Art Producers Speak: Willem Vrey

We emailed Art Buyers and Art Producers around the world asking them to submit names of established photographers who were keeping it fresh and up-and-comers who they are keeping their eye on. If you are an Art Buyer/Producer or an Art Director at an agency and want to submit a photographer anonymously for this column email: Suzanne.sease@verizon.net

Anonymous Art Buyer: I nominate Willem Vrey. He is a Namibian photographer who has an exceptional eye when it comes to photography.

I took this picture at a fish market in a small town close to Cape Town in South Africa, a few weeks after I bought my first camera. I'm not sure why, but I still really like it – especially the way your eye is drawn towards the center.

I took this picture at a fish market in a small town close to Cape Town in South Africa, a few weeks after I bought my first camera. I’m not sure why, but I still really like it – especially the way your eye is drawn towards the center.

I took this during my first week of working on the cruise ship, in a town called Colón in Panama. This was one of those moments that I love in photography where my instincts took over as soon as I saw the bird flying. I brought the camera to my eye, snapped one photo and new that I had caught it at just the right moment – another early image I am still very proud of.

I took this during my first week of working on the cruise ship, in a town called Colón in Panama. This was one of those moments that I love in photography where my instincts took over as soon as I saw the bird flying. I brought the camera to my eye, snapped one photo and new that I had caught it at just the right moment – another early image I am still very proud of.

Still from my time on the ship – we were docked in Auckland, New Zealand overnight and I spent most of the evening walking around the city. It was very misty and with the lights of the city made the sky glow. I got a number of great images of the city by placing my camera on it's back on the ground to keep it steady and doing some long exposures to capture the colours. This is one of my favorites from that night.

Still from my time on the ship – we were docked in Auckland, New Zealand overnight and I spent most of the evening walking around the city. It was very misty and with the lights of the city made the sky glow. I got a number of great images of the city by placing my camera on it’s back on the ground to keep it steady and doing some long exposures to capture the colours. This is one of my favorites from that night.

This was taken soon after I got back home from my stint on the ship. It's a 30 second exposure with two cars driving past (streaks of lights in the foreground) and a dancer friend who I asked to run and jump in front of the camera. While she was in the air I hit her with a speedlight I was holding in my hand... Just one of those images where everything works out even better than I could have hoped.

This was taken soon after I got back home from my stint on the ship. It’s a 30 second exposure with two cars driving past (streaks of lights in the foreground) and a dancer friend who I asked to run and jump in front of the camera. While she was in the air I hit her with a speedlight I was holding in my hand… Just one of those images where everything works out even better than I could have hoped.

This is from a series of aerial photographs of the Namib desert. It's truly one of the most beautiful places in the world and looks especially spectacular from the air. The prints from this series are still some of my best sellers.

This is from a series of aerial photographs of the Namib desert. It’s truly one of the most beautiful places in the world and looks especially spectacular from the air. The prints from this series are still some of my best sellers.

This was taken at a place called Dead Vlei, in the Namib desert in Namibia. The dead trees in front of the huge red sand dunes (the highest dunes in the world) made for a number of very surreal looking images.

This was taken at a place called Dead Vlei, in the Namib desert in Namibia. The dead trees in front of the huge red sand dunes (the highest dunes in the world) made for a number of very surreal looking images.

Just an image I like of one of my portrait client. The sun was going down, everything was working, and I just love how well she is engaging with the camera.

Just an image I like of one of my portrait client. The sun was going down, everything was working, and I just love how well she is engaging with the camera.

Another portrait I like from a portrait shoot outside the city – beautiful model, beautiful hair and one of my favorite portraits – even though the sun was already down and the light was fading.

Another portrait I like from a portrait shoot outside the city – beautiful model, beautiful hair and one of my favorite portraits – even though the sun was already down and the light was fading.

This was taken late one night in the informal settlement on the outskirts of the city where I live. It was part of a series to show what the area looks like at night where the people don't have electricity. People streaming to the city from the more rural regions are building these small corrugated metal houses faster than the municipality can supply services – so here are thousands of people living with now running water, sewage or electricity. It's a very early place to be because there where almost no people about, but inside every house you walk past, you can hear people talking, radios playing and children laughing. Despite the poverty, it's actually quite a clean and orderly society with every little crime and social problems one would usually equate with such conditions.

This was taken late one night in the informal settlement on the outskirts of the city where I live. It was part of a series to show what the area looks like at night where the people don’t have electricity. People streaming to the city from the more rural regions are building these small corrugated metal houses faster than the municipality can supply services – so here are thousands of people living with now running water, sewage or electricity. It’s a very early place to be because there where almost no people about, but inside every house you walk past, you can hear people talking, radios playing and children laughing. Despite the poverty, it’s actually quite a clean and orderly society with every little crime and social problems one would usually equate with such conditions.

