Madeleine Bazil is a whirlwind of a creative, an American-born, British-educated artist and storyteller based in South Africa. She works across visual and written media, primarily in photography. We caught up with her last week to discuss her new foray into the world of Documentary Arts at the University of Cape Town and how she fosters intimacy with her subjects.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your photography?
I first got into photography a long time ago by accident – originally it was a teenage side hobby when I felt I was hitting a wall with painting. I began taking photos more seriously during uni and did a lot of freelance events and editorial work. Eventually I realised that my interests in human rights, social justice, and the NGO world were things I could look at most effectively through the lens and so I started digging deeper into social documentary projects.
What interests you most to photograph?
Generally I am interested in candid honesty, natural light, and implicit humanity. My documentary work seeks to hold space for collective and individual memory of trauma – both cultural and personal. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate that photos are the best way I’ve found (so far) to articulate, navigate, and connect with the world around me. I’m wary of the idea of a ‘calling’ but I can’t think of anything else I should be doing rather.
You shoot a lot in analogue, how did that begin?
It was actually sparked by a guy I used to date who had a home darkroom – at some point my attempts to prove my cred to a film snob evolved into my developing a genuine passion for the practice. That’s an embarrassing admission but just goes to show that it’s the unexpected things that land you where you are.
Where have been some of your favourite places to photograph and why?
New York City. It always has been and always will be.
Readers – check out her short film, Slice” a window into the culture of deep affection New Yorkers have for their pizza here
Some of your work is quite intimate, how do you create an open relationship between yourself and the person you’re photographing?
It all comes down to a contract of mutual trust which is built over time. I aim to act with respect and show a willingness to deeply listen, and in turn that proves to the subject that I’m committed to making an honest and thoughtful portrayal.
You recently moved to South Africa. What drew you there?
South Africa has a dynamic homegrown creative scene unparalleled by any other country I’ve experienced. The amount of artistic energy concentrated here is astonishing and infectious – the more I come to know it, the more I fall in love with it. And the weather’s not awful either.
If you’ve hit a bit of a dry patch, what do you do to find inspiration?
When this occurs I find it’s usually because I’m not thinking the right way to be receptive to inspiration, not because there’s an actual lack of material around me. So when I feel that burnout coming on I try to really lean into it and saturate myself in a variety of media – read more books, go to more gigs, watch really beautiful films, listen to friends talk about the cool projects they’re working on – and that helps rewire my mind a bit until my drive to make equally rad output resurfaces.
Documentarians you admire?
David Goldblatt, Susan Meiselas, the Bang-Bang Club, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Bieke Depoorter, Pieter Hugo, Lynsey Addario, Alice Aedy, Robin Hammond, Yagazie Emezi, Lindokuhle Sobekwa, Daniella Zalcman, I could keep going for ages, there are so many documentarians I admire.
A favourite travel memory?
When I was 18 and living in Argentina with my best friend, the two of us went on a very poorly thought-out whirlwind 36 hour trip to Buenos Aires. It was a strange and memorable time. Both of our phone cables broke and so we spent most of the weekend using Google Maps on a miraculously long-lasting 1% charge. A swath of fog and rain rolled in over El Río de la Plata from Uruguay, the whole city was mobbed with pigeons, and I met a whole slew of my mysteriously long-lost South American cousins who then took us out for very expensive Italian food. Looking back that whole weekend feels like something surreal out of Borges.
Somewhere still on your list to travel?
I’m really keen to explore more of Southern Africa – climbing Dune 45 in the Namib Desert has always been a dream, and I am dying to make it to the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
Nomad Trip – Where are your favourite places to go in SA?
99 Loop Gallery
On the first evening of every month, Cape Town comes alive for First Thursdays, an event where the multitude of art galleries in the city stay open late and pedestrians safely roam the streets to gallery-hop, drink and socialise. All the galleries offer copies of the official First Thursdays map, which shows all participating destinations. Start off at the ever excellent 99 Loop and meander from there – other great galleries to check out include Gallery One11, Whatiftheworld, the AVA and Eclectica Contemporary.
Keen surfers will dig Llandudno (side tip: always check wavescape.co.za for the forecast) but so will anyone looking for a remote and stunning beach that feels like worlds away from Cape Town’s bustling city bowl.
The Waiting Room
Get your groove on to the sounds of cool up and coming DJ’s at Waiting Room, which might accurately be described as the only dance bar to ever feel cosy and inclusive. If you’re early, grab a burger downstairs at Royale Eatery (loads of Vegan and Veggie options too!)
Honest Chocolate Cafe
The best artisanal chocolate in town. And tucked away behind the chocolate shop is the best gin bar in town (order the Ambition).
Ground Zero Marley Coffee
Maybe I’m biased because this is my go-to ‘work from home’ spot, but Marley’s is great at just about any time of day. Snag a table in the funky covered courtyard outback and camp out
as long as you want with a book, a laptop, a cigarette. If you ask, they’ll add a few drops of CBD oil to your iced coffee to fuel your productivity.
The Power and the Glory
P&G, as it’s affectionately known, is a mainstay. Pop in on a Friday and the bar will be buzzing with young creative types enjoying a Black Label, the crowd spilling out into the pavement outside.
In lieu of a ‘township tour’, instead go to this community cultural space in Langa, Cape Town’s oldest township. Guga S’Thebe is an awesome place to meet talented artists, enjoy concerts, and soak up the township vibes whilst supporting entrepreneurs in the local economy instead of being exploitative.
Keep going up Kloof Nek Road past the Lion’s Head trailhead and you’ll make it to Signal Hill, every Capetonian’s beloved sundowner spot. Bring friends, blankets and jackets ( the wind is no joek), and a bottle of Pinotage and watch the sunset over the Atlantic.