Focus: Tony Figueira

MYD-ART-TonyTony Figueira is as diverse a photographer as you can imagine… and what a great one he is. I started following his work when I briefly lived in Windhoek, and attended a few exhibitions at Studio 77. Since then, Studio 77 has become THE PLACE for photographers to showcase their work.

Here are a few words about Tony on his Studio 77 Website:

“Coming from a background of darkrooms, red lights and the magic created by swishing chemicals, I believe true photography has to be composed in the mind before the shutter is released.

It comes from knowing light, loving light and being sensitive to light in a process of premeditated thoughts and technical knowledge that compares the taking of great images to the writing of great songs.You know when you’ve written one.

Yet the digital age has changed the playing fields. Its immediacy has generated a whole new audience and a world of creativity that takes photography into new realms. Interesting how it throws my purist photography into a disarray of creativity that is so much in proportion to my crazy imagination.

So a car wreck in the middle of the desert becomes a piece of fine art, an abstract to be interpreted in any way. And hung in any way.

I have fallen in love with the digital age. It is such a far cry from what I ever imagined photography would, and will still become. This is a world moving at the speed of light, changing so fast that the world we wake up in is significantly different from the one we go to sleep in each evening”.

But Tony was more recently in the news, as his health is in a bad spot. I found this lovely piece written about him in The Namibian by Yochanaan Coetzee:

There are few people who ever really find their true purpose and passion in life.
Anyone who knows Tony Figueira personally or, like myself, grew up admiring his work and the way in which people spoke about their experiences with him, his big heart and his mastery of light, would know that he found and reveled in his.
Whether he was braving reprisal as a photo-journalist in heady years prior to independence, leading the way in fine art photography or just immortalising magical matrimonial moments, his commitment to sharing his perspective of the world has been unwavering.
Angolan by birth, Tony’s interest in photography took off when he was 16, while ‘monkeying’ around with a school friend’s camera. He knew then he wanted to be a photographer and writer. He went on to study journalism at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, in 1984.
He knew early on that life was lived “moment by moment by moment” and decided to embrace this by leaving a lucrative career in the motor repair industry to follow his passion for photography.
He bought his first Pentax camera via mail order and set off on a journey that would change his life.
“I paid for it with money I made from playing music,” Tony said.
He then spent many years documenting Swapo’s internal struggle for liberation and documented a wide variety of events – from the unspeakable to the celebrated. Tony was there to document some of Namibia’s most historic moments, including the return of Sam Nujoma, Nelson Mandela on a visit back to Robben Island and eventually South Africa’s exit from Namibia after the implementation of United Nations Resolution 435.
He maintains that his most memorable moment will always be the day Namibia achieved independence.

Tony’s background in film photography and developing prints in darkrooms underscore his purist approach to photography.
“I believe true photography has to be composed in the mind before the shutter is released. It’s all about understanding light and having the technical ability to achieve the image you want.”

This, however, did not stop him from fully embracing the digital revolution.

“I have fallen in love with the digital age. It is such a far cry from what I ever imagined photography would, and still will, become. Its immediacy has generated a whole new audience and a world of creativity that takes photography into new realms.”
“But digital has also made people lazy. They don’t even think about the image. Or the tool. Many just snap away like zombies,” Tony added.

Along with good friend and internationally acclaimed wildlife photographer Hans Rack, they set up shop in 2004 in small studio along John Meinert Street. From there, they grew Studio 77 into the premiere photo studio in the country before moving to a bigger space at the Old Breweries Complex.

“I’ll never forget the time I sat against the back wall of this incredible triple volume empty space and wondered ‘how the hell am I going to pay the rent!’”

Throughout his career, he has also been greatly involved in efforts to make Windhoek and Namibia more creative through exhibitions, music and the performing arts. Despite a busy schedule of his own and being in high demand as a corporate photographer, he committed much of his time to training the next generation of photographers and was always willing to assist and inspire.

Filmmaker Perivi Katjavivi was on hand to attest to this. “Tony is an incredible being, he helped me launch my production company six years ago and was always there for advice and to motivate young creatives. It’s very emotional to see such an icon put down his camera because he has shown the world, through his lens, our world in the most magnificent fashion.”

Five years ago, Tony was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a form of marrow cancer that causes lesions in the bones. These lesions cause holes that weaken the bones, which eventually break.

“Cancer changes everything, but you have to stay positive,” he says.

He chose to follow a more holistic approach to therapy. “In the last 25 or so years, nothing has changed in the treatments of cancer. And the conventional success rates are just appalling.”

Since his diagnosis, Tony has continued to work and according to long time friend, Supreme Court Judge Dave Smuts, “even while ill, Tony would not let that love subside”.

However, he has since moved to Swakopmund with his family and has put his camera down – for the first time in decades. “It was strange not to have that weight in my hands at first, but we have a wonderful life at the coast so I’m enjoying the down time where I can read, write, go into the dunes, watch the sea.”

“As human beings, we are spirit. We come from somewhere, God knows where, and we all go back to the same source. There is no need to fear that source, to fear death. It is just another part of life. And it just goes on and on. Life is fantastic. But so is death. It is the other side of the coin of the cycle of life.”

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