The ocean has a way of telling stories. Through swells and glass it tells tales of storms that hide in the distance, or of the starry skies to come. The words echo onto the shores as evidence of what lies past what we can see and what may be on the way. Stories have a way of helping us see what lays just beyond our immediate experience, the place where imagination fills in what our perception cannot. Nic De Jesus’ narrative style of photography beckons an ear for tales, and like all good storytellers, his own stories can be quietly heard in the parables he spins, in this case, his photos.
[N]ic De Jesus grew up in a place where the people rise early. They rise to meet the sun as it meets the ocean. They rise to meet a swell as it meets the shores. It’s a place where lessons are taught and learnt in the sea and on the beach. “It was my parents who taught me how to see the sea, how to feel the sea.” Warner Beach, South Africa is a small coastal town south of Durban with a population under five thousand. “The place breeds ocean culture,” Nic tells with faint nostalgia. “My mother was always an early riser. She would wake me up at sunrise and remind me to head down to the beach before the winds shifted, which meant early skates to the beach were a regular commitment. My parents would always say there is no reason to be indoors, if you didn’t have to be, which meant that the beach became my backyard and a backyard for so many families. Everything was based around the ocean,” Nic says, “on the weekends there was only the water.”
“The fishermen would set out from the shores early with the surfers and they would all return after a long session.” The fishermen with fish and the surfers with stoke. “There would be families scattered all over the beach, but not chaotically. Everyone would be swapping boards and laughs, it’s just the way it was there.” Nic’s family was well suited for a spot like this, the son of parents who both had a deep love for the ocean. Nic’s mother, an avid coastal explorer, was no stranger to the ‘Transkei’, a word translating to ‘area beyond the river.’ The Transkei is a rugged section of South Africa known for its empty waves and otherworldly geography. She would camp out while fishing and hiking with her brothers and their crew, which included the likes of Frankie Oberholzer, a household name in any household where surfboards could be found. His father was also a surfer and a waterman who groomed Nic with an easy-going, loving guidance towards the waves and towards creativity. Nic looked up to his parents greatly as a child, and even remembers fashioning little pieces of ocean art to gift them.
“I always wanted to be a painter,” Nick explains about his early years in playful exploration of the visual world. I used to paint and draw simple pictures of boats and fishing nets, mostly images emerging subconsciously I think.” Mementos of the mind from a childhood spent at the shores. His upbringing set his roots deep in the water. Drawings and paintings still hang abundantly in his house today even though his focus is more on film. One could say that the process of drawing and painting is the crux to Nic’s subconscious. It is the method to slow things down and absorb a moment fully. “I seek out quietness in my image-making process, whether drawing or photography. It forces me to investigate the relationship I have with what I’m trying to communicate. Drawing and painting helps me translate some of these feelings, therefore facilitating and feeding my photographic process. It’s my private journal, if you like, and the quietness in the frame is the starting point for discussion.”
“You feel it, you feel when you’re in the wrong place, you feel it when things are out of line. Sometimes you have to get out of the water when a session isn’t flowing, you have to get out, sit on the beach and start again.”
When Nic saw the photographic work of one of his friends, his imagination was sparked. He was inspired by how it was possible to capture an experience, a moment, and to translate that to viewers through imagery. The youngster began with film, mused by the environment that surrounded him, shooting pictures of the lifestyle in Cape Town and all that it encompassed. After some years of developing his skill, Craig Kolesky, Nic’s friend, wound up taking Nic under his wing and eventually on board with an up-and-coming kite surfing magazine. This took him on a three-year span that included covers and eventually ended with Nic becoming creative director and designing the magazine. But as much as Nic learned throughout this process, towards the end he felt something wasn’t quite right. “I operate my visuals the same way I operate in the water,” Nic relates, “You feel it, you feel when your in the wrong place, you feel it when things are out of line. Sometimes you have to get out of the water when a session isn’t flowing, you have to get out, sit on the beach and start again.” The constant bombardments of advertising domination and cover rights were beginning to take a toll on the young photographer. “While I was with the magazine I was also painting abstracts. What I felt with painting and what I was beginning to feel with the magazine were becoming further apart. This was not art for me, it was madness in my brain.” Nic had to get out, sit on the beach and start again. Ironically the place Nic ended up was far from the beach. London, England.
