The 41-year-old photographer sits down for our interview and he travels to a different sphere, trying to pinpoint a few interesting topics to cover the span of his career this far, proving to be an arduous and almost impossible task.
Yasser Booley hails from Cape Town, South Africa, and has been travelling the world and African continent since the age of 17, camera in tow and documenting the world, through his eyes.
With no photographic education or qualification behind him at the time, it was with a pure passion and certain mindset that has contributed to this man’s success and it will be the first time he is revealing his work collected over a period of 22 years.
Yasser got gifted his first camera by his father, a Yashica FXD. Along with his fellow students at Harold Cressy he was warned not to go through Town on the day of Chris Hani’s memorial service by his principal and this in turn intrigued compelled him to go explore.
It was the second roll of film that I shot. It was the first thing I shot that wasn’t just me and my camera walking in the mountain. The first time I shot other people. It was intense, I can’t think of where to start because on so many levels, it was a first and that includes getting shot at by the cops. This was the first time that I was directly in the line of fire, where I had looked at the police and they were aiming at me. I was wearing my school uniform.
In terms of what I was thinking, I have this camera and I guess I must’ve had the reference of protest and struggle, connected to photography, which is why I thought I’ll go down and take some photographs.
“I was standing on a bench, watching this crowd come toward me and being chased by the police and thinking about it now, it was dark and I probably shot on auto with a slower shutter speed, so there was a lot of camera movement because I was fucking shaking of course. After that, my camera was just something that I had and not really too attached to at the time”.
How did you start earning from taking photos?
I had been working for almost 12 years before I actually got paid to do photography. It was mainly friends and events I found myself in and among. I studied through a scholarship at UCT, doing a Bachelor of Science in Physiology but failed and didn’t go back after my second year.
My father organised me a kiosk close to their takeaways on the Grand Parade in Town where they traded for 11 years. I sold burgers for about six years and that is how I sustained myself during that period.
I’d say it was by coincidence; I was at an event and bumped into one of my friends who was a photographer for one of the local papers in cape town, Garth Stead (RIP). At that point, I had never studied, yet was already published in the BBC Africa Magazine and got the front cover for Design Indaba’s second edition. I asked him if I could sell my photos to as I had shoe boxes full of negatives when he told me that the Mail & Guardian were looking for a stringer. I got the job and worked for them for a few years. Its was also through the M&G that I befriended a photographer who started a Documentary photography school inn Berlin,which is where I attended the Master classes and obtained my degree.
You shot the Jazz Fest for years. How was that?
That was interesting because I got the job when a friend of mine, Shadley Lombard, asked if I wanted to shoot the event.
I responded: ”Jazz Fest is the one festival that I’d beg, borrow or steal money to go to, so if you telling me I can go to shoot the musicians, I’m in”.
I couldn’t really figure it out as he’d never seen my work and he’s offering me an official photographer’s position. There were five of us and Baseline was my stage for many years. It was amazing. When I asked him why he gave me the job when he hadn’t seen my work, he said: “for as long as I know you, you have your Yashica on your shoulder”, and that’s how I got the job and I don’t think they were sorry.
Photography for me is a way in which I record the way I look at the world. It was like having a journal across however long it was and then I realised that I could actually work and potentially earn a living from it; that was a bonus.
Where did the nickname Mierkat come from?
It was a nickname I got as a kid; I remember it first from my mother and grandmother because I was very busy as a laaitie, climbing onto things, very inquisitive and outspoken.
I was quite boisterous and where it became tricky I guess was when I said what I thought. I’ve always been quite expressive; couple that with an ability, capacity or innate gift to connect to people. This is before photography and I suppose a mierkat is accurate because they’re quite social animals and there’s always one keeping a lookout. The plural for a mierkat is a gang; I like that.
Take us through your earliest photographic memories.
The first real camera experience after the Chris Hani Memorial was travelling through Europe as a 17 year old with his older cousin. This was just before I got my matric results. My cousin who was five years older than me got a scholarship to study at UCT and part of the scholarship was a trip to Europe. She couldn’t travel alone, so she concocted this strategy to let me go with her. It worked for her parents and I got given the choice between a car and travelling, and I chose travel. It was about two months that I was gone from home.
How has travel affected the person you are and how you see everything else?
My late grandfather’s admonition to me as a kid was that if I behaved a certain way, I would never be able to travel. I realised what he meant in my 30’s and started unraveling how important that was to me, what it meant and what it means in general to human beings.
