For all the great noise generated about South Africa’s stratospherically successful street fashion photographer, Trevor Stuurman is remarkably quiet and reserved. On first meeting, he hardly said a word. It may have well been because we turned the camera on him almost from the moment we met him, as he walked out of the airport and into my car. So perhaps he felt nervous to greet me, let alone make small talk. On the road from the airport, he opened his laptop and worked on his photographs, cross-referencing on a cellphone with a shattered screen. By the time we got to our destination, we had barely made eye contact.
I am used to working with extroverts – young and older creatives who are defining their destiny by expressing themselves as post-millenial Africans – proud, assertive and unique. Trevor was different to many of those, hardly smiling and keeping his thoughts and motives contained behind a serious face animated only by appealing eyes. But every now and again he would break into a wonderful smile.
While we did the interview, I realised that I would have to adapt my style of questioning to complement his manner of answering. He has a habit of pausing in the middle of a sentence to think – which compels the interviewer to hang on, as if to a branch, in anticipation of a conclusion. His thoughts are profound, so require careful attention. He does not rev his fame and success into a roar of triumph. He insists by inference that the person he is meeting looks for it.
So how well has he done? His climb to international recognition has been steep. He let drop lightly in the interview that he had just come back from Nigeria, there at the invitation of veteran supermodel Naomi Campbell to photograph The Look at the Fashion Arise Festival in Lagos. He seemed incredulous that she had started following him on instagram. He has this year become a contributor to British Vogue, a dream come true. Next week he addresses a conference at Oxford University to speak on changing the African Narrative, for the second year in a row.
But somehow the fame does not cause spontaneous exultation. He talks about it with a sense of wariness and is constantly referencing the importance of remaining grounded, in a place which he identifies as home, as much a construct of his emotional identity as a physical place.
Trevor grew up in the half-forgotten, half-remembered old mining town of Kimberley, located in the Northern Cape, a faded city in the centre of South Africa. He lost his father while a teenager. Although he doesn’t complain about having grown up poor, it’s clear that his parents had to work hard to get him to a good school and make provision for an education beyond that. He can not paint a picture with words of home, but his being vibrates with the mood and emotion of it. While scrolling through archive footage he gave me, I saw that his first photographic exhibition was entitled “Home”, although the subjects were Himba people from Namibia, not folk from Kimberly. He talks particularly about how careful and deliberate his mother and grandmother are in curating their lives. Even the way his grandmother would stack pillows on her bed was an act of creativity, done with a sense of aesthetic, he told me.
But now he is away from there, and flying high in international fashion circles, travelling to high-paced cities, working with the sophisticated elite. But in conversation, he circles back to his past formative experiences. He asked that we could film a meeting with one his lecturers from college. No matter, that Michael Ivy had moved to another city – he flew back at his own expense to Cape Town to meet us to support Trevor. And then while doing a short interview with us, he wept about Trevor Stuurman, the quietest prodigy possibly that he has ever met.
Michael recalled how he had loaded his students with an impossibly large project – to document an index of a 100 years of identity in fashion photographs. He said Trevor had arrived late and exhausted to hand over the project, and dissolved into tears. He admitted it had been really tough to complete. Without resources he had had to travel to his various shoot locations on foot in the wet and windy Cape winter. Michael recalled counselling and comforting him as lecturers do. Once he had gone, Michael opened the project. Trevor had dedicated the project to the women in his life and the role they play in Africa. Michael was overwhelmed himself by its beauty and impact of the images. It was his time for tears. And all this came rushing back in a short interview at the AFDA Film School campus, in Observatory, Cape Town.
Michael has kept the project and still shows it to students to inspire them.
One of the reasons why Trevor so much wanted to include Michael and his alma mater in the AV shoot was because he felt that his education has been glossed over in the many short bios placed of him on the net. People refer to me as a small town boy who has done good, but I also did a lot of work to get to where I am, he explained to me.
And Michael agrees. He argues that while the media tend to sensationalise Trevor’s success, he has seen steady and consistent evolution, over the last years. It has been paced and purposeful. He was able to explain that Trevor’s ability to project African identity through photographs was one of his unique qualities. He talks to a world hungry for African creativity, curated by Africans. It’s probably entirely consistent with his approach that Trevor often styles himself for portraits. He is as easy and remarkable in front of the camera as behind it.
At twenty-five, Trevor Stuurman, appears to stand on the brink of great things as a street photographer who has been embraced by high fashion in a fiercely competitive digital world. Here’s to hoping that his sense of home, and personal identity will keep his feet reassuringly grounded in African soil while he points his lens to the stars.
By Marion Edmunds
Here's the link to the CNN's African Voice on Trevor Stuurman. Working on it inspired me to write this article.