It was a different chapter in what Nic calls his search to discover his connection to imagery and story. At the time he didn’t think about how being away from the ocean would affect his work or search, he just knew he had to dive completely into the medium of his art and essentially into the depths of his subconscious to find out what lay in the shadows and separate from the money and exposure-driven world of shooting commercial photography. The four and a half years Nic spent away from the sea revealed self-knowledge and clarity, but it was not an easy journey. Everything Nic had come to know in some way was in connection to the shores. I ask Nic how it was, for someone who came into this world so closely tied to the ocean to be without that presence. He thinks back, reminiscing the details of that time. “I started to figure out through my yearning for the ocean I needed a way to reconnect to that feeling, with that connection. I needed a way to reconnect with that in the now, wherever I was.” The winds that would bring him back to that connection would be strong and at times dark. He turned inwards and paid attention to the storm brewing inside. A body of work titled Till Then pulsed into existence.
“The project was never meant to be shared or celebrated in any way. It was very much created out of a necessity for me to understand what it was I was trying to say in my work, what I needed to get rid of and what I needed to bring back.” Memories and half-lit characters called ‘visiting passengers,’ a title Nic directs towards inner influences, move through the frames amongst the soft wailing creaks of a boat hull. Images flash like the remnants of a forgotten dream as the intensity builds and then seems to dissolve into the sounds of a soothing tide. The photography was done on Nic’s 35mm Leica film camera and put together in video format by Kevin Row, a close friend. The heaviness is felt. “I’ll be forever stoked with the collaboration. Kev’s patience and commitment in facilitating and contributing to the realisation of the multimedia piece was awesome, to say the least, especially with such a personal body of work.” People at times tend to ignore the darker aspect of their consciousness, hide it and render it invalid. A secret that stays hidden. In Till Then, Nic allows the yin to play out through imagery and be heard, liberating shadows through acknowledgement. “I wanted to take the LCD completely out of the process when shooting,” relates Nic, referring to the choice of using the Leica. It was a return to how he started with image, from film. The ritual of developing the photos himself helped Nic to relate deeper to each one and essentially his own connection with them.
There was a time during the project when the artist felt completely separate from that which gave him identity. Nic always knew himself through the ocean and ultimately his family who were such a part of that environment. In London he was very much alone, forced to feel emptiness from the absence of that which gave him such light. His parents had decided to separate before Nic had left for London. Part of his time in the city was spent confronting and understanding how these changes were affecting him. Healing can only begin to take place after the acknowledgment and understanding of a wound. A wound left without attention can quickly change into something much worse than it had been. Nic was looking inwards in London, and in ways some of the visual decisions in Till Then were fundamentally based on the searching and healing that were taking place. “My mum and my dad were very much my anchors, and my doorway into the ocean. They were in love with the ocean and instilled that love into us.” Till Then became an unfiltered expression of yearning for the sea and all that it had represented for Nic. It was an artist’s view of inside the storm, a perspective of all that was changing, under currents outside of control. The project had been picked up and left aside numerous times over six years. Titles and photos were changed and rearranged as the artist tried to grasp at just what it was his mind was putting forth. Nic had almost given up on it. He needed waves and replenishment. He needed to return to the ocean.
“My father always says that no matter how crazy life gets, you can always return to the water for clarity.”
The plane soared to Portugal and right into swell. It was nourishment for the soul and spirit, so much so that instead of heading back to London as planned, he jumped over to Morocco leaving cameras behind, only bringing pens and paints. He mistakenly booked the wrong accommodations and ended up staying far from where he was planning. This simple mistake would bring about a new chapter for Nic and his art. He ventured to a small fishing village called Taghazout. It was there he met Gemelle. The two kindred souls and fellow disciples of the water would enjoy Morocco together in a blissful blur of waves and smiles. And although they left Morocco they didn’t leave each other’s side. Gemelle appears throughout the story of Till Then, and appropriately near the end. It was the meeting of a muse and a love that inspired Nic to finish the project. “It can come off as melancholic,” Nic states, “but it’s not, it’s actually extremely liberating to close off a chapter, and not a very nice chapter, to allow yourself to breathe again. It’s like taking off your clothes and running naked and being completely okay with it. In a way, the completion of Till Then was me saying goodbye and hello. Hello to accepting love, love that I have for the ocean and the love that I can have for another person.” The time in Morocco would be told through a little series of shots shown as a poem titled Le Maroc, done as homage to the lesser-observed intricacies of the land. The series of photos finishes with a beautiful wave breaking in black and white, a far cry from most sequences displayed in generic surf magazines. Nic had begun to rediscover his connection to imagery in a new way, a way heavily influenced by the stories that whisper with photos.
