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Written byChristian Staines

“It sounds like a luxurious lifestyle, and it is, but it’s also fucking hard work.”

When he’s not travelling between the furthest corners of the globe, you can catch Rudi Gremels at home in Noordhoek. Looking at these photos and hearing the stories that accompany them, it’s easy to believe this kind of elevated lifestyle is pretty straightforward. Grab a camera; sky-hop all over the world; profit? If only things were that simple.

“It sounds like a luxurious lifestyle, and it is, but it’s also fucking hard work. It’s taken 10 years to even get to the point where I believe in myself enough to be able to put my work out there. Having this ‘what’s next’ drive inside me is exhausting – to keep sparking up new ideas and putting unnecessary expectations on myself.”

When you finish school, no one tells you how many things you’ll try and fail at before you actually find out what it is you want to do. Having only taken science-related subjects whilst growing up, Rudi began by pursuing a BSc degree in Laser Physics at Stellies; but it just wasn’t sitting right – “It just got way too abstract. I couldn’t see where this mattered in the real world in so far as what I cared about.” After six months he decided to drop out and follow his passion for film and photography.

Whilst enrolled in a film course at City Varsity, Rudi started travelling. And what’s the first place on everyone’s lips when they want to go travelling? Bali. “It’s easy, safe, and super gorgeous.” This is when he realized where he wanted his photography to take him (figuratively speaking). He began developing an affinity for the natural world and all the strange and wonderful people that inhabit it. Whilst in Bali, Rudi decided to climb up a notorious volcano to take one of the oldest photos in his collection. A moment captured from the slopes of Mount Agung. A moment that would spark a desire to see more, and to experience more.

Six years later and Rudi had seen more of the world than most of us could dream of: Guatemala, Switzerland, Morocco, Lesotho, Peru, and many more. This is where having a German passport really comes in handy. It was only after these six years that Rudi felt the time was right to display his collection. He came home and set out on getting things in order for his first exhibition of world photography.  

But sometimes, if you want to use a photo to evoke a feeling of awe in someone, you don’t have to travel to some far-flung country. Sometimes, these powerful images can be found just around the corner. ‘Afterlife’ is one such image (below). Looking like something found only in Namibia’s Dead Vlei, it was actually photographed right here in Cape Town. Rudi had been driving past this particular branch for a while before he had decided exactly how he wanted to approach it. What kind of essence or thinking did he want to attach to this gnarled piece of wood? He poses these thoughts to the viewer in the accompanying description:

“How does such beauty still exist in death?”

“Could that which has passed still bring love into our lives?”

“Does an abrupt ending await us on the other side, or further expansion still?”

Here, Rudi is bringing in an important aspect of his photography: intentionality. It’s one thing to just take an incredible photo and have people admire it, but what you really want is to add a level of insight to each photo. “As soon as you start questioning things like that, it’s not just a branch anymore. It’s got these connotations of life and death in it. And that’s basically what I want to do with my photos. I don’t want them to just be photos, I want them to add depth and expansiveness to everything we do.”

You may have noticed by now that Rudi shoots exclusively in black and white. This is not without reason. He discusses three explanations for this in his blog. Basically, it’s all about texture. When you convert an image to black and white, you can really push the exposure of an image (getting the deepest black and the purest white). And it’s this defined contrast that gives his images a degree of tangibility. Blue skies disappear into the surrounding borders and shadows jump out from the paper.

When Rudi showed me the above image of a young shepherd in Lesotho, I was caught by his strong gaze. Eager to hear more, I asked Rudi for the story behind the photo:

“We were driving in Lesotho, two mates and myself. We’re in my dad’s cushy landrover, with the air-con going and stocked with as much food and water as we need. We were just very comfortable listening to our music and we drove past this kid. And he motioned to us saying that he’s thirsty. So yeah, we pulled over and greeted him. He couldn’t speak English so we were mainly just communicating with hand gestures. Anyways we gave him a bottle of water, and it was really hot that day, and he’s carrying this massive load on his back. (the blanket they wear year-round for sun protection as well as for a long-standing tradition). But anyways, it was super hot and we had no idea how far he still had to walk (there were no villages anywhere close by). So I gave him this bottle of water, and he was really grateful and accepted it. But then when he took it he just opened the cap and took a tiny sip, then closed it again and gave it back to us. And I just know that if I was in his situation, I would have gulped that thing down. 

So we tried to get him to take some more, handing the bottle back towards him. And he just did the same thing, taking a little sip and handing it straight back to us. And there was a silence after that. I think it was just a very profound moment for us in our air-conditioned car with all this food and water, and there’s just this kid who, from our western perspective, is possibly extremely thirsty but still willing to show kindness and respect for something that isn’t his. A respect that this is not his water and so he doesn’t want to squander it. Or even that just because water is a scarce resource. And that level of respect is something that hit me really really hard. That moment will stick with me forever… In the end, we actually gave him the water bottle and he’s holding it beneath the blanket.

But what this all taught me was: Who are we to project? To project our western ideas and assumptions onto anyone. Chances are, his levels of respect, and generosity, and gratitude are far higher than mine. And maybe that’s what growing up in nature instils within you. Maybe that’s where our disconnect with nature really lets us down.”

“Because of Covid, the world isn’t really anyone’s oyster at the moment.”

But now, with a global pandemic going on, global exploration isn’t really an option anymore.

“Because of Covid, the world isn’t really anyone’s oyster at the moment. And I mean, I’m very lucky to have so many connections around the world but I’m also not feeling pulled to travel overseas just yet. I haven’t explored Southern Africa much. I mean I’ve been with family but that’s not travelling, that’s a holiday. It’s in the hard parts of travelling that you find growth. And that’s what I’m after. So I’m off to Namibia next.” 

So when you look at these photos, try to imagine the hours of attention that went into them. They aren’t just your average travel photography collection. They’ve been years in the making and it shows. “I want to create a lifestyle that I want, that I believe I deserve and that I can have.” Good things like this take time to establish but are worth it in the end.

— — —

I only met Rudi by chance. It was a random Wednesday night and I went down to Aegir for a drink then saw there was an exhibition going on. I bumped into the man behind the magic and was already keen to hear more. Here’s a huge thanks to Rudi for taking the time to tell me about his adventures and for sharing his passion with me.

If you want to see more of Rudi’s incredible photography then head over to his website.

If you want to see your own feature up here alongside Rudi Gremels, then follow these simple steps.

“It’s in the hard parts of travelling that you find growth. And that’s what I’m after. So I’m off to Namibia next.”