Peter Harper: ‘I’d rather do what I do’

A friendly Peter Harper listens carefully to every question posed to him, laughs a comforting laugh, then answers the question in as detailed manner as possible. One  establishes immediately that Harper is a successful man.

Born in District Six, Harper spent his childhood in Wynberg in the Western Cape and went to the local school. In 1994, he set off to Johannesburg for a career in advertising. Harper recalls openly the one and a half months that he lived in his parents’ car, which he took while they were away on holiday and blissfully unaware. He was 20 years old.

Peter Harper

“It was an interesting time,” he says with a comforting laugh.

He tells the story briefly, yet does not leave out any information that I might need. “I went from agency to agency, as you did in advertising at that time.” He explains that he worked himself up to a designer, and then art director, then creative director.

Time passed. “I lost interest in advertising, I did everything that I wanted to do, I won the awards.” It was not fulfilling enough.

Harper starts telling the story of his exciting time in New York. “I went on holiday to New York, sent my portfolio to schools and then enrolled in the New York Film Academy.” This was the year 2000 and Harper studied film and photography.

“In 2002 I came back to South Africa and started as a researcher at a production company. Then, three months later into TV commercials.” He adds that he still did some freelance work in advertising in the meantime and at that particular time “really started with photography.”

He recalls his move to Cape Town in 2011 and how he started working for a company that covers advertising, photography, corporate film directing and animation. Harper still works at this company today.

Ah. The conversation takes a turn and Harper gets to his real passions and current creative endeavors.

His tone of voice changes, instantly the passion ignites. He starts off this tale by confirming that every photographer has his or her own style. “My style is reportage. In the moment, how the person looks or feels.” He explains that he does more of an emotional kind of photography.

He elaborates: “Everything else happens around you and you are just capturing the moment. My passion is photography that tells the story of an individual or situation.”

“Photos need to be real.” He continues and emphasises that he is not a very flashy or pretentious person. He laughs. “I know everyone likes to think they are not very pretentious.”

He describes himself as honest. “Honesty with myself is the honesty that I portray in my pictures.”

The conversation continues and I learns that karate might be the explanation for his calm and collected demeanor. “It keeps me sane and keeps me honest.” He explains that the sport helps him to handle every situation, in work and in life.

“I am very zen when it comes to life and when it comes to working. What comes across our path, we approach it and we make the best out of it.”

This also explains his approach to his photography: “You know, the situation is there, I can’t change the situation but I can document it the best way so I can spread it to others.”

On the topic of who Peter Harper is, I take the liberty to ask what he considers important to him. “My family, my community. If you don’t draw from your surroundings and people surrounding  you, then you can’t be creative.”

Haper jokes around and another love of his gets revealed: the Harley Davidson club that he belongs to. “I’ve always had motorcycles. My Harley Davidson, I drive everywhere with it,” he says.. “Today, I have two cameras, nine lenses, a lighting kit, all on the Harley.”

Harper’s final confirmation of who the calm cameraman is: “I like things to be honest, I am not going to buy a bike or a car for the job I do. I’d rather do what I do.”

The conversation comes to a close. Final question. What is Peter Harper’s five-year plan? Again, he listens carefully to the question. Laughs his trademark laugh and as per usual, answers the question in a detailed manner.

“It’s been a very interesting road in the industry. From corporate to where I am now.” He talks of his own photography studio that he would like to start in Cape Town, Johannesburg and perhaps spread to where he studied in New York.

“I’d like a studio that does not only focus on high-end photography but also does video editing.” He says that he would like to be more inclusive. “You know what, the problem with the industry is that it puts artists into boxes. We need to become more digitally minded. It does not help if you are a photographer, but you do not get your photos to people, and you can’t speak to people.” He would like the studio to speak to the market as well a studio that encompasses all the areas of creativity.

“I was born and bred in Cape Town, where the pool is very small. Go away to Johannesburg or the US, but come and bring back to specifically Cape Town.”

He laughs one more time. “I would like to start a movement. It has to begin somewhere, so let’s chat.” – Tania Heyns