In Conversation: Dune Tilley
With effortless cool and the intoxicating vigour of youth, Dune Tilley heads up On The Radar Volume 2. If you know anything about this rising star it comes as no surprise that he’s made it onto our list of the next generation of influencers set to dominate the creative class across Africa. While on the road to mastering both fashion and documentary photography, Dune still makes time for music. Multitalented and self-assured, the future is bright with him in control
Words: Tshiamo Seape
First things first: Who is Dune Tilley?
Dune Tilley is a seventeen-year-old kid from Cape Town South Africa who takes pictures and makes music.
What are you up to at the moment?
I’m finishing matric, so I have finals coming up in 15 days (which I haven’t started preparing for). I also have a couple of major jobs on the way. Yesterday I just did a full story for Adidas which was really cool and it’s going into SportsScenes nationwide.
Did this have anything to do with the Adidas Area 3 collaboration you just did?
So basically the Area3 thing was almost like a grooming – not explicitly, but it felt like they picked people who are up and coming in Cape Town and tested their skills and pushed their limits. Everyone had to do at least one project while you were there. I feel like the story I did yesterday was a continuation of Area3. Out of everyone that was on set, I think there were seven people involved in Area3 in some way. It felt like the natural evolution.
Give us a better sense of you. Where do you hang out, what are your past times, Instagram faves, and what are you listening to?
I’ve been listening to a lot of King Krule. His new music is really cool. I think he’s a genius. He’s really an inspiration to me. Photography wise I’ve been a huge fan of Magnum [agency]. Everyone there is a muse of mine. On the local front, Carl David Jones has always been someone that I’m inspired by and influenced by. He’s definitely one of the best photographers in Cape Town. I’ve involved myself in the generation above me. People like Carl, John Second and Imraan Christian – who was also at the shoot yesterday. I’m still very young and it can be a very intimidating thing looking up at the world out there. I’ve kind of put all my eggs in one basket – There is no other option for me, I’m going to be a photographer, there’s nothing else. That’s it. So, I’ve been surrounding myself with people who have already started killing it and really making a name for themselves. I mean Imraan is on another level. I definitely want to be making internationally acclaimed work, and seeing how other people have moved from local circles to get their stuff published in i-D, VICE, Dazed, really inspires me.
The second you can make work, make work.
How did the Area 3 collaboration come about?
Everyone who got asked to do it has a slightly different experience, which is really cool. It was almost like a movie. I didn’t know who Gabrielle Kannemeyer was before the whole thing then I got an Instagram DM from her about a month before. She said, “I just want to let you know that a very big brand is looking at your work – heads up”. Then I got a call telling me they [Adidas] were a fan of my work an that they were starting this project whereby they gave a studio space and told us you can make as much work as you like and you’re going to be an ambassador for Adidas as a whole. I thought it was too good to be true. It’s a three-month thing and it was right before I was supposed to write prelims and at the same time, I was offered a residency at the Cape Town School of photography which was going to cross over, so I had to turn it down. It was pretty much the biggest job I’ve ever done. People always ask me what it was, I don’t know what it was. It changed my life completely: the people I met, the work I made completely changed my life.
So you’d say that’s been your biggest achievement so far?
I’d say it’s definitely been one of my biggest achievements. There are other things that have also been really big. The cover of ELLE was also pretty huge.
Tell us about that?
I was the assistant on that. The lead photographer called me at school when one of the assistants pulled out. He said I can’t tell you anything about the job, but it’s really big. I had a test or something but I never miss a call from him. I said whatever it is, I’m there, its happening, wherever you need me to be. I had to come up with an excuse to miss the test. From there we had a meeting where he told me that we were going to be shooting with Maria Borges, who’s a Victoria’s Secret Angel in Kenzo clothing no one has seen. I got the job and immediately handed in my phone and signed a non-disclosure! It’s serious business. Other than that the reason the job was so big for me was seeing how Jacques [Weyers] worked so meticulously and so beautifully
You mentioned earlier that you’re about to finish matric, so are you planning on studying or is it straight to work?
I’m definitely taking next year to work. I’ll be working on a long-term documentary project, and I may also be doing an internship at a photojournalism agency in Isreal for three months. I want it to aid the project that I’m thinking of doing. I may also do a short course in Photography at Central Saint Martins. But, that’s only if I can. It’s really expensive so we’ll see.
Does being as young as you are present any unique challenges to pursuing your craft?
People really hate to credit young people because it threatens the hell out people who are older doing the same thing. There’s always going to be a disparity. Being my age at this time is something they cant understand, and being their age at this time is something I cant understand. I’m saying this as a 17-year-old kid, but if I was 30 and crushing it and there’s this 17/ 18-year-old kid shooting editorials for Dazed I’m going to be like “fuck that kid, he’s a hack”! That’s why when I meet the guys from Corner Store like Matt (Kieser) Anees (Petersen) or Imraan, they embrace it. They are not resistant to you being young. The biggest thing is not being taken seriously to the point where I don’t tell people my age anymore. When people ask me to do work, it cant be because I’m young – that can’t be the overarching thing.