“When you travel, there are no keys that set the automatic functions in our brains into motion; there is no reference point that we are familiar with that sets automatic points of thinking, it’s just you and your environment and the people you meet are new. So all you really have is your character and I think my grandfather knew this”.
He is buried in Mecca and passed just after he had finished his hadj. People loved him and it’s interesting because my father was the same. I think a combination of the people in my family, everyone having value and being deserved of their respect, is something that heavily influenced my photography. Not in a conscious way, but just in the way I approach people in general and I think that comes through in my work.
I’ve been to Morocco and in 2014 I had some time in Casablanca. I spent a lot of time walking the streets and taking portrait shots of the people that I found and it’s similar to what I do here in Cape Town. Travel is something that I love doing.
You cross boundaries and lived through a time where South Africa was free but still divided. How did you break these walls and express yourself?
In 2005, we started a photographer’s collective and a photo exhibition called Month Of People’s Photography (MOPP), different to the exhibition called Month of Photography, which was for us a more a self-indulgent take on photography back then.
“For me, photography wasn’t really something I thought about as a career until one day, a friend of mine came up to me and told me that I need to stop fucking around and take it seriously because I’m good at this and it was the first time someone had said that to me. That changed something inside. It was something that I never considered; it was just something I had always done”.
I didn’t see my Cape Town and realised that everyone’s opinion or perspective is valuable and that from the point of departure, they’re equally valuable. So what we did was hijack their publicity; consciously, intentionally and we added an extra ‘p’ to their name and called ourselves MOPP. We got all the coolest coffee shops and restaurants to give us wall space and at the end of it, there were 14 of us: photographers, self-taught guys, from all over and all colours. It was amazing and shifted something in the photography landscape in Cape Town cos we said we are not going to ask for permission as if we need to validate our work, we’re just going to do it. And that’s what we did.
It was covered in the Mail & Guardian, it was very contentious, caused a lot of shit but rightfully so because photography back then, the work and scholarships surrounding it, was still highly monopolised by white folk.
It was well attended and we had Claire Phillips perform. We had no permission for an event and the cops came to shut us down, which was cool.
The second exhibition was hosted at the George Golding school. We were offered the venue in exchange for teaching for a year. It was the time of the Eskom load shedding and when the doors opened at 20:00, the power cut. I was on two phones, calling everyone I knew who was coming, to bring candles. When everyone arrived, the school was lit up on the outside and there was no wind. All the corridors and classrooms were lit; it was the first photo exhibition by candle light.
We had live music, poetry, graffiti, performance artists that we briefed beforehand to fall asleep on people, to interact and to get into their private spaces. It was an event on different levels and nothing like that had ever happened in Cape Town before.
It really shifted something in Cape Town in terms of asking what if? My strength is not admin, but in terms of organisation and events, that comes naturally.
What is the book South Africa at Liberty about?
It is my first photo book, one from a series of books published by Africalia, with each book featuring a different country. It was a slice through 22 years of work done mainly in Cape Town, with 70% being negatives or shot on film. I got help to curate the work by Pieter Hugo.
Yasser will be focusing on launching the book in other cities across Europe and London. He has just come back from a trip to Dar Es Salaam, which he undertook via public transport from Cape Town under the name of #Africanistinmotion.
It was a name that arrived in my head and something that I’m hoping to evolve as a brand for young Africans. Africans who see a very bright future for Africa because the name is a philosophy of introspection and for me, what that is about, is recognising your own worth. That is, recognising the importance of what it is we already have without needing to be validated by an external source, intrinsic value. On the level of the individual, on the level of community, on the level of nation and the level of continent, this is the kind of shift that needs to take place before we can look at anything else .
So part of that is connecting with other people or other creatives who have the means of creating, messaging and getting it out to spread this notion and more importantly, to have the conversation of what does Africa look like in 15/ 20 years time. It’s about creating a platform for having that conversation. There is no one centre where this message is coming from, so as far as my photography is concerned, I see myself playing the role in inspiring people to this vision. Inspiring people to travel Southern Africa and then Africa. To forge real connections and network.
On Dar Es Salaam: I loved it and was blown away. It’s so energetic and I just clicked with that city because there’s so much happening and it’s definitely a city I see myself going back to a few times and potentially even setting up some kind of operation there. It’s a kind of place that I’d love to be travelling to on a regular basis and I think that is where to for me.
PH Centre is hosting an event tonight, May 25, called Single Shot, where they’ve invited 21 photographers to share their favourite image and Yasser will be participating. Click here for further details.
If you’d like to see more of Yasser’s work, check out his Blog and Instagram page.