Bo-Kaap born photographer Yasser Booley has always wanted to tell the story of the South African people. And that is precisely the aim of his new book called South Africa At Liberty.
Having got his first camera from his father when he was 17, he taught himself photography. “I started taking photographs and I just kept going. In 1992 we were shooting film and we would have to go to the labs to process and develop the negatives. Those were the guys that I learnt from and I went to.”
Mr Booley learnt to shoot on a manual 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) camera.
“I like to figure out how things work. Once I got the basic understanding I think I developed my own style. I just took pictures. I used to love writing as a way of recording. Photography for me at the time, the boxes were much bigger. It was a way of recording how I looked at the world and for me that was very interesting.”
He realised he would be able to look back on it as a real way of tracing his development and growth. “I love the visual language. I used to love comic books as a teenager.”
He also spent time working for various production companies but resisted for a long time, doing a course in photography. However, he eventually did one in Berlin in 2007.
Having initially decided to study a Bachelor of Science, majoring in physiology at UCT, in 1994, he wanted to do genetic engineering but his career went on a completely different path.
After leaving university after two years, he opened a small burger shop on the Grand Parade.
Mr Booley, who now lives in Vredehoek, said his first published work was in 2001 and it ended up being the cover story for the Design Indaba magazine. “That was incredible. It was my first published work and I got the cover story. I was the guy who always had the camera over my shoulder.”
But, he said, he never considered himself a photographer until he started working full-time for the Mail and Guardian in 2003. He worked there for three years. “It was my favourite newspaper and I used to love the photographers. When I had the opportunity to work for them I was blown away.”
He said that his upbringing in Bo-Kaap has a lot to do with how his photography has developed and what he shoots.
“Growing up in the Bo-Kaap, even in primary school we were politically educated. We were singing freedom songs and taught about Nelson Mandela.
“My father Thabiet, who was an activist in the 1960s, was involved in the Muslim Youth Movement in District Six. I grew up with a lot of compassion and a lot of love. I grew up with my grandmother sending me to neighbours with shopping bags full of food.”
He said he didn’t realise until much later in life, that his grandmother was giving food to less fortunate neighbours. “There was always that kind of interaction. Social justice was something that was there from the beginning, Every person, by virtue of being a human being, deserves respect and dignity.”
He said those were the kind of values that translated into his work as a photographer.
Mr Booley said even though he shoots digital for work, he still shoots on film as a hobby and laments that the knowledge and art of film photography is being lost. “It’s a massive shame, for me it’s magic. I could spend days in the dark room and just watching that image appear on the paper is like magic.”
Mr Booley added that he decided early on that he wasn’t going to shoot bloodshed or accidents because he felt there were enough good photographers doing that. “The most meaningful is bringing people closer to the realisation that we can all empathise with each other.”
But back to his latest project. The book came from a connection with a Belgian Art Foundation called Africalia, which has done a lot of work in sub-Saharan Africa. “Their belief is that art is catalyst for social change.”
Mr Booley’s book is the final of a series and, much like his career, was unplanned. “It was what I loved doing, it was my passion and that’s just how things panned out.”
He said a lot of it was due to the support of his family and friends around him. He said he wanted the work to be a tribute to the people who made the country amazing. “For me what makes South Africa amazing is the people. I’ve travelled enough to know that there is something very special here. I wanted it to be a gift of my work to the people of this country.”
Mr Booley is also raising money to launch the book at the African Art Fair at the photographer’s gallery book shop in London this month. He has been selling some of his photographs at Unknown Union in the city centre to raise funds for his trip.
The book was released at the end of last year but Mr Booley has more recently been involved in a pop-up exhibition in Bo-Kaap. He said this was partly to remind local government of the rich heritage of the area. “It is about reminding people that Bo-Kaap is more than just prime real estate. There is a history here,” he said.
For more information on the book, contact Mr Booley at 076 881 2638 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org