The photographer who went from war zones to some of the world's most glam weddings
South African snapper Brett Florens will be in Londonderry today to give a workshop on wedding photography but as he tells Lee Henry, his career was unconventional.
As one of the world's most renowed wedding photographers, South African Brett Florens travels the globe, capturing brides and grooms on camera as they mark their big day.
But long before he was taking pictures of happy couples tying the knot, the Durban-born father-of-two was learning his trade in more challenging circumstances - launching his career during a period of intense political upheaval and change, while working for the country's riot police.
In 1990, South Africa was in flux. While State President FW de Klerk, in a February 2 speech broadcast around the world, announced that Nelson Mandela would soon walk free from Robben Island to herald a new era of racial equality, blood continued to flow in the streets of the townships.
For many employed in the country's security forces, old habits died hard. Channelling the prejudices of their forefathers, state police marshalled the political transition with predictable contempt for the black population. Orders were passed down, bullets were fired, and in some cases massacres were committed.
Despite seeing their most astute political leaders released from prison, however, the black community was far from united.
In the midlands region of Kwazulu-Natal, in Durban - a city officially divided along racial lines since the 1950s - Brett finished his schooling and entered a world of extremes. Not one for academia, he chose to volunteer for conscription. Aged 19, he became a member of the riot police.
"On one hand it was convenient, as I was serving in my hometown," recalls Florens, who is also a leading commercial photographer.
"On the other hand, I pretty much ended up in the middle of things. At that time, Kwazulu-Natal was one of the most dangerous places on earth, with more per capita murders taking place within the city limits than were occurring as a result of the contemporaneous conflict in Bosnia. As the transformation from Apartheid to democracy took place, there was quite a bit of instability."
Indeed, no less than 5,000 lives were lost in the Natal region alone during the previous four-year period; Florens saw South Africa struggle to come to terms with its new-found egalitarian status from the front line. His duties, as he recalls them, were initially to "observe and control political riots and protests". But those duties would soon change.
"Because the forensic photographic unit, which was not assigned danger money, was not prepared to go into the townships to photograph murder scenes, a need arose within the riot unit for a new photographic unit to document politically motivated crimes and township violence," Florens continues.
"When the idea was proposed to us, nobody wanted to volunteer, for two reasons. Firstly, if you are photographing a crime scene or protest march, you would be the person looking for evidence and therefore you would become a target.
"Secondly, you are potentially recording your colleagues perhaps doing things that they shouldn't be doing in the heat of the moment. So I didn't exactly jump at the opportunity."
Prospective volunteers were, however, promised their own private police cars, meaning that they would enjoy a modicum of autonomy in their new roles - an enticing prospect for any rookie cop. Knowing full well the dangers of doing so, Florens threw his hat in the ring.
"I knew that I didn't want to be a policeman for the rest of my life. I didn't have a university education, and so I saw the photographic unit as a means of eventually escaping the force. And it gave me a sense of freedom in an otherwise constrictive environment." Over the next couple of years, Florens underwent a crash course in photography. Forced to purchase his own equipment - namely a Ricoh point and shoot compact camera, to begin with - because "management didn't even have a proper budget", he learned on the job, developing skills, and an eye for an image, while photographing the most horrific of scenes.
"I photographed anything from murder scenes to burning shacks, buses that had been hijacked, public transport infrastructure that had been destroyed, taxi wars that resulted in a lot of deaths. Like Northern Ireland during the Troubles, there was a lot of illegal activity aimed at bringing instability into the system."
There was little opportunity to dwell on circumstances, however. To complete his work, Florens, a naturally pragmatic individual, quickly developed a thick skin.
"The scenes that would affect me the most invariably involved old people or babies," he says. "They were difficult to photograph, but I never found myself in a position where I saw something that I didn't want to capture.
"Overall, in fact, I found the job fascinating. Suddenly, when it came to gathering evidence to solve a crime, I was in a position of authority. I had purpose. So no crime was ever too gruesome or gory.
"In general, thankfully, the whole surreal experience never really affected me emotionally. I didn't have bad dreams or post-traumatic stress, even though, on a couple of occasions, we did wonder if we were going to make it out alive. It was just something that I felt I had to do."
On April 27, 1994, a watershed moment in South Africa's history took place: the first general election in which all citizens, irrespective of race, were permitted to vote.
Mandela's African National Congress, banned by the oppressive Afrikaner establishment for decades before the eventual dismantling of the Apartheid regime, enjoyed a landslide victory.
There was no dramatic reversal in fortunes for millions of unemployed black South Africans, however, and life continued much as it had before. In the same year as the general election, the murder rate reached an all-time high across South Africa.
"It was a very turbulent time and place," Florens says. "There was a lot of fear, apprehension, anxiety. At one stage, we were photographing 10 or 12 bodies a day. Yet there remained this underlying feeling of hope, a sense that one day we would all come out the other end, if not unscathed, then at least a better nation."
In the meantime, Florens sought to do his part, and began working with the international press corps as a photojournalist, helping to educate the world at large about the ongoing injustices taking place in his native Durban and beyond on a daily basis.
"I realized that there was an opportunity to get my images out to a wider audience, so I started taking photos that I deemed newsworthy, and got published by the Associated Press, Newsweek, Reuters and various newspapers.
"Understanding how the press worked was very validating for me. I made a bit of money on the side, and that gave me the confidence to leave the police force and go out on my own.
"I rented a small space, put an advertisement outside the building and waited for the phone to ring. I would go around putting leaflets through people's letterboxes, taking photographs of sporting events and selling them back to parents. That got my name out as a photographer of worth."
Today, Florens, who is married to Andrea and is father to Ethan, (14) and Ben (11), has permanent bases in Durban, Amsterdam and London, and a contacts book to rival any Hollywood PR agent's.
He regularly photographs fashion shoots in Paris, New York and Milan, and has helmed successful commercial campaigns for the likes of Wonderbra, Quiksilver and Puma.
Within the industry, he is perhaps best known, however, as an A-grade wedding photographer, an auteur whose flamboyant sets, daring themes and high concept creations appeal to A-list stars. Not bad for a boy with no formal training.
Florens will be in Londonderry today, where he will deliver a one-day workshop for the newly-launched photography training platform Engage, a digital start-up founded by Donal Doherty, one of Ireland's leading wedding photographers.
Florens' workshop, entitled What Women Want, draws on his extensive experience in working with brides, models and matriarchs in countries around the world, and is free to stream from 10am to 4pm at engagelive.co.
A keen runner and occasional triathlete, Florens - who has photographed weddings in Ireland before - is looking forward to jogging around the ancient Walled City and along the River Foyle, and will, time permitting, visit the Bogside to see for himself a site so often captured by photojournalists of repute.
His jet-set lifestyle is, of course, a world away from the chaos of his early 20s. Thankful that South Africa eventually found its feet as a nation, Florens remains proud of his roots, and looks back on his experience in the riot police photographic unit with an enduring sense of relief.
"I think it gave me a lot of perspective on what life is really about," Florens concludes.
"Coming close to death does give you a different slant on life. I remember saying at the time that you've never lived until you've almost died, and that resonates with me till this day.
"What I do now is the complete antithesis of what I did then. Today I photograph happy things - people on the best days of their lives as opposed to the worst days of their lives."
- Brett Florens will delivers a full-day class on shooting brides and models in What Women Want, which will stream live from a photography studio on Londonderry's Spencer Road from 10am to 4pm today