Genesis have a long history of working with photographers to achieve exceptional results for entries for the National Portrait Gallery’s Photographic Portrait Prize, in its many incarnations over the years. In our second Taylor Wessing Spotlight, Berlin-born photographer Julia Gunther shares insight into the four images from ‘The Black Mambas’ which feature in this year’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery…
On her practice…
“I’d been interested in photography since high school but it was never in the foreground. At some point I managed to get hold of a portable photo lab to develop my own prints, which kept me busy for a significant part of my teenage years. I used these photographs to apply to film school in London a few years later, where I graduated in cinematography.
I always liked the idea of being able to tell stories through images. A true story, something that matters to me and hopefully also to others. Documentary photography gives me the chance to dive into people’s lives, to explore these lives and find things that have not been told before, at least not how I want to tell them.
Following film school, I worked in film as a spark for 8 years, which was a great way to learn about the power of light. But after 8 years I was getting frustrated that I could not tell my own stories. In 2008, I moved for a year to Cape Town – a place I didn’t know and for a job I had never done before. I started working in production, at an office in the middle of Cape Town, assisting on commercial shoots for international clients on beautiful locations in and around Cape Town and Johannesburg. That’s when I fell in love with Africa and it’s people. Everywhere around me there were incredible stories that I wanted to document. Rough and painful stories, but that were also beautiful. The pride of the people I met during that year made me decide to focus on Africa.
I think portrait photography is the closest you can come to looking into a person’s soul. If it’s a good picture, of course. There is something about the act of placing someone in front of your camera and looking straight at them, straight into their eyes, being able to capture every part of their face, every expression and nuance, that removes any ‘armour’ and reveals their true self. So for me, the most rewarding thing is the access you get to the inner ‘sanctum’ of your subjects.“
On her images in The Taylor Wessing exhibition…
“Four images from ‘The Black Mambas’ were selected for this year’s exhibition, which are from a broader personal project titled ‘Proud Women of Africa – a collection of short visual stories that portray the daily lives of remarkable women living or working in Africa’.
The featured images are portraits of The Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit, an all-female scout unit targeting poachers in South Africa’s Balule nature reserve. The unit is the brainchild of Balule head warden and founder Craig Spencer, who decided to use women as scouts instead of men with guns. This might sound contradictory, but it’s clear the solution does not only lie in the use of heavily armed soldiers, drones and GPS locators.
There were two major challenges for me in capturing the images. They first was the physical act of patrolling the same distances as the women do everyday, which was probably the most demanding aspect of this shoot; 20km patrolling on foot per day, followed by a night patrol in an open top SUV which also lasts several hours. I was there during the Full Moon Patrol, which means that the Mambas are on high alert on the look out for poachers and that the risk is high to run into either poachers or wounded animals.
The second challenge was a short time frame: I had only one week. Normally, I am able to spend more time with my subjects, getting to know them and their stories before I decide how and where to photograph them. The fact that I had so little time with each woman made it quite important that I get the images right as quickly as possible.”
On entering the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize…
“This is my second time entering the competition.
I don’t think there is too much of a difference between the first and this application in regards to picture quality or style but there is a stronger unity between the chosen images of this year with a much clearer message then the one from 2 years ago. “
The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize
17 November 2016 – 26 February 2017
The National Portrait Gallery
St Martin’s Place