on at the time of the award, has travelled the world. ‘It’s had quite a few exhibitions. Right now it’s at the Jury Photo Festival in the UK, Switzerland for Regeneration 3 and the Mexican Photo Festival. Also, the Bamako Bienalle in Mali, which is the biggest photographic exhibition in Africa.’

Paul Samuels
Edenvale series (exhibition) by Paul Samuels

The Edenvale series consists of a series of portraits of regular people from Paul Samuels’ home of Edenvale, Johannesburg. He looks through a documentary eye, akin to that of acclaimed photographer Pieter Hugo. Samuels captures intimate moments in a place so obviously South African, yet completely relatable worldwide. Paul Samuels finds that, ‘a lot of those guys that I grew up with I know quite intimately. So I’m not coming as an outsider, I’m an insider in that environment. I know the experiences that we’ve had and there’s some sort of mutual ground that we work on.’

He then continues, ‘I think it allows me a certain kind of access that a lot of people wouldn’t have. Often, when an image is taken of somebody, it’s a performative thing. There’s a certain type of neutrality that happens when I’ve taken them, of those people, there’s always no performativeness. Although, it sometimes does happen, of course, where they try to look more “gangster”, you know. That’s going to happen. I kind of wait for those moments to subside and then take the image. But I’ve been really lucky with that project,’

‘Portraiture is my main focus at the moment; I think there’s something quite beautiful about portraits. I think there’s something that happens within a portrait between the viewer and the subject that’s quite beautiful and I think that there’s some sort of a reflection, internally, that happens; an intensity of looking.

Paul Samuels
Edenvale series (exhibition) by Paul Samuels

‘It’s kind of this desire to tell a story and I think sometimes it’s a desire to tell my own story. Images transcend language and I think that’s quite an important thing. It’s quite interesting, it’s like those things start to tell a story about South Africa, growing up here, being white or being middle class. Trying to tell that story, I guess.’

Paul Samuels’ career has been filled with and fuelled by important role models and mentors. ‘I studied under Jo Ractlliffe, an incredible South African photographer, she still mentors me now,’ he says. ‘Chris [Saunders] is actually a very fundamental part of my beginnings in the industry. Francis Goodman put me in contact with him and I landed up assisting him and met everybody in the industry, really. I started working at the Rental House, cleaning and packing equipment. So I’ve got a lot of respect for Chris Saunders, I think he’s also done incredibly well with some amazing projects.’

‘I wanted to study fine art so I could learn to take all this in a beautiful image and I don’t think, necessarily, that all of my work is beautiful. I think it’s emotive, which is really what I wanted it to be. A feeling, something more important than an image, you know? Photography is an incredible thing like that – its ability to make somebody feel something, hopefully, for beyond just a moment.’

To view more of Paul Samuels’ work, please visit his website.

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