It was this time in his own story where he felt the pull to return home. He returned back to South Africa and back to his family and friends who he hadn’t seen in over nine years. Although much had changed, some things still remained the same. The beach still lay silent under the dawn light as it always had. Nic and his father sat and watched the morning unfold again while waves rolled in, just as they had done a long time before. Both had stories to tell, new lessons to share. “My father always says that no matter how crazy life gets, you can always return to the water for clarity.” With Till Then finished, Nic fittingly started working in colour, with the exception of his portraiture work. But absence of colour in this venture was a result of function more than form. Nic’s portrait work looks like it comes from another time, and in a way it does. He holds up the old camera and chuckles at my reaction to it. The camera looks dated, like a relic of the past more suited to a museum than actually functioning, which is somewhat true. In the late 1800s, Alexander Graham Bell invented his first prototype of the telephone, Thomas Edison premieres the first ever movie just after inventing the light bulb and Frederic Scott Archer introduces collodian wet plate photography to the world. The camera Nic holds in his hand was manufactured during this time and utilises the process of the old world.
He found the camera at a market in Notting Hill, London. After resurrecting it into working condition, he discovered a man named Sean Mackenna in North London, who was experienced in 19th century photography. Sean taught Nic the process known as collodian wet plate photography, whereby you have a glass plate and pour collodian over it. You then place the glass into a tank filled with silver nitrate. Once removing the glass from the tank (under a red safe light), it is then sensitive to light and ready to be placed into a plate holder ready to be exposed. Once the image has been exposed, it then returns to the darkroom, removed from the plate holder and developed, then fixed with sodium thiosulfate (hypo). Nic, always on the move and dreading the reaction of landlords and the wellbeing of his apartment, decided to shoot on direct positive photographic paper. This would allow him to still be able to keep the analogue process that his camera demanded and keep the developing process in the darkroom, while freeing him from some of the chemicals and financial cost tied to it.
“I love sharing in that experience…time is just travelling, and we are sharing that together, travelling together.”
Nic stays away from the analogue versus digital argument as he embraces all formats of imagery. But there are some points that make the method of this style of photography fascinating, especially for someone who is intuitive to changes in the natural world. Surfers, and anyone who feels drawn to play in the ocean for that matter, have to be aware of the constantly changing elements involved within this realm. Tides can cause waves to appear and disappear just as suddenly from a dependent reef. A small swell can change to double overhead in the matter of an afternoon. Coastal trade winds can turn offshore like clockwork, or turn an all time session into a sloppy mess in spite of the grumblings. We watch the leaves blow on trees, toss sand in the air and gaze out at a swell intently and aware, predicting and reacting to the flux of a cosmic equation that, if properly interpreted, we can align with and ultimately become a part of. “Because the lens is very old it reacts to light in different ways. First I have to look for a location I want to shoot at because I can only take one photo at a time, then I write down what the weather is for that day and do the mathematics with that in relation to how long I held the exposure for. When it comes time to develop I just hope I’ve done my mathematics right, or else I’m back on my bike to try again.” It sounds much like scouting out a spot and tides and weather for a session in the water. The method sounds like a mission in itself. “It forces me to think a hell of a lot more. It also allows me to connect with my subjects during portrait sittings in a unique way. They have to sit extremely still. Exposures last between five seconds and three minutes, so they (the subjects) are forced to go inside themselves and find a quiet place, be still, and in this way they become a participant. The portrait becomes a collaboration.”
The pace of life today can feel fast. In a world of instant everything a process like this is unique. The old camera invites in another pace of life experienced over one hundred years ago. In a way it can be thought of as a little time machine, taking a moment and slowly consolidating linear time into one product, into a memento of our constant flow and story. “I’ll take anywhere between two and ten pictures of the sitter. By the time the portrait is done, the subject is in a completely different world. I love sharing in that experience. Sometimes the photo comes out with really soft areas in the frame but I love that about the portrait, it shows that the exposure is long, and that they are sitting through a moment, time is just traveling, and we are sharing that together, traveling together.” Receiving what the moment is offering. Nic continues to base a lot of his work on his outlook of taking what life is offering you at that moment and using it. It’s not so much about forcing an outcome, it’s about listening for the silence in the moment and realising its miracle, even when that moment can seem dark. Nic’s take on it is simple and inspiring. “I try to embrace experiences and feed it through a filter, and for me that filter is the ocean.” He continues to let life and the ocean inspire his art and his story in Brighton Beach, UK, where he and his lovely girlfriend Gemelle live and work, although there is some talk of making a move to a place where swells frequent more often. They look forward to the next chapter together.