A Conversation with Jesse Kramer

Look out Cape Town because there is a new Kramer about to grab your attention. For years the Kramer family has contributed to the arts and cultural landscape of South African Theatre and now it’s Jesse’s turn. Jesse has fast become one of Cape Town’s go to photographers for theatre. Her extraordinary work attempts, and succeeds, to do the impossible and capture those magical theatrical moments that are the reason that we as humans flock to the theatre.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in theatre? 

My parents definitely. I didn’t actually set out to pursue a career in theatre at all. My parents are in the theatre (producers and writer/director/performer) so I’ve just been in the theatre since I was 6 in terms of it being a place where my parents were hanging out because it was their workplace. It became a second home for me from childhood. I’ve always been very comfortable in the theatre but I didn’t particularly want to be involved. I was more interested in art and expressing myself creatively with visual art. I studied Fine Art and Graphic Design and then went to London and I did a special effects makeup course. I went to London just a few days after September 11th (2001) and everybody was losing their jobs. I had a few South African friends there as well that were trying to get jobs in London. Everybody was really struggling. We had a family friend that was managing a theatre in London and he had an assistant Stage Manager drop out at the last minute and he asked me if I wanted to do that. I was looking for a job and I love the theatre so it was like ‘sure! I’ll do that!’ It came quite naturally to me and that was my first proper job in the theatre. I was Stage Managing on and off for 10 years until I decided that I needed to be more creative. That’s how that journey happened. I was also doing prop-making for theatre. I was juggling a few things at the same time and then eventually just decided that I needed to decide where my focus was rather than trying to do everything and then I moved over to photography and just started saying no to the other things. Which is the short version. 

What was your favourite thing about Stage Managing? 

There are lots of favourite things. My favourite thing, I think, was the rehearsal process. I loved being involved in that and seeing a piece develop and the choices that were made by the actors and how they were made while trying to figure out their roles. I was also very involved with sourcing props and furniture and I enjoyed that part of it because that was a more creative part for me. I just loved being in the theatre and getting to know new people and forming that little family that you form during production. I enjoyed hanging backstage with different kinds of people and learning about them because I was doing Stage Managing in England so I was learning a lot more about a different culture and what their experience is. It’s a different world there. It’s a much higher standard of professionalism. People take their careers incredibly seriously which was not quite the case in South Africa at that time. I enjoyed that part. 


Do you remember the first moment when you picked up a camera and realised ‘I’m actually pretty good at this.’ Was there a moment or was it more of ‘I like to take photos, lets learn.’

I’ve always liked to take photos personally and I did a photography course during my Fine Arts course but we had to learn to use a pinhole camera. That was not a fun experience for me. I thought photography was not for me, based on that one project. That was before digital. I let photography go and didn’t pursue it within my degree. It was only when everyone started getting digital cameras that I was frustrated just socially with not being able to photograph things as I wanted to see them. I bought myself a SLR so that I could have more range of what I could do with a camera and then realized that if I wanted to do that, I needed to learn how to use this camera properly. I did a course and it was mostly just for my own personal photography and because I was working in the theatre and we had projects as part of our course, some were low light photography, so I approached friends of mine that were doing shows and asked if I could photograph them for that project. I started doing it I suppose, more for my project and I enjoyed it and I felt comfortable there. Maybe at that point? I was doing it for that reason and maybe the response that I got from people who I had shown the photos to, I think that may have prompted me to go ‘maybe I should actually try to do this.’ I offered my photographic services to The Mechanicals Theatre Company who were all my age and doing profit-share repertory performances. No one was really making any money or had money for photographs so I just offered which was quite a good pressure-free way for me to try it out. They did fantastic productions and it was very interesting and I just loved it. We got some really fantastic images out of that time. I am really grateful that I had that opportunity and also that I was able to record what they did because otherwise we wouldn’t have anything from it. I did it very slowly and didn’t charge for it. Only when I got to a point where I felt like this was not a hobby anymore and so it’s not something I’m doing for free anymore because of the standard of what I was producing. 

And now you’ve been published in the New York Times as well.

Certain things have happened along the way that were unexpected big-deal surprises, which have been awesome highlights along the journey but I wasn’t chasing after that. You never know what happens to a production. You are photographing a tiny little production and suddenly its going to The West End or whatever happens once in a blue moon. It’s a lucky right place, right time kind of thing. 

What is your favourite thing to photograph?