At the end of the day, it’s about making good pictures that are bigger than the brand itself.
And what about being young makes it easier?
I can completely invest myself in my work because I have no other responsibilities and all the money I make goes back into making more work. And the fact that I have so much more life ahead of me. Time is the biggest resource anybody has. If you have enough time to do anything you can do anything. If you look at the stereotypical progression of a person’s life the first ten years are a write-off – you don’t do anything. At around 12 you start figuring yourself out an by 18 you think, “I’m finally free”, and I always hated that idea. I was shooting in clubs when I was 15. I’ve already experienced so much in terms of creating. I started as young as possible so by the time I’m 18 it’s not like “wow, look at this wide-open world”, its a continuation of whatever I’ve already been doing. A big thing for young people is that you should not limit yourself. The second you can make work, make work.
You mentioned some pretty notable names earlier, but tell us more about your influences?
So if you’re are a photographer and you want to get into any documentary based work, there’s this film called Everybody Street, you have to watch it. It’s like a bible for documentary photography. It basically covers fifteen of the most influential photographers working out of New York for the past 50 years. You’ve gotta watch that shit, it changed the way I think about photography. As for my influences, I have a couple of mentors. There’s a guy by the name of Gerhardt Coetzee who is a photographer and lecturer. I’ve got a really good relationship with him, he really keeps me in check in terms of my documentary work. I think he’s a genius. Whenever I shoot something, even for fashion, I send it through to him. In terms of local guys, I’ve already said Carl David Jones really inspires me. There’s also a guy called Andrew Putter, he’s like a teacher. If there’s a big creative in South Africa, they learned from Andrew Putter. Gabrielle Kannemeyer is also a huge inspiration to me. Shes a stylist and a creative. she’s so ahead of the curve. Her mind is just so awake to things ive never even thought of. We worked on a job for Area3 together and she was styling the job. She tied pieces to this model and I didn’t really get it, but when it all came together I was like “Gabby, you are a genius”. So Gabby Kannemeyer, Imraan Christian, Carl David Jones, Matt Kieser, Anees – the big cats. Oh, and my parents!
Moving forward, where do you see yourself and your work in the near future?
I work in fashion and documentary photography and I see the rest of my life as a wave where I do a big job that makes a lot of money and putting that into a documentary project, make it amazing, publish it, and from there get more commercial work. There are guys that can pump out jobs like nothing but they curate their work to such a level of mastery that when someone asks to see their work they have this oeuvre of beautiful work. I want to keep shooting on film as well. I’ll shoot digital, I don’t mind shooting on digital. You can’t avoid shooting on digital in this day and age. The concepts are becoming more and more difficult to interpret. Clients will say we want it to be street and we want it to be hip, but it cant be too hip or too street. But, like my mom says, your job is to capture the soul of the people wearing the clothing and of all the most successful campaigns she’s ever done the pictures that end up on the billboard are not the ones the client asked for. At the end of the day, it’s about making good pictures that are bigger than the brand itself.
How I see the progression of my career is obviously always follow the brief, but for every two shots I take for you, I take one for me and at the end of the day when you hand over the full set and I say “here are the pictures you wanted and here are my favourite pictures” ten to none the client will choose mine over the others.
What is it about shooting on film that excites you so much?
I prefer the process of shooting film, of thinking about things more, and talking through and working and thinking about light and not being able to see it immediately and letting it fester. But, also the way it looks, it feels better, it just has so much more soul. Digital cameras are built now to last three years and made to create perfectly accurate skin tones and colour – nobody wants that! People want personality in a picture. I just prefer it in every single way.
Describe your dream shoot? Who would star in it, who would collaborate with you, etc?
That’s such a crazy question! The first thing that comes to mind is the Jamie xx video, Gosh. A similar concept because you know he built that whole set, right? I would build something like that and do…What would I do? I would maybe shoot Supreme because I think they are probably the coolest brand in the world. Actually, you know what? I’m not taking it there. Ok, let’s take it to Dover Street Market. I want to do an entire shoot for Dover Street Market. Not for any specific brand, but just for them. So I can have people in G -Star, Comme des Garcons, I can do whatever I want – give it to me, I want it all!
I’d shoot icons. Put Kanye West head to toe in Comme des Garcons. (Smiling) God, I haven’t thought about this. You know what I’d do? I would get a place you can’t shoot at like the Louvre or the Palace of Versailles. We’d get Dover Street Market and take all the brands they represent and get the icons that best represent those brands. For Comme des Garcons we’d have some crazy 17-year-old fashion designer living in New York or we get some of the biggest skaters and BMX riders and have them rip it through the palace of Versailles. Oh my god I don’t know, it’s too exciting! I should have had this thought already, but I would definitely use Dover Street market because I think they are just the epitome of cool. I’d feature some up and coming talent then get Gabriel Kannemeyr to style it. That’s it, I’m done. I could speak about this the whole day.
Finish this sentence: All I need is…
Time, friends, family and a shit ton of film.