12 Mar 2024 ///

‘The Sanctity of the Shadow’ with photographer Zander Opperman, AKA Ugly Bruv

Zander Opperman AKA ‘Ugly Bruv’ is a rebel of South African photography. With a reverence for the darker, harder and grittier aspects of life – Zander’s work, and presence is a reminder of the sanctity of the shadow aspects of reality. His subject matter, emboldened by the starkness of bright lighting, showcases Zander’s personal conviction that the moody and cold approach to his visual style is part of the atmospheric way that he wishes to portray his understanding of the world. I was surprised then, to be in conversation with someone who emanated such joy and curiosity; this contrast, between the somewhat haunting nature of Zander’s style and the warmth of his disposition, feels perfect for a photographer who is undefined by the usual checklist of image-makers. One thing about Zander? He doesn’t take himself too seriously, even though his work is seriously, seriously good. 

Zander is from a part of South Africa in which being emo was a rite of passage for anyone who felt different – and resistant – to the suffocations of a rigid, small town. As he explains,  “I grew up in a small Afrikaans town, Krugersdorp, which doesn’t have the best track record. It’s the town where that documentary – Devilsdorp – was set. I actually know three of the people who were involved.” Zander is an emo-kid at his root, and he explains that without this rebellion and the rise of social media – he might not be where he is today, “I was homeschooled – this was in the Myspace era, and I took a lot of photos of myself with my long emo hair. I posted them on Myspace and actually got quite a good response. I shared a lot of highly conceptualised, really badly edited emo-kid shoots, and in those really early days of the internet – we thought we were so fucking cool! I got a lot of validation back then which made me settle on being a photographer instead of an archaeologist – which is what I thought my career would be, growing up.” I truly think once you’re an emo kid, that languishing, gritty lens never leaves you; as Zander says, “honestly, I am still in between a goth kid and an emo kid, to this day. Now it’s more ‘The Cure’ and ‘Depeche Mode’ than other bands. I just don’t have the hair anymore, but it’s who I am in my heart.“

Photography by Zander Opperman

It was a chance encounter with an iconic creative duo that led Zander toward photography as a serious career path. He reminisces of a certain golden age of South Africa’s creative space –  the early 2010s, and “I kept taking photos and sharing them, and we moved from Myspace to Facebook. I invested in a better Nikon camera, and started getting approached online to do really small jobs. I was then given my first real ‘chance’ at this by Jana & Koos – they found me on Instagram before I posted any work. It was all my really moody, life moments. They encouraged me to build my first portfolio and I shot this crazy campaign for them, for Daniel and Paige Sher’s early brand ‘Me Plus One’. It was all grey tracksuits and knitted balaclavas. It was wild!” 

After this, Zander would run away from Krugersdorp and head for Cape Town – with as he says, “one thing in mind, to be a big shot photographer. That didn’t happen! Honestly, I wish I still had that blind belief that we have when we’re young.” Zander credits his experiencing assisting Paul Samuels as his earliest experience of true mentorship, and armed with a portfolio and his own CI that Jana had developed, Zander sent in a physical portfolio to Lampost; an agency who would eventually take a chance to sign him, and where he is still signed to today.

In a world terrified by flash and exposure in photography, Zander’s works make no bones about the cutting, white light enhanced by in-camera flash. It’s his signature, and one of the most striking and brave aspects of his work. I ask Zander how this came about, to which he explains that “for the longest time, I tried to stay away from on-camera flash. I still struggle with the idea that maybe it looks too basic – or that I only know one thing. It really started because I didn’t have money to rent gear, so I experimented with flash as a way to differentiate my work. Juxtaposed with the ‘moodiness’ of the subjects that I shoot, it has ended up being my visual style.” and that it was ultimately born from being “obsessed with watching films. I love Ridley Scott – his work is so moody and gritty, but still highly-crafted and the colour palette that he uses. I think that is the kind of approach I have come to have, this moody and cold approach, formulated in my own way.”

KLûK CGDT campaign, photographed by Zander Opperman

Mandisi Dyantyis for GQ & GQ SUITS photographed by Zander Opperman

Photographed by Zander Opperman

Zander’s honesty about his existential ideas around being a ‘professional photographer’ is undoubtedly refreshing. Guided by an instinctive mode of image-making, Zander tells me that “I am not the most technical photographer – I see what I want in terms of a frame, and then rely on what I know how to do and a good team to help me achieve that. A lot of my best images have been ‘happy accidents’ and come from having people around me who are experts at what they do – there are some people whose entire career is lighting. There was a time where I thought I needed to be far more technical and follow rules. I’ve let that go a lot and as a result, the work I’ve produced in the last while has been the most fulfilling. 

I ask Zander what draws him in thematically; “it used to be fashion. It has evolved more into an image that I think is really strong – which can span across many things. I am working to shoot more ‘documentary’ style as I fulfil a goal, to develop my own exhibition, which is so funny because it’s always been so wanky to me – do I want everyone to come and see my work? Then, there’s the imposter syndrome of like – nobody wants to see that. Who is going to buy that? I am forcing myself to shoot things that can change my thinking around that.” This ever-present curiosity is what sets Zander’s work apart – fashion, through his lens, is a consequence of a much broader pursuit of expression. Namely, that thread of defiance and rebellion that runs through the work of artistic minds such as Rick Owens and Ann Demeulemeester; the gothic, grown up and intellectually motivated. 

From a professional perspective, Zander shares his guidance for aspiring image-makers, saying that “Balance is key. A good photographer or creative knows when a brief is brief – sometimes a client wants your skillset and not your creative style, and being able to deliver that without obsessing over needing your own expression into the work, is really important. Realise what the job is, instead of butting heads with somebody – and learn to let go. Then, make sure you do your own personal work. I try to take time off – like a whole week – where I try to actualise my own ideas.”  and that “Confidence comes from saying: I know what I’m doing, I just do it in a different way to others.”

Diesel, photographed by Zander Opperman

Vegan Tiger, photographed by Zander Opperman

We have spoken a lot about imposter syndrome in our conversation, so I am curious to know whether Zander feels that the proverbial ‘demon of doubt’ should ever be tamed? To which he notes that “I think doubt is a really healthy thing to have as a creative. Obviously not to the point where it stops you from creating – but, that little bit of doubt will always push you to do better and to refine your work. People need to go with their gut – honestly, the only critical voice that ever matters is our own. Find what you feel strongly about and be as delusional as you want about sharing that with the world.” 

As for the future, Zander says “the goal is to get the fucking exhibtion going. Maybe then I’ll see myself as a professional photographer. I feel like the black sheep in my agency, and I heard the funniest quote – ‘are you even important enough to have imposter syndrome?’ Then, I really want to do a documentary series in Russia, and I’m heading back to Seoul to shoot for fashion week – which is something I try to do as often as I can. I love South Korean fashion and I’ve been building a good relationship with people there – it’s one of the most interesting fashion cities in the world, so I’m aiming to spend more time there.” Gritty, sensitive – honest and determined – Ugly Bruv is beautiful, and his world of forms and contrasts are ones that I would pay money to see lining the walls of a gallery. I think he’ll make it happen; and so much more.

Written by: Holly Beaton

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