17 Mar
2020

STEPHEN SMITH MEETS A KLOOF-BASED PHOTOGRAPHER, AUTHOR AND PUBLIC SPEAKER WITH A FASCINATING STORY TO TELL

You know you’re in an interesting home when you go to the loo to spend a penny and spend half an hour instead. But then, it’s not every bathroom that’s decorated with signed photos of presidents, musicians, humanitarians, sports personalities and other famous, instantly recognisable portraits. All of them taken by the man whose bathroom you’re lingering in.

For this is the bathroom of Matthew Willman, documentary photographer, free spirit, international traveller, friend of the late Madiba and road tripper with Annie Lennox.

I forget his exact words, but Matthew says something along the lines of “live your life”. He says his wish is that when he is old, people say of him that he is an interesting man to chat to.

Well, after spending an hour or two doing just that in his beautiful treetop home in Kloof, I’d say that he has already achieved that goal. The future is just going to add to the depth of it.

Who else can share anecdotes of drinking a lot of Guinness in a Dublin bar with Bob Geldof, or of being thankful when his Ford Kuga didn’t catch alight when he was driving Annie Lennox on a road trip in the Western Cape? Or about Madiba giving him the nickname Prince Harry? Or about PW Botha, Die Groot Krokodil, leaving him his hat in his will? Or tracking down that oak tree from The Shawshank Redemption, a beautiful photo of which is in his latest book – 22 Years.

Nowadays Matthew does his own thing, travelling the world for up to 10 months of the year, photographing all that he sees and doing public speaking engagements, exhibitions of his work and writing his books.

When he travels he goes to a place for a week or two with no set plans. That doesn’t mean he strolls around on holiday though – he spends 16 hours or more every day taking photographs. He might disappear into the subways of New York for the entire day, capturing moments on film.

And when he works for one of his international aid clients like Oxfam, he might spend every moment of daylight, and beyond, in the field, walking alongside nomadic tribesmen to find that moment that respectfully can be turned into an image that shows how these “othered” people need help from those in a position to do so.

Matthew has achieved international recognition for his photography, the catalyst no doubt his decade-long relationship with Madiba, but speaking to him you are made aware that this success was not based solely on the one “client”. Yes, Madiba helped to make Matthew’s name, but his long-term success is based on passion, determination and that old chestnut, hard work.

But that’s just now. When he got his first big break and started to work at The Nelson Mandela Foundation as an archive photographer, he wasn’t paid for the first few years. He would fly to Joburg at 6.30am, work until early afternoon, fly back to Durban, change clothes and head off to earn some money as a waiter. This was his normal life, and an inspiring example of how much hard work it takes to succeed as a photographer – probably more so than talent.

He says he sees himself at 60 as a version of John Cleese at Michaelhouse in Spud, teaching history. And what better person to teach it, for even at the age of 40 he has lived so much of it alongside so many of its key players.

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