This is from a portrait session I did in the informal settlement. I love her attitude and the colours.

This is from a portrait session I did in the informal settlement. I love her attitude and the colours.

This was casual photo I took while exploring an old rock quarry with a friend. She was wading through the water when she found a rock to stand on that was just below the surface, making for a very surreal moment.

This was casual photo I took while exploring an old rock quarry with a friend. She was wading through the water when she found a rock to stand on that was just below the surface, making for a very surreal moment.

This is a friend of mine who I like to shoot. She has the most beautiful long hair and a very natural look. She is looking down, yet still engaging with the viewer.

This is a friend of mine who I like to shoot. She has the most beautiful long hair and a very natural look. She is looking down, yet still engaging with the viewer.

This was during a boat trip in large bay on Namibia's coast. It was very misty, with only 50 meters or so of visibility. I loved the calmness of the water in the bay and waited for ages for a bird to fly into the frame to break the pattern a bit.

This was during a boat trip in large bay on Namibia’s coast. It was very misty, with only 50 meters or so of visibility. I loved the calmness of the water in the bay and waited for ages for a bird to fly into the frame to break the pattern a bit.

A few months ago I wanted to get out of the city and bit and decided to try and drive a 125cc motorcycle about 6000 miles from Namibia to Zanzibar and back. I ended up not taking as many photos as I would have liked, but I did get some great images walking around Stone Town (Zanzibar). I am proud of this one because I managed to time it just right with the guy on the scooter driving past me at high speed – just as he was level with the woman walking ahead of me. I like the contrast between the traditional and the modern.

A few months ago I wanted to get out of the city and bit and decided to try and drive a 125cc motorcycle about 6000 miles from Namibia to Zanzibar and back. I ended up not taking as many photos as I would have liked, but I did get some great images walking around Stone Town (Zanzibar). I am proud of this one because I managed to time it just right with the guy on the scooter driving past me at high speed – just as he was level with the woman walking ahead of me. I like the contrast between the traditional and the modern.

This is from an amazing contemporary dance piece that I was involved in as the stills photographer. There were many images from that job that I liked, but this is one of my favorites. The show is called Anima, and it was put together by the talented people from First Rain Dance Theater – a contemporary dance company based in Namibia.

This is from an amazing contemporary dance piece that I was involved in as the stills photographer. There were many images from that job that I liked, but this is one of my favorites. The show is called Anima, and it was put together by the talented people from First Rain Dance Theater – a contemporary dance company based in Namibia.

How many years have you been in business?
The first time I asked for, and received a bit of money for a freelance job was in 2010, and things just sort of grew from there. Word got around and more and more people began to call me and I eventually had to register my business and make it official.

Are you self-taught or photography school taught?
At the start of 2009 I felt like I had to make some changes in my life and just get away from everything for a while. I went to into the Namib Desert for a few days for some peace and quiet and space to think clearly. I decided I just needed to get out of the country for a while and simplify things. After a few weeks of narrowing down my options, I decided to apply for a job on a cruise ship. I (literally) threw a dart at a list of jobs I might qualify for, and it hit “on-board photographer”. I applied, got a camera and some lenses and immediately started reading books and blogs and watching YouTube tutorials all day. I also forced myself to shoot in manual mode right from the start, which I feel is probably the one of best habits that a new photographer can have – even if you end up messing up 60% of your shots in the beginning. 

I got the job and soon I was boarding a large ship in Miami, on which I worked for the next 6 months.

It turns out that cruise ship photography is one of the worst jobs out there. I was shooting, printing and selling for 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. The pay is terrible and there is absolutely no scope for expression or creativity, BUT: I was taking 1500 – 3000 pictures a day with manual controls and every photo I took was printed and put up on a wall for everyone to see. Tie this to the fact that my boss on the ship was one of the most uncompromising people I have ever met, I was forced to become very good with my gear very quickly.

After 6 months I left the ship in Australia, flew home and, being broke, started to turn to my photography for an income. The rest of my education came from reading and learning diligently every day, shooting a lot, spending time with other experienced photographers and business people, and making an effort to be honestly critical of my own work.

Who was your greatest influence that inspired you to get into this business?
There are many great photographers and other people who inspire me on a daily basis, but I think getting into the photo game was simply a combination of providence and a lack of other opportunities at the time. It’s funny where life takes us sometimes.