My favourite thing to photograph is theatre, production or rehearsal. Rehearsal probably more so because I get to be in the rehearsal with them and I don’t get to do that anymore, be part of the process. That’s why I enjoy photographing rehearsal. I enjoy photographing production for the visual aspect of just capturing those visuals. That’s my favourite. 

RockyOnlineJKK-10.jpgWhat is your process when you are taking photos of productions? 

I’m sure there is a process but I’m not that conscious of it anymore. I’m trying to capture the moments between performers, the emotion of the piece and I keep in mind what the publicity needs in terms of trying to sell the show. What would make an audience member want to see it based on the photo they are seeing in a review or on a poster? There are certain things that I need to check off. You usually need a good portrait of each performer and then something of the entire cast. There are a few things that I feel like I need to get within the shoot but most of the time it’s just really trying to capture those moments of a play. Sometimes I’ve seen the production before which helps because I know what’s coming and sometimes I haven’t and that’s more “fly by the seat of my pants.” I learn as I go. The more I do it obviously, the same situations come up again and then I know how to handle them better than maybe I did the first time. 

Do you feel like your upbringing in the theatre has been an advantage when it comes to taking production photos?

It seems to have been, yes. It’s difficult for me to know that because I don’t know how I would feel if I hadn’t had all that exposure to theatre already but yes it seems to have really helped that I understand it and I understand it from all different perspectives which is a huge advantage. I’ve spent 10 years backstage so I know what is happening with the Stage Management and with the actors. My mom did publicity for many years for many of the shows that she produced, so I know from a publicity angle what they are looking for and I think maybe just watching a whole lot of theatre over a period of time gives you a good grounding and rhythm of it. I feel most comfortable there. 

Do you have an all time favourite photo that you’ve taken?

I probably would have to say at the moment, and it does change, my favourite photo would be the publicity photo we took of when The Rocky Horror Show was on at The Fugard and then Athol Fugard’s Shadow of a Hummingbird was on upstairs. We decided to take a publicity photo of Athol and Frank N. Furter together. Although I would have loved to have Athol on the Rocky set, we didn’t want to disturb him too much. So we brought Frank N. Furter up into Athol’s set and he did this pose in the doorway of Athol’s living area and I just loved those. It’s crazy but it’s great! FrankFugard pressPrintJK--4.jpg

What’s been your proudest career moment thus far?

I suppose my proudest career moment is not a moment as such but probably that I’m still doing it and that I’m basically able to survive, mostly, on the theatre photography. And because it’s about running a business as well and it’s kind of like ‘if you can survive 5 years, then you are ok’ kind of thing. That’s probably the proudest part. I’ve had some great highlights just in terms of seeing photos and where they’ve ended up being displayed and that’s a great ego boost but it’s momentary. It’s fleeting. 

You’ve been in theatre for a while, what have you noticed has changed the most in theatre in South Africa?

What has changed in my opinion is that a lot of people have started making their own theatre, writing their own work and making their own stories. UCT does a theatre-making course and so people have gotten a lot more self-sufficient in terms of what is out there and what’s being produced, which is great because that also means more local stories. People aren’t waiting until they feel confident or established in their careers with writing or creating their own work. People are coming straight out of varsity and doing it when they are like 21 years old which is amazing to me. I think actors are taking their careers much more seriously and the level of professionalism is much higher. Also our exposure to international film, so everyone has to get on board with international standards. I think that’s been a change. It makes it all feel not so casual. 

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?

I think in general as I just said, people who are making their own work or people who are juggling multiple things like Jennie Reznek at The Magnet Theatre. She is an actor and she’s running training programs for young actors and theatremakers and running a theatre and creating youth festivals. Just doing many things like that and helping other people at the same time which is hugely admirable. And young people who are creating their own work so early, Penny Youngleson who was part of the Rust cooperative. Koleka Putuma and there are many more but those are some who stand out. The other two women in the arts that inspire me are my mother and my sister. My mother has taught me a huge amount, whether she meant to or not, just by being around and doing what she does, juggling many different facets of production, management, producing, marketing and all of that. My sister who is producing for CapeTalk and more importantly started a program teaching writing or teaching creative expression to people in writing. It was quite a difficult thing for her to do but she’s persevered and it makes me very proud. I’ve done her course and to hear how people are healed through her courses and how they are able to express things that they don’t express ever to anyone else. They are just given this release and it is a form of therapy for people. I think it’s quite an amazing thing that she has created. 

More of Jesse’s work can be found below. She can also be reached on her website or on her official Facebook Page. 

Cover photo by Jesse Kramer


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