Afrika Burn: Through the Lens

Strapped up, weighed down, covered in animal fur and steam-punk goggles. I met photographer Stuart Shapiro at Afrika Burn, a festival devoted entirely to radical self expression in the middle of the Karoo desert. There he was walking the sands, this crazy, Mad-Max, half man, half machine, completely and utterly dedicated to the lens. His gift, jotting down each and every person’s details to send them their frozen moment…

Stu Shapiro Afrika Burns photography

Photo © Hennie Niemand

1. From a photographer’s perspective, what is it you love about Afrika Burn?

I love the colours and the eccentric nature of people; their alter egos break free in front of the lens creating a beautiful canvas of opportunity for me to capture the action and emotion. The landscape in itself is an extravagant set for a backdrop to make each photograph potentially magical. The insanity of the skies and the harsh sun, gave me the opportunity to test some unique technical photography tricks I had rigged up to my camera, specifically for the environmental setting.

2. Tell us about the Walking Fashion Studio, what was the concept behind it?

I feel that in a space like Afrika Burn, one should feel free to express themselves without a voyeuristic lens in the distance. So with that in mind I felt I needed to be a part of Afrika Burn – a portable studio. I needed to be an installation myself, an art piece. The idea of the rig is to be one with the person I’m capturing, not an outsider looking in.

The second aspect of the rig is to move away from every other photographer around with expensive lenses and cameras, to rather create something uniquely different in style and technique. All these things brought together, create a different feel and form of photography, using Studio lighting techniques and art directed muses by my assistant Shelley-May. The rig itself was a major contraption to build. Firstly, it was very heavy. My rig needed to be strong enough to support the equipment as well as to look the part. Secondly, I wanted to overcome some technical limitations which come with shooting at slow sync speeds using studio lighting, this became a DIY rig.

Photos © Stu Shapiro

3. Out of all of your shots, what is your favourite Afrika Burn photo and why? 

I’d have to say, the full nude shot of the four lovely people including the man completely covered in body paint. The lighting just hit the spot for me. I really enjoy the rim/back lighting – the sun behind the subjects – and prefer to tone down the ambient light of the environment to create a moody image. My images are not the product of photoshop or post production! The originals are nearly identical except for a small change of the levels, curves and colour balance. The photograph of the mammoth hair blowing in the wind is another favourite. I Find the composition to be absolutely beautiful, the backlighting again, from the sun and the underexposed background. I can’t take all the credit for this photo though, it’s the ingenious hairpiece, the subject, and an amazing concept.

4. What was your most mind-blowing Afrika Burn moment?

For me it was without the camera, when my girlfriend insisted I put it down every day after dark. The big burn left thoughts of portraits behind, the flames captivated me, the warmth of the fire, the thousands of people circling once a massive sculpture, now a rubble encompassed with flames. We took off our clothes and danced. It felt liberating going the full Monty!

5. Favourite art installation and why?

The T-Rex was fantastic this year, I love mechanical devices and sculptures; it almost had a steam-punk feel to it. When it lit up with flames and started walking on that last quiet night, it was the first time I properly reflected on the burn. We had a quiet night that night, sober and clear minded walking around taking everything in. I feel that is what I had been missing out on for most of the Burn. Reflection.

Photos © Stu Shapiro

6. What kit do you use? 

Hehe, this would be letting the cat out the bag, my home made secret.

In general I used a canon 5d MKII with a 24 – 70mm f2.8 lens. I only took one lens up. If I had a choice and 25K in my pocket I would have bought myself a 70 – 200mm. So many photographers had that lens at the burn, I wish I owned it. I’ve been looking for a second hand one for about a year now. Don’t get me wrong though, my lens is a perfect fashion lens, its sharp with a wonderful f-stop.

My lights were Elinchrom lights, I own my own portable lighting equipment as renting becomes expensive if you rent every weekend. Profoto are the general choice for most photographers. The reason for them being top choice is that it’s the brand name internationally when it comes to rentals, if you don’t own an accessory, you can just rent it. Elinchrom, if you ignore the price, is worth it for the simple reason that it’s practically snow, dust and water proof. This was the perfect studio for my needs. It’s lighter than profoto as well. I can’t remember the stats precisely but it must be a good 6kg lighter.

7. What advice would you give a photographer going to the next Afrika Burn?

My advice would be if you wouldn’t want that picture that you’re taking of someone else taken of you or put on facebook, then don’t take that photo. Make sure your equipment is locked away safe. Think about what you want to shoot and the equipment required. Have a clear idea of what type of images, style, look, feel and subject matter you want to capture. I think trying to capture everything at the Burn is going to thin your style and technique out. Put the camera down sometimes so you can actually have a good time!

Find out more about Stu Shapiro

Find out more about the Walking Fashion Studio and Afrika Burn Photography

Find out more about Afrika Burn

Keen to visit South Africa? Check out Kapama Buffalo Camp , one of Africa Geographic's Special Places.

About Holly Meadows

Born and raised in the rural British Counties, my mother began life on a sugar farm in Zululand. After reading Anthropology at university in London, working for a political activist filmmaker in India, and doing a short stint under the bright lights of Bollywood – I decided it was time to return to the motherland. To earn a crust in the name of wanderlust, I finished up a post grad in media and hotfooted around South Africa as a freelance travel journalist. Now, I’ve landed up in the hallways of Safari magazine. If your heart beats for Africa follow this blog & check out Safari.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Hennie-Niemand/720411524 Hennie Niemand

    It was an awesome festival! I love Stu’s photography and it was nice bumping into him at the Burn. Thanks for using the pic I took of him as your intro shot, see you all there next year.

  • http://www.letsbewild.com/photos/ Editor

    Brilliant! I had no idea that an equivalent of Burning Man existed in Africa!

    Great photos too!