How do you find your inspiration to be so fresh, push the envelope, stay true to yourself so that creative folks are noticing you and hiring you?
It can be difficult sometimes, especially for someone as hard on himself as I am, but when I feel uninspired and unmotivated I find that the best thing to do is to simply start and do SOMETHING – even if it’s bad. I don’t have a team of creatives to draw on, and my clients always expect me to come up with something new and fresh every time.. so when I can’t think of anything, I often have to force myself to go out and begin shooting anything to see what develops, or to sit down and begin writing down anything that comes to my mind. 99% of what I produce during these sessions is usually pretty bad, but that other 1% has very often turned out to be where my best work has come from.

And then, when you have created something worthwhile, you have to make sure that as many people as possible see it and know where to reach you.

Do you find that some creatives love your work but the client holds you back?
When someone is paying me for something, I try to keep in mind what would be best for the client and how I would feel in their shoes. I have had to learn to curb my arrogance and ego if I am going to make it in business. Having said that though, I do believe that that it is very important to only put out work that you are happy to be associated with, and those two ideals can sometimes be in conflict. When that happens, I try to think about the situation reasonably and figure out how the decision is going to affect me in the long term. Sometimes that has meant saying no to work when I couldn’t really afford to say no to, and sometimes I have had to swallow my pride, take the money and let it go.

I also try to keep a separation between the commercial and the fine art parts of my operation and to only compromise when it makes sense to me.

What are you doing to get your vision out to the buying audience?
I have been lucky enough, and work in a market that is small enough, to be able to rely mostly on word-of-mouth and repeat clients. I try to keep my social media updated and to keep my website in order, but generally I prefer to be shooting, printing and editing. I have found that as long as my work is good enough, most jobs will lead to further business.

What is your advice for those who are showing what they think the buyers want to see?
Invest in a good printed portfolio. Yes, have a website, have Facebook, have an iPad with a portfolio app… but remember that the buyers often get thousands of electronic portfolios sent to them by email – sometimes from people who are better than you are. What stands out these days is something physical like a high quality portfolio book, or even a collection of loose prints in a nice box. Spend the money to have it done by someone who knows what they are doing, and print it on fine art paper. You can show it to them in person, or ship it to their offices with a note saying it will be picked up again after a week or two. I’ve also found that including a pair of white cotton gloves in the package makes the prints immediately seem more impressive and will make them last longer. If you want to replace a print in your portfolio, and it was handled carefully by the people who saw it, you can always frame and try to sell it, or give it away as a gift.

Are you shooting for yourself and creating new work to keep your artistic talent true to you?
I try to always be working on some sort of series or project during my spare time. I also find walking around the city with my camera has a very therapeutic effect on me. Often great images can come from these excursions. To be honest though, I do find that the more of a business the photography becomes, the less often I think about grabbing my camera as I head out somewhere… something I should maybe work on.

How often are you shooting new work?
That’s a difficult question to answer – I’d have to say that it depends on what I am working on. I would guess that on average I am actually out shooting for profit for about 2 days per week, with the rest taken up with post-processing, seeing clients, making and framing prints, teaching and running the business.

About the Photographer:

Born and bred in Namibia, Willem’s interest in photography started relatively late at the age of 23. However, his eye was developed from an early age through his love and proficiency in fine art. In 2005 Willem graduated and immediately embarked on several successful business ventures, but changes in outlook and values in his early twenties finally led him to discover photography as a way to satisfy, develop and share both the creative and the analytical parts of his mind in a fulfilling and meaningful way.

Mostly self-taught, Willem has approached the subject with diligence, constant self-assessment and high personal standards and over the course of only four years, the scope and nuance of the construction and composition of his work have increased exponentially. Today, he is a force to be reckoned with in the world of photography.

Willem is one of Namibia’s most avant-garde and exciting photographers whose talent for shooting movement is unparalleled. In the commercial realm too, Willem has experienced much success and is in high demand as a portrait and fine-art photographer. He is known for his technical skill and knowledge, his versatility and ability to work equally well with both controlled and natural light.

Contact details:
Email: willem@willemvrey.com
Phone: +264 81 238 7654
Website: www.willemvrey.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/willemvreyphoto

APE contributor Suzanne Sease currently works as a consultant for photographers and illustrators around the world. She has been involved in the photography and illustration industry since the mid 80s, after founding the art buying department at The Martin Agency then working for Kaplan-Thaler, Capital One, Best Buy and numerous smaller agencies and companies. She has a new Twitter fed with helpful marketing information.  Follow her@SuzanneSease.

Suzanne Sease

There Are 1 Comment On This Article.